By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – For more than two decades, I have ranked the top 10 University of Iowa male student-athletes on an annual basis for each sports calendar year.
Iowa’s 2017-18 sports calendar year ended this weekend with the completion of the NCAA Track and Field Championships, so I figured why wait.
It wasn’t easy trimming the list to just 10 when I started compiling it in the mid-1990s and nothing has changed.
And then equally as difficult, or maybe even more difficult, is ranking the list from one to 10 and then picking somebody to top the list.
Picking the top spot was more difficult than usual this year because there were some unusual candidates, and I mean that in a good way, including true freshman wrestler Spencer Lee, who went from being a redshirt candidate at the start of the season in order to allow more time for his surgically-repaired knee to heal to an NCAA champion at 125 pounds by the end of the season.
Under normal circumstances, putting Lee on top would be a no-brainer because he was arguably the most impressive wrestler at the NCAA Championships in any weight class as a true freshman.
But the circumstances weren’t normal this season, not with junior cornerback Josh Jackson and senior linebacker Josey Jewell accomplishing what they did in football as unanimous first-team All-America selections.
You name an All-America team and they both were on it.
You could make a strong case for any of the three, but I ultimately picked Lee for the top spot by the slimmest margin over Jackson because of Lee’s dominance at the NCAA Championships and because of the circumstances surrounding his dominance, namely his youth and having to overcome a serious knee injury.
It wasn’t easy finishing the list, either, as I kept trying to figure a way to put All-Big Ten pitcher Nick Allgeyer on it. But I couldn’t bring myself to remove any of the 10 from the list.
Sophomore tight end Noah Fant would seem to be the most at risk of being replaced since he occupies the 10th and final spot and only made third-team All-Big Ten. But we’re talking about a true sophomore who caught more touchdown passes than any tight end in school history.
This year's list:
1. Spencer Lee, Fr., wrestling – The Murrysville, Pa., native plowed through the championship bracket, scoring 27 team points via two technical falls, two pins, and a 5-1 decision in the NCAA finals against previously undefeated Nick Suriano of Rutgers.
Lee joined the Iowa lineup Jan. 5 and finished his freshman season with a 22-2 overall record. He led the Hawkeyes with eight technical falls, ranked third with nine pins, and was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
2. Josh Jackson, Jr., football – His stunning rise from reserve cornerback in 2016 to unanimous first-team All-American this past season was similar to what Brad Banks did as a quarterback for Iowa in 2001 and 2002 when he went from being the backup to Heisman Trophy runner-up in back-to-back seasons.
A native of Corinth, Tex., Jackson tied Iowa’s single-season record with eight interceptions, including two pick-sixes in the 38-14 loss at Wisconsin. He also had a team-best 18 pass break-ups and made an incredible one-handed interception in the 55-24 victory over Ohio State that will forever be a Kodak moment highlighting his greatness.Jackson had three interceptions against the Buckeyes.
Jackson was one of three semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, which goes to the nation’s top collegiate defensive back. He then decided to skip his senior to enter the NFL Draft where he was selected in the second round by the Green Bay Packers.
3. Josey Jewell, Sr., football – The Decorah native now ranks as one of the greatest linebackers in program history, thanks to a dominant senior season in which he led the team with 134 tackles and with 13 ½ tackles for loss. He also finished second on team behind Jackson with 11 pass break-ups and had 4 ½ sacks and two interceptions.
But Jewell’s impact goes way beyond just statistics. He was also the first three-time captain under Kirk Ferentz and the unquestioned leader of the team, mostly by example.
I could've easily put Jewell ahead of Jackson, but gave Josh a slight advantage just because of how far he came in one season.
Jewell was selected by the Denver Broncos in the fourth round of the 2018 NFL Draft and has earned praise since joining the organization this spring.
4. Tyler Cropley, Sr., baseball – He only played for two seasons at Iowa after coming from junior college, but that was enough time to become one of the top catchers in program history.
The former Sioux City Heelan standout was named second-team All-America and first-team All-Big Ten as a senior after leading Iowa with a .342 batting average, 50 RBI and 20 doubles.
Cropley also shined on defense, helped at times in the outfield and used his unusual speed and quickness for a catcher to excel as a base runner.
He was recently rewarded for his senior season when the Washington Nationals selected him in the eighth round of the Major League Baseball Draft.
5. Robert Neustrom, Jr., baseball – The Sioux City native earned first-team All-Big Ten honors as a junior after hitting .311 with 15 doubles and 11 home runs, ranking in the top 10 in the Big Ten in both categories. Iowa's starting right fielder tied for the team-lead with 43 runs and drove in 36. He had 19 multi-hit and nine multi-RBI games.
The junior year performance came a season after Neustrom earned second-team All-Big Ten honors as a sophomore after hitting .310 with 55 RBIs.
Neustrom was also the first of five Iowa players selected in the 2018 draft with the Baltimore Orioles taking him in the fifth round.
6. Mar’yea Harris, Sr., track and field – A native of Long Beach, Calif., Harris won the 400-meter dash at the Big Ten Championships in May and then finished fourth in that event at the NCAA Championships this past weekend.
His time of 44.98 seconds at the Big Ten Championships broke e 25-year school record that was previously held by Anthuan Maybank.
Harris also ran the anchor leg for Iowa’s 4×400 relay squad that finished first at the Big Ten Championships for the first time in 19 years.
7. Akrum Wadley, Sr., football – The Newark, N.J., native went out in style by being named the Most Valuable Player at the 2017 Pinstripe Bowl.
Wadley earned the award after compiling 283 all-purpose yards during Iowa’s 27-20 victory over Boston College.
The game was played at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, which is about 30 miles from where Wadley grew up in New Jersey.
Wadley surpassed the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the second consecutive season as a senior, becoming the fourth Hawkeye to accomplish the feat. His 1,021 yards rank fifth in the Big Ten and his career total of 2,784 yards ranks fifth at Iowa.
Wadley was named third-team All-Big Ten by both the coaches and the media.
8. Sean Welsh, Sr., football – There are no statistics to support this ranking, but Welsh’s impact as an offensive lineman goes far beyond numbers.
He was the heart and soul of the Iowa offensive line, a quiet and versatile team leader who was named first-team All-Big Ten by the media and second-team by the coaches.
A native of Springboro, Ohio, Welsh showed his courage by speaking publicly last summer about his struggle with depression. He wanted to share his story in order to help others.
Welsh was dependable, versatile and consistent as a Hawkeye. He started 48 games, played both guard and tackle and also practiced at center.
Welsh had signed as a free agent with the Washington Redskins after not being selected in the 2018 NFL Draft, but then announced shortly after the draft that he would retire from football.
9. Alex Schaake, Soph., golf – The Omaha, Neb., native made first-team All-Big Ten and finished with an 18-hole average of 71.88, which is the fourth lowest average for an Iowa golfer since the 1991-92 season. He also finished tied for 24th at the NCAA Regionals and carded 13 rounds at or below par with four top-10 finishes, both of which led the team.
10. Noah Fant, soph., football – He joins Schaake as the second Omaha native to make the list. And they join Spencer Lee as three underclassmen to make the list.
Fant set the UI single-season record for touchdown receptions by a tight end with 11 on just 30 receptions. He also tied for first in the Big Ten in that category. Fant recorded a season high in receiving yards against Nebraska, tallying 116 and two touchdowns, including a career high 68-yard reception. He totaled 28 receptions and 486 receiving yards for the season.
Fant was named third-team all-Big ten by both the coaches and media.
Honorable mention: Nick Allgeyer, baseball; Reno Tuufuli, track and field; Michael Kemerer, wrestling; Brandon Sorensen, wrestling; Sam Stoll, wrestling; Alex Marinelli, wrestling; Jordan Bohannon, basketball; Tyler Cook, basketball; Nathan Mylenek, cross country; Kareem Allaf, tennis; Nate Stanley, football; Anthony Nelson, football; Chris Whelan, baseball.