Under normal circumstances, the 2021 NCAA Wrestling Tournament would have been a bittersweet affair for Iowa wrestling, both a celebration (as the program ended its 11-year title drought and claimed a 24th national championship) and a farewell (as the program said goodbye to several key seniors). Six of Iowa's starters in the 2021 lineup were technically seniors -- Spencer Lee, Austin DeSanto, Jaydin Eierman, Kaleb Young, Alex Marinelli, and Michael Kemerer -- and so, in normal circumstances, St. Louis would have been their swan song in black and gold. But these are not normal circumstances.
The Age of COVID has led to a lot of adjustments, one of which was the NCAA granting fall and winter sports athletes a free year of eligibility in 2020-21. Whether they chose to use it or not, the 2020-21 season would not count against their eligibility clock, enabling all to return in 2021-22 if they desired. That rule meant that all six of Iowa's senior starters could return for one more season in 2021-22 -- but would they? Now we know that the answer to that is "yes."
Spencer Lee was the first to announce his plans to return, before the NCAA Tournament had even begun.
Iowa wrestler Spencer Lee said he will use the extra year of eligibility and return to Iowa next year for a fifth season. Lee won titles in 2018 and 2019 and was the nation's best wrestler last year but the championships were canceled. He will go for his third national title.— Scott Dochterman (@ScottDochterman) March 11, 2021
Winning four national championships has been his goal since he arrived at Iowa and while that goal seemed dashed when COVID-19 led to the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Wrestling Tournament, the NCAA's move to allow an additional year of eligibility has given new life to that goal. Lee got his third championship in March and will pursue his fourth championship -- and wrestling immortality -- next year. Now he just needs to focus on healing up.
Austin DeSanto announced that he planned to return shortly after finishing 3rd at the NCAA Tournament:
Iowas Austin DeSanto confirms hell be back at Iowa next year.— Austin Hanson (@ahanson_41) March 20, 2021
Alex Marinelli, who endured more NCAA Tournament heartbreak with a quarterfinal defeat and a tournament- (and season-) ending injury that prevented him from even earning All-America status, also immediately announced his plans to return:
I will be back.— Alex Marinelli (@alexmarinelli65) March 21, 2021
Go Hawks! pic.twitter.com/b7eAZnQ9c5
Jaydin Eierman followed suit:
A few days later Kaleb Young joined the crew:
#Iowa coach Tom Brands said on KGYM today that Kaleb Young will take advantage of his COVID relief year and return next season. Conversations are being had with Michael Kemerer about returning, too. Said Kem will make his decision at a later date.— Cody Goodwin (@codygoodwin) March 24, 2021
So, yeah. Onward.
The only holdout was the oldest and longest-serving member of the Iowa team, Michael Kemerer. 2020-21 was already Kemerer's sixth year at Iowa, owing to a traditional redshirt season as well as a medical redshirt -- would he really want to come back for a seventh season, or would he be looking to move on? No one could have blamed him if he'd decided that six years was plenty and it was time for the next stage of his life. But Kemerer announced his decision last night --
-- and made it official that "Grandpa Mike" was in fact coming back to Iowa for a seventh year (!) of competition.
Kemerer's decision to return means that Iowa will be bringing back all 10 starters from this past season's NCAA team title-winning squad. They will be strong contenders next season, with a great chance to repeat as national champions. That said, a repeat title is far from a foregone conclusion. Penn State's 4-0 performance in the championship finals matches on Saturday night didn't just narrow the margin of defeat in the team race this year -- it laid down a marker for next year as well. I'm going to break down the potential title race between Iowa and Penn State in greater detail tomorrow. But for now we can enjoy the fact that the band is all back together again for this very fun Iowa wrestling team and that they'll have one last dance together in 2022.