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Leistikow: Years of patience were required, but the Iowa Hawkeyes are NCAA wrestling champs again


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Pop some champagne. Or a Busch Light.

Because Iowa’s national title drought in college wrestling is over.

Behind a combination of top-end firepower and back-of-the-bracket grit, the Hawkeyes are officially NCAA champions for the first time since 2010. They wrapped it up on Saturday at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis with a 6-1 morning, with three title bouts to come in the evening that would serve as championship gravy.

It’s been 11 long years for Hawkeye fans, but a climb past mighty Penn State that so many times felt too steep has been conquered.

The credit can be distributed in so many ways, but let’s start with Tom Brands. The head Hawkeye who led Iowa to titles in 2008, 2009 and 2010 faced adversity and tackled tough problems within his ranks, particularly after falling short in 2015. He showed the patience required to rebuild his program the right way, not an easy task for someone who has been at the top in college, at the Olympics and as a coach.

Credit associate head coach Terry Brands for his behind-the-scenes grunt work in the Iowa wrestling room and on the recruiting trail. It was his influence that helped lure a world-class recruit named Spencer Lee from Murrysville, Pennsylvania, to not only make his home in Iowa City but to embrace it and foster a flowing Pennsylvania pipeline.

Credit guys like Michael Kemerer and Kaleb Young, Pennsylvanians who laid a high-character foundation before Lee’s arrival in June of 2017. Kemerer has been a terror on the mat this week in St. Louis and was set to wrestle for a 174-pound title Saturday night. Young showed his determination this week, turning a disappointing second-round loss into a series of consolation-bracket wins and a seventh-place finish at 157.

Credit the transfers. Austin DeSanto (from Drexel) and Jaiden Eierman (from Missouri) have packed the lower end of Iowa’s lineup with quite a post-Lee punch. DeSanto was remarkable all week and pushed elite Oklahoma State star Daton Fix to the limit in the 133-pound semifinals and finished third. Eierman has been electric, logging back-to-back pins in the quarterfinals and semifinals (much like Lee in 2018), and was set to wrestle for the 141-pound crown Saturday night.

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Iowa's Spencer Lee will wrestle for his third NCAA Wrestling title on Saturday
Iowa's Spencer Lee will wrestle for his third NCAA Wrestling title on Saturday.
NCAA, USA TODAY Handout

Credit assistant coach Ryan Morningstar and his upper-weight guys like Jacob Warner and Tony Cassioppi, who wrestled hard all week and reached the third-place matches at 197 and heavyweight.

Credit Alex Marinelli, who had another heartbreaking NCAA Championships, falling in the 165-pound quarterfinals as a No. 1 seed for the second time. He was wrestling through an injury this week that Tom Brands didn’t want to discuss and medically forfeited. But he has always been a team-oriented guy, and he was the first to hug DeSanto after a third-place triumph Saturday morning. He'll be back for one more run at a title in 2022.

Credit No. 12 seeds Max Murin and Nelson Brands for scraping together points on Thursday that helped pushed Iowa over the edge by Saturday morning.

Credit the guys that came before these guys, like Thomas Gilman and Cory Clark and Brandon Sorensen and Sammy Brooks and Bobby Telford for helping push the program through a mid-decade slump that saw Iowa fall behind as Penn State racked up eight national titles in nine years.

Credit the collective patience shown from a program that felt it had a national title robbed from them a year ago, as they were set for a 2020 coronation in Minneapolis … before a thing called COVID-19 changed the world and canceled their title shot.

And credit Lee, who was going for this third NCAA title later Saturday night. The miraculous 125-pounder is in a league of his own, even if he wasn’t wrestling at 100% this week. A high-character leader who makes everyone around him better and could run for mayor or senator or governor and win by a landslide. He was the difference-maker the program needed. Lee said upon his arrival he wanted to bring at least two national titles back to Iowa.

This was one. He and his friends will be back together again for another shot in 2022.

But this one in 2021 is worth relishing. It was a team title, through and through, with every weight class contributing points.

Back in 2017, I covered the NCAA Championships in St. Louis, and despite another year of disappointment there was a collective vibe of positivity. Things were on the right track, Lee was on the way, and the Penn State mountain seemed attainable.

Afterward, Tom Brands steadfastly said, "We'll get there. We'll get there."

Saturday, he did. The Hawkeyes did. They are back on top of college wrestling again.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.