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Photo: These four natives of Pennsylvania — Spencer Lee (upper left), Austin DeSanto (upper right), Kaleb Young (lower left) and Michael Kemerer — will all represent No. 1 Iowa when the Hawkeyes entertain No. 2 Penn State Friday night in Iowa City.
By Mike Finn
There are nearly 700 miles between Iowa City, Iowa, and Murrysville, Pa., the hometown of Michael Kemerer. Google Maps will tell you that drive along Interstate 80 is nearly an 11-hour drive one way.
But it wasn’t too long for Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands back in 2015 when the Hawkeye coach was trying to correct an error in his recruitment of Kemerer, the former Pennsylvania state champ from Franklin Regional High School.
“That recruiting trip with Kemerer is one of legend and lore now,” said Brands, who recalled that he felt that he needed to drive to visit the Michael and the Kemerer family after the future Hawkeye expressed some doubt after visiting Iowa City.
“Who knows what would have happened if I would have just tried to talk him into it over the phone?” said Brands, who was in a recruiting battle with Lehigh for Kemerer. “I got in the dog-gone car by myself and drove there. We screwed up and that’s what you do. When you screw up, you own it. You go sit in front of the firing squad, which was Beth and Ray Kemerer, who are pretty kind people.”
“I remember that I had a bit of uneasiness after my visit,” recalled Kemerer. “It was just some off-the-mat things. The culture (at Iowa) was not what I was expecting. I got along with the coaches and wrestlers on the team but there were some things that did not seem right, the social part.
“So (Brands) took it upon himself to drive straight out. He left it open to me and asked me what concerns did I have. I told him, but then he said, ‘What else, what else?’
“He made sure he got everything answered. I remember I asked him if he wanted to stick around and eat and he said that he had to get back.”
WIN Magazine will provide an in-depth review of the Iowa-Penn State dual in WIN’s February issue. Click here or call 888-305-0606 to subscribe.
Of course, Kemerer did sign with the Hawkeye and the rest is history; a good one for the two-time All-American, who is now rated No. 2 at 174 pounds after the senior placed third and fourth, respectively in 2017 and ’18 at 157 pounds before an injury sidelined him last winter. (Kemerer hopes to earn another year of eligibility later this spring and after the 2020 NCAA Championships.)
Kemerer is also now one of six Pennsylvania natives on the Iowa roster. He is also one of four starters from the Keystone State, who will wrestle for No. 1 Iowa this January 31 against No. 2 Penn State, which was in the midst of winning eight of the last night national team championships when they were being recruited.
Those other Pennsylvania natives who will be in the lineup on Friday night are 125-pound junior Spencer Lee, a former high school teammate of Kemerer, 133-pound junior Austin DeSanto (a transfer from Drexel) from Exeter, Pa., and 157-pound junior Kaleb Young from Punxsutawney, Pa., who actually verbally committed to Iowa in 2015 before Kemerer inked a scholarship.
(Sophomore Max Murin from Ebensberg, Pa., is ranked No. 7 by WIN at 141 pounds, but was expected to miss the Penn State dual because of injury. The sixth PA native is 133-pound redshirt freshman Gavin Teasdale from Rices Landing, who transferred from Penn State.)
Before this group, Brands had only brought in a handful of wrestlers from Pennsylvania and only Mike Evans (2013-15) from Enola, Pa., had earned All-American honors since Brands took the head job in 2006.
“The reason I wanted Iowa was the atmosphere that they had here, the ambition and drive to win was alluring,” said Young, who finished fifth nationally last March in his first year on varsity.
Young, Kemerer, Murin, Teasdale and Lee, the two-time NCAA champion, all wrestled for the Young Guns Club, which was run by Jody Strittmatter, the former NCAA All-American (2000-01) from Iowa, who returned to his native Pennsylvania to create the club and provide some mentorship for wrestlers like these three future Hawkeyes.
“(Strittmatter) was encouraging wherever I fit in and where I could fit my peak,” said Young, a 2016 state champion from Punxsutawney High School.
“Having teammates that I’ve know for a long time has been cool,” said Lee, who is a true junior and top-ranked this season. “We had a lot of guys (like former Penn State national champion Nico Megaludis) who could have come to Iowa and (Jody) could have pushed them to going to Iowa. But he want to help them go to places that were good for them.”
“(Strittmatter) left the decision up to us,” Kemerer recalled. “He made sure we were looking for the right things. Look for good people and a good environment and a place that could make us be the best wrestlers that we could be and the best person that we could be. Strittmatter was huge about things happening on and off the mat and made sure we made a place that lined up with that.”
Brands isn’t ready to say that Iowa has a definite pipeline to Pennsylvania and believes that fact that there are so many wrestlers from that state has to do more with the individuals characteristics and not from what state they hailed.
“It wasn’t part of a plan,” Brands said. “It was the right guys and there is no doubt that relationship with Strittmatter helped.
“The important this is if those guys are the right fit or it doesn’t make sense, we’re not going to sign guys just because they are from Pennsylvania. We recruited those guys because they were the best in the country and fit our needs.”
With so many former high school wrestlers from Pennsylvania competing at so many college programs around the country, it isn’t that unusual for them to end up at Iowa.
But Lee did admit “it’s crazy” that there are so many former PA preps on this currently Hawkeye team and Young admits he will hear from old friends when the Hawkeyes take on a Pennsylvania-based team like Penn State.
“People from my hometown will be wearing Penn State stuff and there are jokes, but they understand,” Young said. “They see what’s going on and understand why it’s so important to be like this.”
As for Kemerer, he hopes this group has created a winning culture that will rank among the other great periods of times that Iowa has won 23 all-time NCAA team championships; the last time coming in 2010 when the world was a lot different.
“We’ve just put our own spin on it,” Kemerer said. “It’s been 10 years since (Iowa has) won (an NCAA championship). During that time, guys have grown up with I-phones and stuff like that. Because of that, we’re probably a little more open to the public with the access everyone has because of the technology.”
“I want to win team titles and I told (the Iowa coaches during his recruiting visit) I would do my best for them to win a team title, but that wasn’t the main focus for me,” Lee said. “My main focus was selfish; to be the best wrestler that I could be and build a team environment and try to win national titles.”
The fact that Young is from a Pennsylvania town that is known by more that just wrestling also adds a little humor to his look at life.
“Yeah, it’s going to be Ground Hog’s Day, which is exciting,” Young said. “It’s something special and unique that we do every year and puts a smile on your face.”
Similar to what this group of Pennsylvania native have done for their current Hawkeye fans.
(WIN magazine will provide additional stories related to the Iowa-Penn State dual on Jan. 31. On Jan. 29, WIN will take a closer look at the rivalry between these two schools and then provide a weight-by-weight preview on Jan. 30.)