Experienced Iowa wrestlers want to end careers with no regrets

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Updated: October 28, 2021

Photo: All of these Iowa wrestlers have earned NCAA or NWCA All-American honors during their college careers. They include (from left) Jacob Warner, Kaleb Young, Michael Kemerer, Max Murin, Austin DeSanto, Spencer Lee, Jaydin Eierman, Alex Marinelli, Abe Assad and Tony Cassioppi. (Photo by Hawkeyesports.com)

By Mike Finn

Alex Marinelli is among the many Iowa wrestlers from last year’s NCAA championship squad that would love to repeat that team honor … and also win an individual national title this March when the Division I Championships are held in Detroit, Mich.

Alex Marinelli, who met with members of the media on Oct. 27 in Carver-Hawkeye Arena, is one of the team leaders on an experienced Iowa team. He talked about why he chose to come back when given the opportunity by the NCAA after last year was considered a zero-elligbility season. (Hawkeyesports.com photo)

The two-time All-American at 165 pounds also has plans past his elongated college wrestling career, which is one reason he is taking graduate school classes this academic year.

“Right now, I’m getting my master’s degree in sports management,” said the native of Miamisburg, Ohio. “It’s a great program and people actually want to be there. When you are in a master’s program, you want to really further your education.”

Marinelli is taking that same mentality when it comes to the Iowa wrestling room in 2021-22. He felt the same about his team as he looked back at the picture of the group of returning starters that appeared on the scoreboard within Carver-Hawkeye Arena Wednesday afternoon during Iowa’s annual media day.

“That’s a scary photo because there’s a lot of horsepower up there,” said Marinelli, pointing at the image. “It gives me chills knowing we have so much depth. I don’t think a lot of teams in the Big Ten or any conference wants to see that.”

Every member of last year’s championship team — SEE BELOW FOR PROJECTED LINEUP — that has compiled 19 NCAA All-American honors, returns in 2021-22; an opportunity that was created when the NCAA announced that last year’s season would be a “zero-eligibility” year for college athletes because of the pandemic.

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That included eight wrestlers, who were considered seniors a year ago, but chose to wrestle one more season as perhaps the most experienced team in NCAA history. Not since the 1946 NCAAs, when the average age of those individual champions — most returning from World War II — was 22.5 years old has a team returned more years of experience than this year’s Iowa starting 10.

By comparison, Penn State, which finished second behind Iowa but featured four national champs in 2021, also returns its entire lineup in 2022. That includes six wrestlers who have earned 12 All-American honors in the past.

Marinelli said he hopes to build off what he’s already learned from the Hawkeye coaching staff.

“(Iowa head coach) Tom (Brands) knows I’m a sixth-year senior, but that doesn’t mean he is going to step off the gas pedal,” said Marinelli, who medically forfeited out of last year’s Nationals. “I think he’s going to hold me even more accountable. It doesn’t mean I change up everything. I do what I need to do. Obviously, I have to be smart with my body and ‘prehab’ and be part of those injuries.”

The same could be said of five other veteran Hawkeyes, who are expected to be starters once again — Austin DeSanto (133 pounds), Max Murin (149), Kaleb Young (157), Michael Kemerer (174) and Jacob Warner (197) — who have all earned undergraduate degrees and have taken graduate school classes … while they also search for an NCAA title.

Michael Kemerer, who is beginning his seventh year as an Iowa wrestler, has earned both undergraduate and graduate degrees since coming to Iowa City from Pennsylvania. (Photo by Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com)

Kemerer, who is in his seventh season as a member of the Iowa wrestling team, has already finished his master’s degree in business and will take classes in a minor program until he finally completes his college career next spring. The three-time NCAA All-American would also like to finally put “national champion” on his wrestling resume.

“Every year, I’d like to think we are getting better, more wisdom,” said the 174-pounder whose highest NCAA finish of second place happened last March in St. Louis, where Iowa captured an all-time 24th national team title. “Things can get ‘old hat’ or you can keep getting better. Like (Iowa head coach) Tom (Brands) has said, ‘we need to have that predator mindset of always wanting more. As these years go by, it’s made us hungrier. You know what to expect but it doesn’t make the job any easier.”

Kemerer – who also finished third in 2017 and fourth in 2018, in a career that saw the native of Murrysville, Pa., first wrestle at 157 pounds — of course wants to make up for an NCAAs that didn’t end how we wanted last March. That’s when Kemerer, as the No. 1 seed, lost in overtime of the NCAA final to Penn State’s Carter Starocci after beating the Nittany Lion in the Big Ten final two weeks earlier.

“There’s definitely motivation there,” Kemerer said. “I’m always grateful I can still go out and compete. Having another chance to do that is something I want to take full advantage of and savor.”

There are several other 2021-22 Hawkeyes, who also are in search of the NCAA’s top podium step after falling short last March.

Jaydin Eierman, the four-time All-American and a transfer from Missouri in 2020, also lost in the 2021 NCAA final at 141 pounds as a No. 1 seed to Penn State’s Nick Lee.

Marinelli also was seeded No. 1 in last year’s Nationals but lost to eventual champ Shane Griffith of Stanford in the quarterfinals and failed to place. The same thing happened to Marinelli in 2019, when as a No. 1 seed he lost to Virginia Tech’s Mekhi Lewis and settled for seventh place; one year after he claimed sixth in 2018.

“We left St. Louis (last March) without nine individual championships,” said Brands, who also believes that his program’s three-time NCAA champion Spencer Lee is hungry to become just the sport’s fifth four-time national champion.

Kemerer, who has been called ‘Doctor’ by his teammates – as a reference to someone who is studying for a doctorate in college — admitted he was the last of the group to make the decision to return.

“I just wanted to take some time and go through everything and not make any emotional decision,” said Kemerer, who announced three weeks after the season ended that he would return. “Everyone was going to respect what I did. That’s the kind of teammates that they are. I remember talking to Spencer the night of the finals after he had won. He said he wanted me back but respected me enough to give me some time.”

“I wanted (the seniors) to know they are part of something special and that I would severely miss them,” said Lee, once a former high school teammate of Kemerer at Franklin Regional in Pennsylvania, and who had announced during the season that he would indeed return in 2021-22. “I think they would think of it as, ‘Would it be something that you would regret not coming back?’

Spencer Lee (right) was presented his second Hodge Trophy by WIN publisher Bryan Van Kley and founder Mike Chapman at an Iowa football game on Oct. 16. (Hawkeyesports.com photo)

“Would you think to yourself, ‘I could have, would have, should have’? Would you regret this in the future?”

Brands, who said he let the individual seniors of 2021 make their decision to return, is taking the same approach.

“I’ve listened to stories of regret my entire life. I have demons in my closet as a (former) competitor where little things done here or there would have made things better,” said Brands, the former three-time NCAA champion from Iowa and 1996 Olympic gold medalist, who returned to coach his alma mater in 2006 … and hopes to see this year’s team capture a fifth team title under his watch.

“That’s what is important. We are on the brink of history.”

Marinelli, who is married to the former Moriah Stickley, who serves as a team manager, said it did not take them long to make the decision to return.

“I think it was on our way home from the NCAAs,” said Moriah. “We live like a minute from where we get off the bus and we said we were ready for 2022.”

These two had already gone through off-the-mat pain during their time at Iowa, including when Eli Stickley — Moriah’s brother and good friend of Alex, as well as a wrestler at Wisconsin — died in a car crash in 2018, shortly before their wedding.

“There are trials that we are faced with and it definitely puts it into perspective,” Moriah added. “I think it helps us grow from the losses, especially Alex’s matches. It’s not easier to get back up from it, but when you’ve dealt with the loss of a loved one, it’s a lot different and puts it into perspective.

“I want him to get what he’s worked so hard for so I’m always encouraging him to show up every day, get better and learn from the people he’s around.”

“I leaned on (Moriah),” said Alex. “I leaned on my coaches and teammates, but it was pretty much an internal thing. I knew what I struggled with every day and what I would struggle with if I didn’t decide to come back.”

Alex added his decision to return goes well beyond the sport of wrestling.

“I have people in my life who have pushed me to be a better man, a better husband,” Alex said. “Tom tells me every day not just how to wrestle, but how to live my life and how to be there for people. I think that’s the greatest thing I will take from this year.”

Projected 2021-22 Iowa Wrestling Line-up

WtNameYrAgeW-LNCAA History
125Spencer LeeSr.2375-54-time NQ; 3-time AA (1st in ’18, ’19 & ’21)
133Austin DeSantoGr.2381-194-time NQ; 2-time AA (5th-’19; 3rd-’21)
141Jaydin EiermanSr.25101-154-time NQ & AA (5th-’17; 4th-’18; 3rd-’19; 2nd-’21)
149Max MurinGr.2239-183-time NQ (’19, ’20 & ‘21)
157Kaleb YoungGr.2358-223-time NQ; 2-time AA (5th-’19; 7th-’21)
165Alex MarinelliGr.2373-104-time NQ; 2-time AA (6th-’18; 7th-’19)
174Michael KemererGr.2486-84-time NQ; 3-time AA (3rd-’17; 4th-’18; 2nd-’21)
184Nelson BrandsJr.2217-10’21 NQ
OrAbe AssadSo.2022-7‘20 NQ
197Jacob WarnerGr.2254-143-time NQ; 2-time AA (7th-’19; 4th-’21)
HwtTony CassioppiSo.2133-62-time NQ, ’21 AA (3rd)
  • Total W-L: 639-134 (77.3 percent)
  • Three NCAA titles & 19 NCAA All-American honors (does not include the 2020 NWCA All-American honors earned by nine current Hawkeyes, who qualified for the cancelled 2020 Nationals)
  • The average age of the projected starters is 22.5 as of Oct. 28, 2021
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