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Five takeaways from Iowa wrestling's performance at the U23 freestyle national championships


Five months ago, Patrick Kennedy returned to Iowa City with that unique feeling of frustration and motivation. He had just taken sixth at the Southern Scuffle, a solid performance marred by a couple of overtime losses.

Those losses — 6-4 to West Virginia’s Peyton Hall in the semifinals; then 6-4 again to Appalachian State’s Will Formato in the wrestlebacks, both in sudden victory out of scrambles — helped fuel Kennedy’s continued progress in the Iowa wrestling room.

“Took it personal,” Kennedy said Sunday in an interview with USA Wrestling. “It hurts when you don’t get your hand raised. I don’t like that feeling.”

Kennedy, the Hawkeyes’ star-in-waiting, righted those wrongs this weekend. He won the under-23 men’s freestyle national title at 74 kilograms (163 pounds), and knocked off both Formato and Hall (twice) en route to gold. He thumped Formato, 10-0, in his first match, then beat Hall in the best-of-three finals, 8-3 and 5-0, to seize first.

“Things happened there that shouldn’t have happened,” he continued, referencing the Scuffle results. “So you come in here fired up and ready to wrestle hard.”

Kennedy’s run to first this past weekend in Ohio — he went 7-0 and outscored his opponents 66-12 and registered three wins over All-Americans along the way — was impressive, but it also solidified a couple of things.

First, the 21-year-old has the look and the results to be an immediate contender right away for the Hawkeyes when he steps into the starting lineup at 165 pounds, a fact that Iowa coach Tom Brands has been outwardly excited about.

Two, 165 is shaping up to be one of the deepest weights in the country next season.

Consider: six of the eight All-Americans from the 2022 NCAA Championships are all expected to return next season, including both national finalists, in Missouri’s Keegan O’Toole and Stanford’s Shane Griffith. Additionally, three who made the bloodround at 165 and two more that reached the round-of-16 are also expected to be back.

What’s more, several other new faces are expected to be at 165 next season, too — like Iowa State’s David Carr, an NCAA champ and Junior world champ; Penn State’s Alex Facundo, a two-time age-level world medalist and 2022 U20 world team member; and, of course, Kennedy.

The 2022-23 season is still six months away, but Kennedy’s entry into a weight that’s full of firepower is shaping up to be an intriguing subplot. Both Kennedy and Brands believe he’s more than ready to carve out his own spot in that cluster of competitors.

“He is as advertised,” Brands said of Kennedy — and his performance this weekend more than proved that.

► WRESTLING COVERAGE FROM THE DES MOINES REGISTER

Here are four more takeaways and observations from the U20 world team trials and U23 national championships:

USA Wrestling should tweak its U23 world team qualifying procedures

The U23 national championships also doubled, partially, as the under-23 world team trials qualifier. But in the case of Kennedy, his weight, 74 kilos, was not up for grabs because of USA Wrestling’s new U23 qualifying process. 

In short, USA Wrestling will offer the U23 world team spot first to those on the Senior national team, provided they are U23 eligible. Kyle Dake and Jason Nolf, who are wrestling for the Senior world team spot on Wednesday, are not U23 eligible, but David Carr, who is third on the ladder, is U23 eligible. He plans to take the spot, too.

That stinks for Kennedy, who clearly earned a fair shot by dominating his way to gold over the weekend. His Iowa teammate, Tony Cassioppi, also won a U23 title, and because all the 125-kilo wrestlers on the Senior national team are out of U23 eligibility, Cassioppi’s championship run means he’s on the U23 world team.

Entering the weekend, only a handful of U23 weights decided world team spots while the rest decided national champs. Some still remain in limbo — for example, at 92 kilos (202), Cornell’s Jacob Cardenas won the U23 title, but if NC State’s Isaac Trumble wins his true-third wrestle-off on Wednesday in New York, he gets the U23 world team spot.

A simple wrestle-off clause would solve most of these issues — and it’s a precedent that USA Wrestling previously used, too.

In 2019, Bo Nickal reached Final X, the last leg of the Senior world team process, but lost to J’den Cox at 92 kilos. Oklahoma’s Jakob Woodley won the U23 title at the same weight. Because Nickal was U23 eligible, he requested, and received, a special wrestle-off. Nickal swept Woodley and won a U23 world title that year.

Seems like it would make sense to bring that back.

Plus, who wouldn’t want to see Kennedy and Carr wrestle in a best-of-three series for a world team spot?

Iowa wrestler Abe Assad flashed his All-American potential

Abe Assad has had All-American potential written all over him since he joined the Iowa wrestling program out of Glenbard North High School. It’s why Brands opted to pull Assad from his redshirt during the 2019-20 season.

We saw glimpses of Assad at his best in Ohio.

Assad went 6-1 and took third at 86 kilos (189). He outscored his first four opponents 40-0 in a combined 3 minutes, 12 seconds of match time. He stumbled in the semifinals to Oregon State’s Trent Munoz, but rebounded to win twice more for third — but those final two victories stick out as the most memorable.

Assad beat two high-level Cornell opponents, Chris Foca and Jonathan Loew, to rally for third. Against Foca, an NCAA qualifier, Assad used strong head-and-hands defense for a couple of second-period takedowns and won 8-5. Against Loew, a 2022 All-American, Assad held center and controlled ties to muscle out a 3-1 victory.

Assad produced a mixed bag of results during the 2021-22 season, starting 9-2 but finishing 14-10, which included a seventh-place finish at the Big 10 Championships and a 1-2 showing at the NCAA Championships. It was good to see some of his best stuff again this weekend.

Brennan Swafford is clearly improving

The transition from NAIA wrestling to NCAA’s Division I is always tricky, and Brennan Swafford, who transferred to Iowa from Graceland ahead of last season, is clearly showing he has what it takes to compete at a high level.

Swafford went 7-1 for third at 79 kilos (174) with some pretty good wins along the way: a 10-0 technical fall over Illinois’s Dan Braunagel; two come-from-behind wins over Little Rock’s Tyler Brennan and Michigan’s Max Maylor; and he hung tough in a semifinal loss to Drexel’s Michael O’Malley, who reached the NCAA bloodround this past season.

A year in the Iowa room has made Swafford a better wrestler. His continual growth is both promising and something to keep an eye on even six months away from the ’22-23 season.

Iowa wrestling's lineup battle at 157 pounds will be intriguing to watch

Brands said before the weekend that a handful of guys are in play for Iowa’s starting spot at 157 pounds at this juncture in the offseason.

“With (Max Murin) coming back, we’re going to need a 157-pounder,” Brands said last week. “(Caleb Rathjen) is probably more of a pure 149-pounder … (Bretli Reyna) is more of a natural 157-pounder. We’re going to need guys to step up.”

The one guy he didn’t specifically mention last week, Cobe Siebrecht, made a strong case in Ohio as another guy who could factor into that lineup battle.

Siebrecht went 8-2 overall and took fourth at 70 kilos (154), a performance that included seven consecutive victories in the wrestlebacks after losing in the second round. His run was highlighted by an 18-8 technical fall win over Oklahoma’s Willie McDougald, a Big 12 finalist and NCAA qualifier (at 149, but still).

How this lineup battle unfolds will be another intriguing subplot both ahead of and during the ’22-23 season. The next developments may not come until the fall — again, we're six months out — but Siebrecht made a case this weekend that he’s in the mix, too.

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