By Richard Podhajsky
MOUNT VERNON, Iowa – The Iowa wrestling team held its annual media day in an unusual place on Wednesday. Then again, the team has been in an unusual place for nearly a decade – watching another team's dynasty.
This season marks 10 years since the last team national title for the Hawkeyes, who in that time have seen Penn State win eight of nine NCAA titles, with the other going to another Big Ten foe in Ohio State.
However, expectations remain high, with preseason rankings placing Iowa second behind the Nittany Lions.
But contrary to previous seasons, the Hawkeyes aren't ready to make predictions about how they're going to overcome the not-so-new kid on the block.
"I didn't say that (we've closed the gap on Penn State)," head coach Tom Brands said during his media day news conference, which was held at Kroul Farms in southern Linn County. "I think that we have the guys that are putting the work in every day. I'm not going to compare ourselves like every other year."
The Hawkeyes should again be in competition for that top spot, featuring a lineup with six returning All-Americans from 2019, including two-time 125-pound NCAA champion Spencer Lee, plus former All-American Michael Kemerer, who missed last season with a knee injury.
Of course, they've had similarly powerful lineups over the last nine seasons and still come up short when the tournament comes around.
"We've been trying to win a national title every year," Lee said. "I mean there's no magic answer. There really isn't. I think we could've won any of these years but Penn State and Ohio State have had great teams. We just didn't capitolize or maybe things didn't go right. It doesn't matter. All that matters is at the end of the day believing in yourself and doing what you can do. I mean, I can only win one national title, I can't win ten, and I can only score so many points. So each individual has to do their part."
While Brands and the wrestlers acknowledged more work needs to be done to achieve that goal, they're also fully embracing a role which has been a long-time in the making as the hunter, not the hunted.
"Penn State's definitely motivation," Alex Marinelli, a two-time All-American at 157 pounds, said. "We hate seeing other people win. It's a proven fact. So, Okie State, Ohio State, everyone that's contending, we're wanting to prove to them that we should be at the top of the stand at every single weight class."
While they haven't done that or even come close – the last time they had multiple individual champions was the last time they won a team title in 2010 – the program hasn't exactly crashed, finishing with at least four All-Americans and never worse than fifth as a team in that span. So the wrestlers aren't shying away from fans' continued expectations for yearly titles.
"I think it's fair," Kemerer said. "We knew when we were coming here and when I signed that commitment to be a Hawkeye, I knew that the expectation is to win a national title every year. When I signed we hadn't won in a couple of years and I was like, 'Hey, I want to be on that team that brings that title back to Iowa City.' So I think it's definitely fair."
One potential complicating factor for Iowa's aims at a national title this season will be the role Lee takes on the team. While many wrestlers are taking a redshirt season this year to train for the 2020 Olympics, Lee plans to try to balance both, training for that team while also competing for Iowa.
"My goal has always been an Olympic gold medal," Lee said, adding without hesitation making that team is more important than a third NCAA title. "National titles are great and all but I'd take a gold medal over any of my national titles any day. That's not even a decision or even close to a tough decision."
Brands said Wednesday Lee will definitely miss some duals while he competes internationally, potentially creating an opening for redshirt freshmen Aaron Cashman or Gavin Teasdale, who hasn't wrestled in two years while dealing with off-mat "demons" and taking a circuitous route to Iowa's room.
No matter who is in the lineup, the team knows two things – they want to win a national title and they're going to have to go through Penn State to do it.
"I don't look at it as frustrating, I look at it as a great challenge," Brands said. "They are a worthy opponent. So, it's not frustrating, it's a challenge."
Meanwhile, they're also getting used to being in places they didn't expect to be.
"It's interesting but I like it, though," All-American sophomore 197-pounder Jacob Warner said of the rural media day setting. "I don't see any other wrestling program doing it. And it's fun, we're having a good time. It's cold but it's alright. I think we could do something like this again."