The champs are (still) here.
For the second consecutive season, and for the 37th time in program history, Iowa wrestling is again the king of the greatest wrestling conference in the country.
The title was officially clinched with a victory by Jaydin Eierman in the 141 lb match in the championship session, but the title was effectively locked up by a dominant day yesterday (particularly a 6-2 showing in the semifinal round) and a strong display in the consolation round this morning, where Nelson Brands, Jacob Warner, and Tony Cassioppi all won to ensure themselves a spot in the 3rd place match (and a finish no worth than fourth place). Those wins (coupled with several Penn State losses in the morning session) meant that Iowa entered the final session with a 23-point lead. That's "everything has to go wrong for one team and right for another" territory and would have required an epic collapse on Iowa's part. That wasn't going to happen, not with this team, and not with the superstars it has at so many weights.
The first and brightest of those superstars, Spencer Lee, got Iowa's finals session off to a roaring start with a match that again showed off his breathtaking brilliance. Facing Devin Schroeder, his opponent in last year's Big Ten Tournament final, Lee provided Iowa with an emphatic victory, a 21-3 technical fall. Lee actually gave up the first takedown of the match (a rare sight), but that only seemed to make him angry. He channeled that rage into a dominant first period, using a pair of takedowns and a pair of tilts to open up an 11-3 lead by the end of the period. The match didn't get out of the second period because Lee again took Schroeder down and took him on a few more trips through Tilt Town; two four-point nearfalls later and Lee was a two-time Big Ten champion.
Just to recap: Spencer Lee scored 21 points in a a Big Ten Tournament championship match. In four-and-a-half minutes. He wrestled a grand total of 11:03 across his three matches this weekend and outscored his foes by a combined score of 46-7 (he would have been up 6-0 at the time of his fall over Rayvon Foley in the Big Ten semifinals). He is absolutely, positively unreal. To the surprise of no one, Lee was deservedly named Big Ten Wrestler of the Year:
Iowa's championship parade was slowed at 133 lbs, where Austin DeSanto dropped a 5-2 decision in the final to Penn State's Roman Bravo-Young, his frequent nemesis. Bravo-Young used his quickness to slip behind DeSanto and score an early takedown and he used that early advantage to engage his gameplan of using his quickness, stout defense, and refusal to provide a lead arm for DeSanto to grip to keep Austin at bay. It's a strategy that DeSanto has struggled to solve in their most recent encounters and one that he doesn't seem any closer to figuring out now. An injured hand also seemed to bother DeSanto; hopefully a few weeks off give him time to heal a bit -- and perhaps figure out a gameplan to be more effective against Bravo-Young, should they meet again at the NCAA Tournament.
DeSanto's loss turned out to be a brief delay to Iowa's official championship coronation, which was provided by Jaydin Eierman in the very next match, at 141 lbs. Taking on #2 Nick Lee in a hotly-anticipated bout, Eierman's biggest strengths -- strong defense, a mean ability to ride on the mat, and an outrageous ability to counter an opponent's attacks into offense of his own -- were on full display. After conceding a quick takedown to Lee, Eierman got an escape and then earned a takedown of his own off an incredible counter to a Lee shot. Eierman's ability to turn an opponent's attacks against them is truly amazing. He then proceeded to put a vicious ride on Lee. That ride, coupled with another at the start of the second period, enabled Eierman to build up over a minute of riding time, which proved critical in the match. Eierman added another escape to start the third and again when Lee managed to take him down that period, and the decisive point in the match proved to be that riding time point. There are things that Eierman will want to improve on if he meets Lee again -- he was a little too passive in the second and third periods, not working hard enough to score more and extend his lead -- but overall this was a strong win over a very tough opponent. This was also the fourth conference championship of Eierman's career; he won three with Missouri in the MAC before claiming his first Big Ten title with Iowa this year.
Iowa's next championship match was their most disappointing of the day, as Kaleb Young was absolutely mauled by Ryan Deakin in a 6-0 loss at 157 lbs. While Young had beat Deakin in their last two encounters, those were both over two years ago (at the 2019 NCAA Tournament). Deakin has gotten much (much) better since then and established himself as perhaps the very best wrestler in the country at 157 lbs. He's certainly left no doubt that he's head and shoulders above the rest of his challengers in the Big Ten. Young's stout defense kept Deakin at bay for a while in the first period, but eventually Deakin's superior strength and skill earned him a takedown -- and he absolutely smothered Young on the mat. This was officially a 6-0 loss, but it felt more like 16-0; Deakin was completely dominant throughout this match.
Fortunately, that was the last disappointment for Iowa in the championship round. Alex Marinelli entered today as a two-time Big Ten champion; he leaves it as the 26th wrestler in Iowa's storied history to win at least three Big Ten championships. That's one hell of an accomplishment. Marinelli used misdirection and a powerful double-leg takedown to earn a first period takedown against Ohio State's Ethan Smith; after that he mainly used strong defense to keep Smith at bay. That takedown and an escape were the only points Marinelli scored in his 3-2 victory. Like Eierman, there's certainly room for improvement in Marinelli's performance -- working harder to score more points in the second and third periods would make for a more comfortable (and dominant) win. But a win is a win and Marinelli just continues to get it done in the pressure-packed stage of a Big Ten Tournament finals match. Not even Spencer Lee has gone 3-for-3 in those matches like The Bull has managed in his Iowa career.
Iowa's final championship contender was Michael Kemerer, seeking his first elusive Big Ten championship in his third finals appearance (and in his sixth year at Iowa). The third time truly was the charm for Kemerer as he exorcised those past demons with an impressive 7-2 victory over talented Penn State super-frosh Carter Starocci. The frosh has a very bright future ahead of him, but he was no match for Kemerer today. Starocci actually managed to get to Kemerer's legs on several occasions, but he couldn't do anything when he got there, a testament to Kemerer's incredible hips and rock-solid defense. He was able to use his hips and his strength to get out of danger on several occasions. Kemerer was also able to showcase his impressive skills on offense, converting a pair of takedowns and exposing Starocci's back to the mat as part of a four-point move that blew the match wide open. This was a richly-deserved and long-overdue triumph for Kemerer, whose path to championships at Iowa has been blocked by both injuries and the presence of some modern greats at his chosen weights (first Jason Nolf at 157, then Mark Hall at 174). It was immensely gratifying to see him finally break through and claim his first Big Ten championship here.
Iowa also did well in the third-place matches today. Nelson Brands came up just short in a 3-2 loss to Rutgers' John Poznanski, but Jacob Warner and Tony Cassioppi both earned impressive victories. Warner came out fast against Michigan State's Cam Caffey and scored a quick takedown (just 14 seconds in!) and put on a hard ride for the rest of the period. He added to that lead with a takedown and a pair of nearfall points in the third period to put the icing on a very good 7-3 win. At heavyweight, Cassioppi mauled highly-touted Penn State freshman Greg Kerkvliet, picking up multiple takedowns en route to a 9-0 major decision win. Cassioppi was able to stuff Kerkvliet's attacks on multiple occasions and frequently able to get around behind Kerkvliet for a takedown of his own on those attacks. Cassioppi is no closer to Steveson or Parris at the top of the Big Ten pecking order, but he's definitely established himself as the best of the rest of the Big Ten heavyweights.
This was a damn good day. The four champions Iowa crowned today was the most Iowa has had at a single Big Ten Tournament since having four champions in 2000. Iowa entered the day with a healthy lead -- and they extended it with their performance in both the championship matches and the consolation round matches. Iowa ended up running away with the title:
The 159.5-point total eclipsed last year's total of 157.5 and their winning margin of 35.5 was better than last year's margin of 25.5 over Nebraska. 159.5 points was the most Iowa had scored at the Big Ten Tournament since posting 185 points (!) in 1995. It was the third-highest point total at the Big Ten Tournament of the 21st century, behind only Ohio State's 164.5 in 2018 and Minnesota's 174 in 2002. There's still work to be done for Iowa this season -- the NCAA Tournament looms in two weeks -- but for now we can relish a truly dominant display that resulted in a thoroughly-deserved Big Ten championship.
GO IOWA AWESOME.