No. 1 Iowa looks to wrestle ‘free and loose’ in search of bonus points

Updated: December 4, 2019

Photo: Iowa’s two-time NCAA champion Spencer Lee has outscored three foes by a 49-7 margin this season, including a 17-2 technical fall over Iowa State’s Alex Mackall on Nov. 24. (John Johnson photo).

By Mike Finn

The majority of Iowa’s top-ranked wrestling team returns from last season, including all six All-Americans from a team that finished fourth in the 2019 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships.

But there is something different and more aggressive about the 2019-20 Hawkeyes, who have outscored its first three dual foes — including highly-ranked Iowa State (29-6) and Wisconsin (32-3) — by a 100-6 margin and have scored bonus points in 40 percent of the 30 matches in those three duals.

The scoring leader of these Hawkeyes is junior and two-time NCAA champion Spencer Lee, who has recorded two technical falls and a major decision at 125 pounds. Meanwhile, senior Michael Kemerer, a two-time All-American at 157 pounds, who sat out last year because of injury, has tallied a pin, technical fall and major decision in his first three matches at his new weight of 174 pounds.

The season-opening scoring surge by the Hawkeyes has also seen several Hawkeyes defeat higher-ranked wrestlers: Pat Lugo’s 4-2 victory over Iowa State’s Jarrett Degen at 149 and Nelson Brands’ upset of ISU’s Samuel Colbray at 184; and a trio of big victories against Wisconsin by 133-pound All-American Austin DeSanto over top-ranked Seth Gross, 165-pound All-American Alex Marinelli over UW’s Evan Wick, and redshirt freshman Tony Cassioppi’s win over Trent Hillger at heavyweight.

Brands, who is looking to capture the school’s first NCAA title since 2010 this March, knows that bonus points are especially important at the national tournament. Last year, Penn State out-scored No. 2 Ohio State by a 137.5-96.5 margin in claiming a fourth-straight team title and out-scored the Buckeyes by a 27-16.5 margin in bonus points.

“We just have to go out there and put points on the board and wrestle free and loose, no matter what,” said Iowa coach Tom Brands, who said he sees a difference in the mindset of several of his wrestlers.

“The mindset is two things. It’s the philosophy and do you buy into it and understand it and then can you put it into play? Our guys are putting it into play.”

But Brands pointed out that the Hawkeyes have not been consistent and perfect this season and used 197-pound All-American Jacob Warner as an example. The junior scored four takedowns in an 11-2 major decision against Iowa State’s Joel Shapiro, but settled for a 5-2 victory over Wisconsin’s Taylor Watkins, who was 0-5 before the Dec. 1 dual.

“The thing about Jacob Warner is that he wrestles down to his competition a little bit,” Brands said. “Your opponent should not matter. We need to be at a higher level more consistently. There are no automatics in this sport.”

“(Wrestling free and loose) is being calm with your mind and not getting frustrated and overwhelmed by either the crowd or if the call does not go your way,” Warner said. “I just have to realize I have to move my feet and score points. Against Wisconsin, I felt loose and free, but wasn’t free in my scoring.”

The Hawkeyes’ next meet will be this Sunday at Princeton, where Iowa will be without Lee, who said before the season he would step away from several duals in order to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Trials, April 4-5, in State College, Pa. One of those qualifiers will be the upcoming U.S. Open, Dec. 20-22, in Ft. Worth, Texas.

“We have a plan and it’s a moving plan,” said Brands about how and when Lee and the team will deal with the junior’s absence. The Iowa coach did point out that redshirt freshman Aaron Cashman of Spring Park, Minn., will finally see action after weighing in before each of Iowa’s first three duals.

Aaron Cashman

“(Cashman has) handled it like a professional,” Brands said. “When you are the back-up to a guy like (Lee), you have to be ready to go. He’s embraced (the challenge) and is doing the right thing. It’s not a whole lot of fun. But even if you are the No. 2 guy, you control that because you won a wrestle-off and can be out there.”

Cashman, a 2016 Cadet World Team member and 2017 Minnesota state champ from Shakopee High School, who skipped his senior year in 2018 to train at the Olympic Training Center, is thinking more about future years in taking on this challenge this winter.

“Spencer will be here next year, but after that I want to be the guy,” Cashman said. “I need to do this to help me someday be the starter.”

There are also two weight classes that have featured two wrestlers this season: 141 (Max Murin and Carter Happel) and 184 (Nelson Brands and Cash Wilcke).

“The Midlands (held Dec. 29-30 in Evanston, Ill.)  is where the 141 and 184 picture will clear up,” Brands said. “We send 22 guys to the Midlands where they need grab the bull by the horns and do their job.”