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Wrestling Mailbag: Recapping the NCAA Wrestling Championships, plus Spencer Lee, David Carr, Austin DeSanto, and more


A standing ovation is in order for the sport of wrestling, because at the collegiate level, the coaches, athletes, administrators, parents and everybody else involved navigated the biggest time of the year during a pandemic without any COVID-19 hiccups.

The National Wrestling Coaches Association hosted the Division III national tournament at Xtream Arena in Coralville. All wrestlers, coaches, tournament workers and more were tested multiple times that week. Zero positive tests.

The NCAA Division II national championships, held in St. Louis, also had all wrestlers, coaches, tournament workers and more tested multiple times that same week. Zero positive tests.

Then came the NCAA Division I national championships, held in the same city with more than twice as many wrestlers, coaches, tournament personnel, plus many more people considered Tier 1 from the NCAA, teams and more. Again, all were tested multiple times that week. Again, zero positive tests.

Wrestling has always been uniquely suited for extra health screening situations. Before wrestlers weigh in for their competitions, there's a skin check, a hair and nails check, a general health check, then they step on the scale.

Then, this season, they added tests for COVID-19 to the list. During the week of the national championships, they needed negative tests to enter the building before competition, then they took them again every day of competition. Most coaches and wrestlers I talked to were sick of them by the time the tournament ended Saturday night.

But their attention to detail clearly paid off. There's still more wrestling coming, with the U.S. Olympic Trials next week in Texas. Athletes and coaches need a negative test within 72 hours of their arrival, then another on arrival before they can enter Dickies Arena for workouts. They'll also be tested every day of the competition.

Point being: Wrestling deserves plenty of kudos for the collective diligence and attention to detail to navigate these heady times flawlessly. A lot was made of the "whatever it takes to wrestle" mindset. But these results prove they meant it.

Now, then. On to the mailbag. Wrestling Insider Newsmagazine announced the finalists for the 2021 Hodge Trophy. Iowa's Spencer Lee and Iowa State's David Carr are among them. It's the first time since 2010 that Iowa and Iowa State both have finalists for the Hodge Trophy. Jake Varner and Jay Borschel finished behind Jayson Ness that year.

ALSO. We're creating a book about the Iowa wrestling team's 2021 NCAA Championship. It will include stories from your boy and the best photos from our HawkCentral.com photographers from the past two seasons. You can preorder the book here.

More: NCAA Wrestling: Iowa Hawkeyes clinch national team title for the first time since 2010

Please give me a follow on Twitter (@codygoodwin) and on Instagram (@codyjgoodwin) and I’ll keep you guys up to date on all things wrestling in Iowa. Don't forget to tune into the Register's wrestling podcast, In the Room, each week as well. You can find the latest episodes below.

Thanks for your help here, and for reading.

Lot of questions about who's returning and who's not for the Hawkeyes.

I have previously said, basically all season, that I was under the impression that everybody plans to return.

But then Iowa coach Tom Brands dropped this nugget after the NCAA Championships:

"There's a lot to be ironed out," he said. "It's that simple."

So … ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

We know for sure that Spencer Lee, Austin DeSanto, Jaydin Eierman and Alex Marinelli have all publicly said in one form or another that they plan to come back. Brands said Wednesday that Kaleb Young will return and that Michael Kemerer is considering returning as well.

Penn State has everybody returning, and will also add some stellar recruits to its roster. We talk more about that team race below, because that's a separate conversation.

But the conversation surrounding Saturday night's finals was interesting to me.

Penn State went 4-0, and that included two wins over Iowa wrestlers after the Hawkeyes won those matches two weeks prior at the Big Ten Championships. That's impressive, and also part of a decade-long trend.

Since Cael Sanderson got to Penn State in 2010, Nittany Lion wrestlers are 27-14 in the NCAA finals, including a staggering 16-3 since 2017. In that same span, Iowa wrestlers are 10-12 in the NCAA finals, and 4-2 since 2017. Also since 2010, Penn State wrestlers are 41-6 in the NCAA semifinals, while Iowa wrestlers are 22-14.

Sanderson is whipping the competition when it comes to ensuring his guys not only get to those big matches, but routinely win those big matches. Part of that is recruiting top-tier talent, and he's been better at that than virtually everybody the last few years, too, but those numbers are more jarring than even the eye test would have you believe.

Anyways, yeah, Penn State went 4-0 in the finals, and it was an impressive showing for them on a national stage with a national audience from ESPN. They won those four matches by a combined seven points, and three of them required overtime. It was a strong performance, even if wrestling folks were irritated by the officiating.

And while I understand the lingering sour taste Iowa fans might have because only Spencer Lee won a title, it should not take away any luster from the team's national championship. Because that's what they won, a national team title.

Consider: Penn State's four individual champions is the most by a single team that did not win the team title. But those finalists combined to score just 88.5 team points. Penn State's other five wrestlers combined to score 25 total team points. Only two of them reached the podium.

Iowa, meanwhile, went 1-2 in the finals, but also had two guys finish third, another finish fourth, another finish seventh, and had two guys fall in the bloodround, including one by medical forfeit because of a rib injury who likely could've scored more than the four points he ended up scoring (see: Marinelli, Alex).

Think about that. The Hawkeyes had a rough bloodround (2-2), a rough showing in the finals (1-2) and still won the team title by 15.5 points.

It wasn't Iowa's best tournament. Far from it. I understand the sour taste that'll come from what Penn State did on Saturday night. But the Hawkeyes' less-than-their-best tournament still won the program's first team title in 11 years by a decent margin.

That should tell you everything about how good Iowa was this season. Do not forget that.

► MORE WRESTLING COVERAGE FROM THE REGISTER

This is where the extra year from the NCAA is going to be very intriguing to follow.

Everybody who wrestled this year will be the same age next season, eligibility-wise. So all the true freshmen are true freshmen again, all the juniors are juniors, and so on. 

But here's where things get interesting.

If the NCAA eligibility relief ruling for winter sports is consistent with the same eligibility relief for spring and fall sports, all seniors from this past season, '20-21, who choose to return won't count against '21-22 scholarship maximums. For wrestling, that's 9.9 scholarships for the fully funded programs.

Each school can choose whether or not to foot the extra bill, but Iowa wrestling fans might run Gary Barta out of town if he opted not to do that after Iowa's national championship run.

On top of that, the incoming recruits aren't affected, as they'll also be true freshmen the same age, eligibility wise, as the current group of true freshmen from this past season. That will affect recruiting down the line, or at least I think so.

You'll notice that Iowa doesn't currently have any 2022 recruits committed, at least publicly. Not many are nationally, to be fair, but still. Part of that is also because recruits and college coaches have been limited in their abilities to communicate, and college coaches have been more focused on trying to get their guys through this season, too.

Recruiting for the Hawkeyes will pick up this spring once they finalize the roster for next year and have a better understanding of what scholarship funds look like moving forward. At least that's my working theory.

There's plenty of talent available, especially here in Iowa. It's probably time for the Hawkeyes to start thinking about the next heavyweight, and the future at 197, too, and perhaps more depth and talent in the middleweights, from 149-165 and even 174. I imagine that's where they'll target over the next year or two.

The current group of true freshman and the incoming recruits have tons of potential.

The lightweights are stacked, with Jesse Ybarra, Cullan Schriever and Drake Ayala. Wyatt Henson and Caleb Rathjen will add talent to the middleweights. Cobe Siebrecht has shown great progress. Bretli Reyna got an opportunity this year. Patrick Kennedy will be in future lineups. 

The future is bright, is the point here. Bright enough to keep winning titles? Iowa certainly thinks so. Time will tell.

Here's how I understand it:

Spencer Lee originally tore his ACL in high school. It was his right ACL. He wore a brace during his senior season at Franklin Regional in Pennsylvania, and has continued to wear a brace throughout his Iowa career.

He had that knee reconstructed through surgery after his senior season, which delayed his Iowa debut during the '17-18 season. He re-tore that same knee in the 2019 NCAA finals against Jack Mueller, a match he ended up winning, 5-0.

He did not get that knee fixed. The recovery time for a second ACL reconstruction is longer, 12-14 months, than an initial reconstruction, around 6-9 months. He instead let it rest as much as it could and strengthened the muscles around it so he could wrestle the '19-20 season and try to make the 2020 Olympic Team.

So, yes, he wrestled that season with it still torn. Still went 18-0 with 17 bonus-point wins, won the Hodge Trophy, a Big Ten title and a U.S. Senior men's freestyle national title.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled the 2020 NCAA Championships and pushed the U.S. Olympic Trials back a year. Still no surgery. 

Lee came back this season and continued his torrid run, but tore his other knee, his left, during the finals of the Big Ten Championships. He won that match, over Purdue's Devin Schroder, 21-3, then went 5-0 and outscored his opponents 59-8 en route to his third consecutive NCAA title last weekend.

Pretty wild, yeah?

Mostly going to address the third question here, because, again, we're operating under the presumption that Iowa is bringing everybody back.

Here's how I picture Iowa's lineup:

  • 125: Spencer Lee
  • 133: Austin DeSanto
  • 141: Jaydin Eierman
  • 149: Max Murin
  • 157: Kaleb Young
  • 165: Alex Marinelli
  • 174: Michael Kemerer (or Patrick Kennedy)
  • 184: Abe Assad (or Nelson Brands)
  • 197: Jacob Warner
  • 285: Tony Cassioppi

I think once Assad gets healthy, he'll be the guy at 184. The other thing to note: if Kemerer doesn't come back, Nelson Brands could slide in at 174, which allows Kennedy to take a true redshirt. We'll cross that bridge at a later date.

Here's how I picture Penn State:

  • 125: Robbie Howard
  • 133: Roman Bravo-Young
  • 141: Nick Lee
  • 149: Beau Bartlett
  • 157: Brady Berge
  • 165: Joe Lee
  • 174: Carter Starocci
  • 184: Aaron Brooks
  • 197: Michael Beard
  • 285: Greg Kerkvliet

It's mostly the same. Gotta assume Howard will score more points at 125, Barlett will be bigger and better at 149, Kerkvliet will be healthier and more dangerous at 285 and Berge will be healthy, too. Those are some assumptions, sure, but, well, yeah.

And don't forget Oklahoma State, either:

  • 125: Trevor Mastrogiovanni
  • 133: Daton Fix
  • 141: Kaid Brock/Kaden Gfeller
  • 149: Boo Lewallen
  • 157: Wyatt Sheets
  • 165: Travis Wittlake
  • 174: Dustin Plott
  • 184: Dakota Geer
  • 197: AJ Ferrari
  • 285: Austin Harris

Oklahoma State finished a distant third behind Iowa and Penn State, with 99.5 points. But Fix made the finals and is capable of beating RBY, Lewallen has finals potential, Sheets will be healthier, and the young guys like Mastro and Plott will have another year of experience.

I think those are the three teams to watch next season. We shouldn't sleep on Cornell, either, because they'll be back with a pretty formidable lineup, too, with Yianni Diakomihalis, Gabe Dean, Vito Arujau, Ben Darmstadt and many others.

After Oklahoma State's performance this weekend — guys, they went 20-4 on Friday to handily secure third place — I've talked myself into picturing a tremendous three-team race next season between Iowa, Penn State and Oklahoma State. Add Cornell, Arizona State, and a bunch of other schools, and the '21-22 season already looks like a blast.

The 2022 NCAA Championships will be in Detroit, March 17-19. Get your tickets now if you can.

Honestly, I think he could have a Spencer Lee-like impact for the Cyclones.

He and I have talked about this before, so much that it became part of the profile I wrote about him a couple summers back. Since then, he's won a Junior world title, two Big 12 titles and, last weekend, his first NCAA title. I say "his first" because I think he'll win multiple before it's all said and done.

But Carr is the first Cyclone wrestler to win it since Kyven Gadson won in 2015. That representation will matter on the recruiting trail. Iowa State coach Kevin Dresser, already with some stellar recruits in tow for 2021 and 2022, now has more ammo. Look, we can win here if you buy in and do what you need to do and follow a guy like David Carr.

Iowa undoubtedly used some variation of the same message with Lee's success. Look at the kind of talent that wants to be part of this program. Look at what we're building. Come be part of this and let's keep this train rolling.

But Carr's success could help bring Iowa State back into the national conversation on a more consistent basis.

Back in 2010, when the Hawkeyes won a third-straight NCAA team title, the Cyclones finished third, with a couple of champs. Those guys were left over from after Sanderson left for Penn State, but the next year, Iowa State dropped to 20th. The next year, 35th. After that: 11th, 12th, 14th, 12th, 57th, 45th, 16th, then 13th this season.

Point being, it's been a while since Iowa State has had this big of a reason to be excited. Dresser's done work on the recruiting trail, and the Cyclones will have more talented wrestlers with high upside in Ames soon.

Carr could be something of a force multiplier, the tide that raises all the Iowa State wrestling boats. He has to keep winning, of course, but his title run this past weekend will have an impact. He even said as much in his post-championship Zoom call:

"If anybody wants to be a top guy and train with top guys, come to Iowa State," he said. "I'll be happy to train with you and bring this program back to where it should be, and that's on top."

Time will tell just how far the Cyclones can go and how quickly they'll jump back into true trophy contention. But they are closer than they've been in years, and David Carr's championship could help catapult them to the next level in the years ahead.

On its face, I agree. DeSanto was tremendous last week. Went 5-1 and took third. In his five victories, he outscored his opponents a combined 65-20. He scored 21 total takedowns and allowed three. He scored the most bonus points on the team, and deserved to be in the pictures celebrating with the team on Saturday night.

Then he said something inappropriate toward the NCAA media officials after coming off the mat after finishing third. I don't know what, exactly, he said, but it had to have been pretty bad for Tom Brands to hold him out of the Saturday night festivities.

Two more thoughts on this.

One, DeSanto didn't want to go to the post-match Zoom meeting. I get that. Most athletes didn't but graciously did anyway. The whole Zoom experience has been frustrating for them and for us this season. Personally, I hated it, but if it meant the guys got to wrestle, then whatever, we'll deal with it.

Two, whatever DeSanto said must've been worse than Terry Brands' hot mic tirade against the officials and Michigan coaches during Lee's match against Dylan Ragusin in the quarterfinals at the Big Ten Championships. You guys have probably seen that clip by now, where Terry yelled, among other things, "You don't like tough wrestling."

Even then, I'm not sure that's a full apples to apples comparison, at least based on what we know. Terry may have crossed a line in that tirade, but that it remains up for debate is telling. Whatever DeSanto said clearly did cross a line, enough that Tom Brands consulted with the NCAA Wrestling Committee before doling out punishment.

I'm just reading the tea leaves here, but Brands' decision to punish DeSanto himself may have saved DeSanto from getting kicked from the tournament, which would've saved Iowa from losing all of his team points. He scored 19.5 team points. For reference, winning an NCAA title without any bonus points scores 20.

I agree that it kind of stinks he wasn't out there on Saturday night when the big dance concluded. He deserved to stand on the podium and receive his All-American trophy. He deserved to be on the stage with his teammates celebrating the program's first team title in 11 years. They wouldn't have won it without him.

I would not bet against AJ Ferrari.

He's as unique a character as wrestling has seen in quite some time, with the flexing after victories, and the shooting down his ankle bands, and talking about his deadlift numbers and yoga and flexibility and whatever else on live television.

But all of that overshadows the fact that the guy is a fantastic wrestler. He outscored his opponents 34-7 last weekend, which doesn't sound like a lot, but consider this:

To win, Ferrari beat Iowa's Jacob Warner, who finished fourth; Michigan's Myles Amine, who took third and will wrestle at the Olympics for San Marino; Pittsburgh's Nino Bonaccorsi, who took second; plus South Dakota State's Tanner Sloan, a 2019 Junior world-teamer.

None of them ever came close to scoring a takedown against him.

He's only a true freshman, guys, and he did that against other grown men. That's insane.

Ferrari has positioned himself to possibly win five NCAA titles. He'll be a true freshman again next season. Penn State's Carter Starocci is just a redshirt freshman and will be again next season, too. The read on Starocci is that he's still scratching the surface of his potential, so there could be more titles in his future.

Then there's Carr and Penn State's Aaron Brooks, too, who could both win four. I like Brooks' odds, and have to think Carr will be considered a strong favorite from here on out at every national tournament he goes to. But he's at a weight range that will always have tough wrestlers, like Deakin and NC State's Hayden Hidlay.

But I'll take Ferrari as the most likely to do it. He was spectacular all season, but especially this last week. I am a fan.

No clue. I have both of my ACLs intact. (Mostly. I wrestled a lot from my knees a decade ago, and they pop pretty often whenever I stretch them, so there's probably some damage there.)

But what I can tell you is that tearing my ACL would have my mind elsewhere and unfocused enough to bring you guys the coverage that I did from St. Louis last weekend.

Spencer Lee is not human, is what I'm saying. I tried like heck to convince myself that he was. It proved to be a fool's errand.

Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.