Iowa entered the 2022 NCAA Wrestling Tournament with 10 wrestlers in action, one at each weight. Technically any one of them had the potential to be an NCAA finalist and wrestling on the elevated stage for a national championship on Saturday night. If you were ranking them in order of likelihood to be in that situation, though, Jacob Warner probably wasn't near the top of your list. Alex Marinelli and Tony Cassioppi seemed to have the talent to do so and manageable bracket paths. Austin DeSanto had the talent, albeit a difficult path through the bracket. Jaydin Eierman and Michael Kemerer certainly had the talent (both are returning finalists from 2021), but with giant question marks surrounding their health. None of those wrestlers are in the NCAA finals -- but Jacob Warner is.
The ding against Warner for a while has been that he has as much talent as virtually anyone in the 197 lb weight class, but he's been unable to win the biggest matches. He's a four-time All-American (including this year and the COVID-year All-America status granted to all wrestlers seeded in the Top 8 in 2020), but he's never finished higher than 4th. He lost in the second round as the 5-seed as a redshirt freshman in 2019, getting upset by 21-seed Thomas Lane of Cal Poly. He lost a tight 3-2 decision to eventual NCAA champion A.J. Ferrari in the quarterfinals last year, before wrestling back to a 4th-place finish. He's a serial third-place finisher at the Big Ten Tournament, having finished in that position in each of the past four seasons.
But that's the past now. Tomorrow night Jacob Warner will be on the big stage, under the bright lights, with a chance to earn an individual national championship.
Warner advanced to the semifinals by beating longtime nemesis Eric Schultz in the quarterfinals. It was far from the most aesthetically pleasing match, but Warner has always been a more effective wrestler than he's been an exciting wrestler. He beat Schultz by grinding on him for a full two-minute ride-out in the second period, then earning a quick escape in the third period and keeping Schultz at bay for the remainder of the match.
In the semis, Warner found himself matched up with the 2-seed, Stephen Buchanan of Wyoming. Warner and Buchanan actually wrestled on Friday night of the NCAA Tournmant a year ago -- albeit in the consolation rounds. Warner beat Buchanan 6-3 in that match, so he probably entered tonight's match with a bit of confidence. The first period finished scoreless, though Warner nearly scored on a slide-by near the end of the period. In the second period, Warner got a quick escape from bottom to go up 1-0. But he wasn't able to take that lead into the third period after conceding a takedown near the edge of the meat in the final 20 seconds. But he could take a tied match into the third period, thanks to a quick escape in the final 10 seconds of the period.
In the third period, Warner started on top -- and immediately went to work. This wasn't just a ride to try and accumulate riding time, though -- this was a ride to score points. He locked up an arm and flipped Buchanan toward the mat, putting on a tilt that would have made Spencer Lee proud. Warner got the four-count to earn four near fall points, and then immediately let Buchanan go, since he was in a bit of a precarious position on his back on the mat. Those four back points blew open a tight match, though, making the score 6-2 (6-3 after Buchanan's escape). Buchanan earned a stall point later in the period, but otherwise Warner played effective defense until the final whistle -- and earned himself a spot in the NCAA finals.
Is it recommended to try and win matches without takedowns? Hardly. We'd certainly love to see Warner score a few more points from neutral, especially because he does have strong technique and often finishes well when he gets to opponent's legs. But there are plenty of ways to win matches and being strong on the mat can work quite well, too. Warner has long been an excellent mat wrestler and that, coupled with his excellent quick-twitch defense, makes him a very good wrestler, albeit not one who racks up takedowns or points the way some of his more celebrated teammates often do. But, hey, this year he's in the NCAA final and they're not.
Warner will face Penn State's Max Dean in the 197 lb final on Saturday night. They wrestled at the Iowa-Penn State dual earlier this season, in a match that Dean won 8-3. The match was much closer than that final score indicates, though -- Warner led that match 3-1 entering the third period, but gave up a stall point and a takedown, before getting caught in a near fall situation himself near the end of the bout. Dean will no doubt have confidence from that win, as well as his past experience on the big stage (he was an NCAA runner-up back in 2019), but Warner ought to have plenty of confidence himself after the big wins he secured in the quarterfinals and semifinals on Friday.
This win also kept alive one of Iowa wrestling's longest streaks. For the 32nd straight NCAA Tournament, the Hawkeyes will have at least one wrestler in action in the NCAA Tournament finals. Iowa's had at least one wrestler in the finals every year since 1990 (exempting 2020, of course, when there was no NCAA Tournament). The odds of that streak continued looked bleak after a miserable 2-4 quarterfinal session for the Hawkeyes and after Austin DeSanto fell to Roman Bravo-Young (again) in Iowa's other semifinal match. The job of continuing that streak fell on Jacob Warner -- and he was up to the task.
Congratulations on the big win, Jacob Warner, and for getting to the rarefied air of the NCAA finals. Might as well go win the whole damn thing while you're there, right?