Iowa Finishes 3rd at 2022 NCAA Wrestling Tournament

By RossWB on March 20, 2022 at 11:48 am
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© Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK
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This was not how the script was supposed to play out. Iowa wrestling entered the 2021-22 season as defending national champions. They had finally climbed back atop the college wrestling mountain in St. Louis, MO in March 2021, 11 years after they had last stood atop the college wrestling world -- and a year after COVID had denied them a great opportunity at a championship in 2020. But 2022 was going to be a chance to make up for 2020's lost opportunity and get another elusive national championship -- thanks to the NCAA's decision to grant an additional year of eligibility to athletes, everyone from 2021 could come back for another year, if they desired. And so Iowa returned their entire championship-winning lineup from 2021, intent on running it back for another title. That... did not happen. 

The first blow -- and probably the biggest blow, frankly -- came around the turn of the year, when Spencer Lee shut down his season to have surgery to repair his torn ACLs. He had -- miraculously -- been able to grind through the pain of having no ACLs to win a national championship last March, but the prospect of doing so for an entire season was too daunting, especially after an extended rest and rehabilitation process had failed to produce the desired results. His absence left a gaping hole in Iowa's lineup -- he was the leading point-scorer at two of the last three NCAA Tournaments, averaging nearly 25 team points just by himself. But Iowa still had a strong team and if everyone else picked up some of the slack and was able to match or improve their results from 2021, then Iowa would still have an excellent shot at a national championship. That... did not happen. 

This Iowa team was simply ravaged by injuries, especially at the worst possible time of the year -- tournament season. Jaydin Eierman, defending Big Ten champion and NCAA runner-up, suffered a knee injury in Iowa's season-ending dual meet against Nebraska that has been reported as a torn ACL. He wrestled just once at the Big Ten Tournament, sporting a large knee brace and clearly favoring his leg/knee. He wrestled just four matches at the NCAA Tournament, losing in the second round (to eventual NCAA runner-up Kizhan Clarke of North Carolina) and then again in his second consolation round match, when he was forced to take an injury default. Tony Cassioppi also suffered a leg/knee injury at some point late in the season and while his ailment didn't seem as severe as Eierman -- he wasn't sporty a bulky immobilizer knee brace like Jaydin -- his wrestling did seem impaired and he lacked the explosiveness we've seen from him over the past few seasons. And those were just the most recent injuries. Michael Kemerer missed the start of the season entirely, didn't compete at all until a January 7 dual with Minnesota, and wore a bulk shoulder brace for the entire season; he reportedly injured his shoulder last fall and will likely need surgery to repair it after the season. And 125 was doubly unlucky, as Spencer Lee's replacement, Drake Ayala, injured his shoulder partway through the season and wore a brace similar to Kemerer's for the last few weeks of the season. 

Iowa entered this season with three returning NCAA finalists -- Lee, Eierman, and Kemerer. None of them even made it past the quarterfinals at this year's tournament (with Lee, of course, not competing at all). Those three combined to score 66 points for Iowa at last year's NCAA Tournament; they scored just 14 points -- total -- at this year's event. So if you're wondering why Iowa scored 55 fewer points (from 129 to 74) at this year's event, well, that 52-point disparity is probably reasons A, B, and C. 

Would Iowa have won an NCAA championship this year with healthy (or at least healthier versions of Lee, Eierman, and Kemerer)? Perhaps. Last year's team scored 129 points; Penn State won this year's title with 131.5 points. It's dangerous to simply assume that changing one variable (health) would produce the same results, but... Lee, Eierman, and Kemerer are also three of Iowa's best wrestlers and three of their best bonus point-scorers. At the very least, I think it's fair to assume that Iowa would have been able to mount a very strong challenge to Penn State this year and we would likely have had a very competitive race for the team championship. 

Suffice to say, this Iowa team was battered beyond belief. Was it a result of poor conditioning, or poor training? Or was it just bad luck, a flurry of injuries all hitting at once, with the worst possible timing? I don't know. I'm inclined to believe that it was more the latter than the former, but Tom Brands & Co. should certainly evaluate every aspect of Iowa's system -- strength and conditioning, practice, match strategy, match preparation, etc. -- because this was disappointing result that went beyond just a spate of ill-timed injuries. 

No round was more frustrating -- or more symptomatic of the issues afflicting Iowa wrestling -- than the quarterfinal round at this year's NCAA Tournament. Iowa put six wrestlers into the quarters -- Austin DeSanto (133), Max Murin (149), Alex Marinelli (165), Michael Kemerer (174), Jacob Warner (197), and Tony Cassioppi (285) -- and just two (DeSanto and Warner) made it into the semifinals. That simply isn't a formula for winning championships. Worse, they failed to really put themselves in a position to be successful. Those six wrestlers combined for a total of two takedowns in the quarterfinals -- both by DeSanto. Warner managed to win his match without a takedown, thanks to an escape and a riding time point, but that's not the most reliable strategy when it comes to winning matches. Marinelli and Cassioppi each lost in sudden victory on takedowns scored by their opponents. 

Tom Brands preaches the need to score more points in virtually every press conference he attends and his wrestlers often parrot that message in their own comments, but... talk is talk. Their actions at this tournament (and in that round in particular) did not back up those words and it's an issue that's been plaguing Iowa for a while. Too many Iowa wrestlers simply wrestle too conservatively, especially in big matches, and that lack of action and attacking impetus has continued to result in them seeing opponents get their hands raised while Iowa wrestlers tumble into the consolation bracket (or get eliminated from the tournament altogether). I don't know what the issue is -- fear or failure or fear of taking a bad shot and giving an opponent a chance to score or waiting for the perfect set-up... probably all of the above (and then some). There's no magic solution to this issue. But until Tom Brands & Co. are able to get Iowa wrestlers to live up to that "attack, attack, attack" mantra, the results for Iowa wrestling are going to struggle to match the program's lofty expectations and goals. 

FINAL TEAM SCORE

1) 131.5 -- Penn State
2) 95.0 -- Michigan
3) 74.0 -- Iowa
4) 66.5 -- Arizona State
5) 59.5 -- Nebraska

A brief summary of results for all ten Iowa wrestlers in action at the NCAA Tournament 

125: Drake Ayala (1-2, DNP)

Round One: L, DEC (12-9) #20 Franklin Gutierrez (Chattanooga)
Conso R1: W, DEC (7-1) #29 Joe Manchio (Columbia)
Conso R2: L, DEC (8-5) #14 Jakob Camacho (NC State)

Ayala was thrust into a difficult position as a true freshman needing to replace Spencer Lee... and that was before he suffered a shoulder injury that impacted his performance the rest of the way. This was a disappointing way for his season to end, without question, but the future is still very bright for Ayala. Now he can rest up, heal up, and bide his time -- we likely won't see him in an Iowa singlet again until November 2023. 

133: Austin DeSanto (5-1, 3rd)

Round One: W, TECH FALL (19-3) #28 Sidney Flores (Air Force)
Round Two: W, DEC (4-2) #12 Micky Phillippi (Pitt)
Quarterfinals: W, MAJ DEC (9-0) #4 Korbin Myers (Virginia Tech)
Semifinals: L, DEC (3-2) #1 Roman Bravo-Young (Penn State)
Conso SF: W, DEC (10-6) #7 Lucas Byrd (Illinois)
3rd-place match: W, DEC (7-4) #3 Michael McGee (Arizona State)

My heart breaks for DeSanto, blocked from becoming a Big Ten and NCAA champion these past two seasons by the unyielding presence of Roman Bravo-Young. Over the past two years, DeSanto has clearly shown himself to be, at the very least, the third-best wrestler in the nation at 133 lbs, a point he emphasized with wins over the wrestlers (wrongly) seeded #3 and #4 ahead of him in the consolation rounds on Saturday morning. It's a testament to DeSanto's fortitude that he was able to regroup after his devastating loss in the semifinals to RBY to respond with two more wins in the Saturday morning consolation rounds to get the next-best possible finish, 3rd place. He cried as he left the mat and I got a little misty as well; we'll dearly miss seeing him in an Iowa singlet. 

141: Jaydin Eierman (2-2, DNP)

Round One: W, DEC (11-4) #31 Wilfredo Gil (Franklin & Marshall)
Round Two: L, DEC (4-2 SV) #15 Kizhan Clarke (North Carolina)
Conso R2: W, DEC (5-3) #17 Dylan D'Emilio (Ohio State)
Conso R3: L, INJ DEF #24 Stevan Micic (Michigan)

Injuries, man. Fucking injuries. The goal all season was for Eierman to finally reach the pinnacle after patiently climbing the mountain for four seasons, to go from 5th to 4th to 3rd to 2nd to -- finally -- 1st. We'll never know if a healthy Eierman would have accomplished that feat, but he had no chance at doing so after sustaining that late-season knee injury. Ending his season -- and his career -- with an injury default is a bitterly cruel way to wrap things up. 

149: Max Murin (2-2, DNP)

Round One: W, FALL (4:49) #25 Corbyn Munson (Central Michigan)
Round Two: W, DEC (8-4) #9 Kaden Gfeller (Oklahoma State)
Quarterfinals: L, DEC (6-3) #1 Yianni Diakomihalis (Cornell)
Conso R12: L, DEC (8-1) #6 Jonathan Millner (Appalachian State)

Murin's tournament was great... until it wasn't. Murin looked as good as any Iowa wrestler through the first two rounds, dispatching Munson with a pin and Gfeller with relative ease via multiple takedowns. Unfortunately, he ran into a buzzsaw in Yianni, a two-time national champion at 141 lbs who added a national championship at 149 lbs to his resume last night. And in the Round of 12, Murin ran into a mini-buzzsaw in Millner, who won four matches in a row in the consolation rounds en route to a sixth-place finish. There are still positives for Murin to take from this tournament, though it did end painfully. 

157: Kaleb Young (2-2, DNP)

Round One: W, DEC (3-2) #24 Doug Zapf (Penn)
Round Two: L, DEC (3-1 SV) #8 Will Lewan (Michigan)
Conso R2: W, MAJ DEC (9-1) #23 Markus Hartman (Army)
Conso R3: L, DEC (5-3) #1 David Carr (Iowa State)

Chalk one up for "missed opportunities." Young's loss to Lewan in the second round proved to be extremely damaging to his hopes of winning All-America honors for a third time; not only did it knock him out of the championship bracket, but it also put him on a collision course with #1 seed David Carr, who was himself shockingly upset in the second round. If Young had managed to defeat Lewan, he would have stayed in the championship bracket and the only thing between him and a spot in the semifinals (and guaranteed All-America status) would have been #17-seed Hunter Willits (Oregon State), the man who upset Carr. Alas, Young's match with Lewan came down to a single takedown, which Lewan finished in sudden victory. We've certainly seen that story play out in Young's matches a time or two. 

165: Alex Marinelli (5-2, 5th)

Round One: W, DEC (7-2) #30 Evan Barczak (Drexel)
Round Two: W, DEC (8-2) #19 Justin McCoy (Virginia)
Quarterfinals: L, DEC (3-1 SV) #6 Cameron Amine (Michigan)
Conso R12: W, DEC (6-2) #8 Phillip Conigliaro (Harvard)
Conso R5: W, DEC (4-2) #7 Carson Kharchla (Ohio State)
Conso SF: L, DEC (10-4) #1 Evan Wick (Cal Poly)
5th-place Match: W, MED FFT #4 Dean Hamiti (Wisconsin)

Plenty of Iowa wrestlers will leave this year's NCAA Tournament with regret, but probably few will have more than Alex Marinelli, who once again fell short in his quest to win a national championship -- and once again lost in the quarterfinals. That's three consecutive NCAA Tournaments in which Marinelli has lost in the quarters. The previous two times it was to the eventual national champions (Mekhi Lewis and Shane Griffith), but this time it was to Amine, a man he'd beaten just a few weeks earlier in the Big Ten Tournament final. That match with Amine came down to a single takedown... which Amine managed to finish, in sudden victory.

Again: a story we've seen play out more than a few times. If you let matches be decided by a single move, you're playing with fire and you're bound to get burned, which is exactly what happened. Marinelli did rebound with two wins on Friday night to lock up a sixth-place finish, but his Saturday was one to forget, as he was totally dominated by old nemesis Wick in the consolation semis and then didn't even get to compete in his final match in an Iowa singlet, beating Wisconsin's Hamiti via medical forfeit. What an awkward, unsatisfying way to end things. Bizarrely, this fifth-place finish represents Marinelli's best-ever finish at the NCAA Tournament; this event has not been kind to him. 

174: Michael Kemerer (5-2, 4th)

Round One: W, DEC (4-0) #28 Benjamin Pasiuk (Army)
Round Two: W, DEC (9-4) #12 Cade DeVos (South Dakota State)
Quarterfinals: L, DEC (5-3) #4 Hayden Hidlay (NC State)
Conso R12: W, DEC (5-2) #8 Michael O'Malley (Drexel)
Conso R5: W, DEC (3-1 SV) #9 Mikey Labriola (Nebraska)
Conso SF: W, DEC (6-4 SV) #3 Logan Massa (Michigan)
3rd-place Match: L, MAJ DEC (12-4) #4 Hayden Hidlay (NC State)

I have more to say about Kemerer (and Iowa's other departing seniors) in another post (and this is already pushing 3000 words), so I'm just going to say that I have nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for Kemerer and what he was able to do at this year's tournament. Winning five matches and making it to the 3rd-place match with basically one good arm is incredible. This wasn't the ending anyone hoped for when he came back to Iowa, but the determination he showed in finishing off the season -- and his career -- as best he was able to was truly inspiring. Nothing but love for you, Kemdawg. 

184: Abe Assad (1-2, DNP)

Round One: L, DEC (6-3) #15 Hunter Bolen (Virginia Tech)
Conso R1: W, DEC (9-3) #31 AJ Burkhart (Lehigh)
Conso R2: L, DEC (5-3 SV) #16 Dakota Geer (Oklahoma State)

Results at 184 lbs have been an issue for Iowa at least since Sammy Brooks graduated and this year's efforts from Abe Assad were no different. Both of the matches Assad lost were winnable -- he was tied with Bolen late and nearly scored the winning takedown on Geer before getting countered and conceding the match-losing takedown -- but that's not much comfort. This weight remains one of Iowa's biggest question marks. 

197: Jacob Warner (4-1, 2nd)

Round One: W, MAJ DEC (8-0) #27 Alan Clothier (Northern Colorado)
Round Two: W, DEC (3-1) #11 Thomas Penola (Purdue)
Quarterfinals: W, DEC (2-0) #3 Eric Schultz (Nebraska)
Semifinals: W, DEC (6-4) #2 Stephen Buchanan (Wyoming)
Final: L, DEC (3-2) #1 Max Dean (Penn State)

I wrote a lot about Warner on Friday, after he won his semifinal match and I don't have much else to add. Making the NCAA finals is a great accomplishment and Warner wrestled very well overall at this event; he overcame a persistent nemesis in Schultz in the quarters and defeated a very talented opponent in Buchanan in the semis. That's excellent and worth celebrating. That said, the fact that he didn't have a single takedown in his final three matches in the NCAA Tournament is certainly a problem. Warner is obviously better than most at finding ways to win without takedowns, but at some point it does get really, really, really hard to win without taking (and finishing) shots, especially against the best guys at the weight. Warner has proven that he's able to compete with those guys, but the highest levels of success are likely to continue to elude him until he's able to score points more consistently. 

285: Tony Cassioppi (4-2, 7th)

Round One: W, DEC (4-0) #30 Josh Heindselman (Oklahoma)
Round Two: W, MAJ DEC (12-3) #14 Luke Luffman (Illinois)
Quarterfinals: L, DEC (3-1 SV) #6 Jordan Wood (Lehigh)
Conso R12: W, DEC (4-0) #16 Zach Elam (Missouri)
Ronso R5: L, DEC (11-5) #7 Mason Parris (Michigan)
7th-place Match: W, DEC (2-0) #12 Christian Lance (Nebraska)

Aside from Marinelli, Cassioppi may be the Iowa wrestler most lamenting his missed opportunities at this tournament. Cassioppi had a very friendly draw overall, with Gable Steveson (and the dangerous Greg Kerkvliet) slotted on the opposite side from him. The top two seeds (other than himself) on his side of the draw were Schultz and Wood, guys he had previous wins against. Mason Parris, his biggest non-Steveson nemesis, was also on his side of the bracket, but as the #7 seed, Cass only would have faced him if Parris knocked off Schultz (which didn't happen). It all set up very nicely for Cassioppi to at least make the final... and then he lost 3-1 in SV in the quarterfinals. Again, injuries no doubt played a factor in his performance -- he really seemed to lack the explosive burst that's typified his wrestling over the last few years -- but the inability to make the most of the advantageous situation he had will certainly sting for a while. 

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