NEWTON, Iowa — The wrestling programs at Missouri and Illinois made the...
#1 Iowa and other college programs want complete 2021 NCAA season
Photo: WIN publisher Bryan Van Kley (right) and Mike Chapman, the founder of WIN and the Dan Hodge Trophy, presented the 2020 Hodge to Iowa’s Spencer Lee Tuesday afternoon in Iowa City, Iowa.
By Mike Finn
Tom Brands, like all of his fellow Big Ten Conference wrestling coaches, had to wait until after Christmas to learn when his wrestlers will compete in a shortened 2021 season that began this past week and ends March 20 with the 2021 NCAA Division I Championships at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis.
College wrestling normally starts in late November and lasts five months in a season that includes early-season individual tournaments — like the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational, Midlands and Southern Scuffle — but this Division I season will only last two months as teams will only compete in a dual-meet schedule.
And perhaps no coach is happier that college wrestling — which lost its 2020 national tournament in Minneapolis last March because of the COVID pandemic — will compete this year than Brands, who is beginning his 15th season in Iowa City. His Hawkeye program is ranked No. 1 again as nine of 10 national qualifiers from 2020 return this winter. Brands added firepower with former Missouri All-American Jaydin Eierman, who transferred to Iowa last year … and the Iowa coach showed his passion for the season, Jan. 5, in Iowa’s season-opening media conference.
Brands just wants to make sure this delayed season will end much better than last season for today’s college wrestlers.
“We have to get to the end,” said Brands, who program his program can win a 25th all-time NCAA team championship — and first since 2010 — this March. “We have to get to the national tournament. Are you listening, NCAA? Are you listening? These are young people that aspire to things. They’re in an age demographic that is not as risky.”
Among those Hawkeyes eager to start this season — Iowa opens Jan. 15 with a home dual against Nebraska without any fans — is two-time NCAA champion Spencer Lee. The Hawkeye was presented the 2020 Hodge Trophy — joining Mark Ironside (1998) and Brent Metcalf (2008) as the only Hodge winners from Iowa — by WIN founder Mike Chapman and WIN publisher Bryan Van Kley. The Hodge Trophy, named after the late Dan Hodge, has been awarded annually since 1994, and presented to the nation’s most dominant wrestler.
“It’s been hard,” said the 125-pound junior who will still have a chance at four national titles after the NCAA announced last fall that all winter sports athletes will be given an extra season if they choose because of the pandemic. “As a team, we’ve come together. We know this is a big year for us. Like he keeps saying, unfinished business. We have guys that have chips on their shoulders. We had a great season last year. As you all know, the NCAA tournament is the pinnacle of wrestling. You don’t really feel like your season is finished unless you win that.”
Lee, a former Junior World freestyle champ, who won the 2019 U.S. Open, would also like to make the 2021 Olympic team this April at the Olympic Trials in State College, Pa.
The native of Murrysville, Pa., will take on his personal goals one day at a time.
“Nothing changes,” said Lee. “What’s next is the biggest thing. What’s next for me right now is we got Nebraska on the 15th. That’s what’s next. I’m going to do my best every time out, just like my teammates. Ultimately my goal is to be Olympic champion. I have to win a lot of matches before that is even possible. If I win Olympic Trials, in August Olympics in Tokyo, that’s one by one. You can’t skip, can’t take the easy way out. Got to take it the hard way, work your butt off, go out and put on a show.”
While two dual meets — Campbell at North Carolina and Hofstra at Lehigh, both scheduled to take place last weekend — were cancelled because of COVID, wrestling has shown it can happen after many national exhibitions in freestyle were held last summer and fall, including two events hosted by Iowa: the U.S. Open in October and the Hawkeye Wrestling Club Showdown in November.
“Wrestling is done well,” Brands said. “We had our own event. USA Wrestling put on a big event. We had fans. It was right here in the mecca of wrestling in the United States. There’s a lot of good people here, starting with our administration, going to Josh Schamberger, our own program. They’re advocates for getting this thing going and keeping it going, keeping it going the right way. They’re advocates for that.”
Many people outside of wrestling were concerned that the sport could not happen because of the nature of the sport and the one-on-one competition.
“(Wrestling has) been dealing with this forever, skin issues, whatever, without getting into details,” Brands said. “You sterilize the mats on a daily basis, more than one time a day if you’re on the mat more than one time a day. We’ve been doing that before the pandemic. Wrestling is way ahead. It’s a one-on-one sport with a referee. It’s not five-on-five (as in basketball) or 11-on-11 (football).
“Here’s the thing. To compare us to other sports, silliness. To compare other sports to other sports, silliness. Wrestling has a lot of experience of being very, very clean.”
The only Division I programs that will not compete this winter are the six Ivy League schools — Cornell, Penn, Columbia, Princeton, Harvard and Brown — after the Ivy League announced in November that winter sports are cancelled.
Otherwise, the remaining schools will compete in one of seven conferences, including the EIWA (which provided an NCAA-qualifying tournament for Ivy League schools), ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, MAC, Pac-12 and Southern Conference. At this point, all conferences will sponsor post-season tournaments, except for the Pac-12. Wrestlers can still qualify for the 2021 NCAAs as at-large selections if there is no conference tournament.
Brands’ only disappointment came in the fact that the Big Ten was the last conference to announce a schedule that will only be between Big Ten teams. The remaining conferences announced their schedules earlier in December and will compete against other conferences.
“Our frustration is with the Big Ten as the leader in sports, let alone wrestling,” Brands said. “(The Big Ten) is definitely the leader in wrestling. That’s what was frustrating. Not because we didn’t think we weren’t going to get a schedule or compete, but because the propaganda is used against us (by other schools).
“It’s hard when the propaganda is going against you. They say Iowa is ducking institution X and institution Y. Well, we have a policy that we can’t wrestle anybody outside the Big Ten until the national tournament. How are we ducking (those teams)?
“That narrative was put out there in the sport of wrestling. It hurt the Big Ten. That’s my competitive edge coming out. That’s where the frustration was. It wasn’t with the Big Ten or the Big Ten leadership. This is real. This COVID is real. They’re figuring it out every day. It’s changing.”