By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Psychic powers weren’t needed to know exactly what narrative Tom Brands would push at Iowa wrestling media day on Wednesday.
It went something like this:
Enough with looking back at Iowa’s long-awaited return to wrestling supremacy.
Enough with patting us on the back for doing what no Iowa team had done since 2010, which is win a national title, as crazy as that sounds.
Enough with assuming this is the start of another dynasty.
Enough with living in the past with the threats from the present looming.
Iowa’s climb back to the top of the mountain was a grueling and humbling decade-long quest, and something to cherish forever.
But it was just one season, and hardly enough proof to say that Penn State’s dynasty is over.
Last season marked just the second time in the past decade that Penn State didn’t win the national title.
Iowa held on to win despite only having one individual national champion, while Penn State had four.
The Nittany Lions without question gained momentum heading into the offseason, but Iowa still has the distinction of being on top, a place it used to be on a regular basis in the 1980s and 1990s.
“My opening statement would be that we have work to do,” Tom Brands said. “This is a place where wrestling is important. It is understood by our fans, our administration, our coaching staff, and most importantly, it is understood by those guys on the roster right there, and because they know how important it is and because it’s important in their lives, they know we’ve got work to do. And we’ve got work to do. And there is no automatic.”
Spencer Lee won Iowa’s only individual national title last season as he dominated his competition at 125 pounds despite having a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
Lee kept his injury a secret until moments after winning his third national title.
Lee was proud of what he accomplished last season, and his incredible performance helped to add to his growing legend. But Lee didn’t spend much time celebrating or looking back because that’s just not how he operates.
All that matters to Lee now is conquering the next challenge, which for him is becoming Iowa’s first four-time national champion, and winning another team title.
“We celebrated as much as we needed to celebrate, but I think you should move forward as you need to move forward,” Lee said Wednesday. “For me, as soon as we won, that was it.
“Not everyone got what they wanted and it’s time to keep working. You take some time and enjoy it and go to the football game and get recognized. But at the end of the day, we need ten champs. That’s when we’d be the happiest.”
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Lee was referring to when he was recognized at an Iowa football game this season for winning the Dan Hodge Trophy, which goes to the most outstanding college wrestler.
The Murrysville, Pennsylvania native has won the award two times, but that hardly means that Lee or his head coach are satisfied.
Brands was asked Wednesday about having gone from being a predator in search of a national title to now having a target on the back.
His answer was predictable, and vintage Tom Brands.
“If you’re not a predator in this sport all the time, if you’re not hungry for more and you’re complacent, it’s probably time to take your shoes off at center mat and kiss the mat goodbye,” Brands said. “I want to say that we operate the same — we try to win a national title every year. You have to continue to earn it. The riches that you have earned will only grow — and I’m not talking about material riches, I’m talking about all riches.
“You know, thinking bigger. Like why not win two Sullivans and three Hodges? That’s not calling Spencer out. I think he’s thinking that way, and I know he’s thinking that way. I’m not singling him out, but that’s how you’ve got to think. And when you’re a predator, you don’t think about, oh, there’s a target on our back now. You’re still on the prowl.”
Iowa returns all 10 starters from last season, including seventh-year senior Michael Kemerer, who finished runner-up at 174 pounds last season, and sixth-year senior Alex Marinelli, who won a Big Ten title at 165 pounds, but was upset at the national tournament.
The veterans could’ve easily moved on, but it’s not easy giving up something you love, especially when you have unfinished business, as is the case with Kemerer, Marinelli and Jayden Eierman, who finished runner-up at 141 pounds.
“That extra layer of motivation, that’s what you want at the end of the year, being on top of that stand,” Kemerer said. “So, to have the chance to come back and finish on top at the end of the year, you can’t ask for much more.”
Kemerer believes that just being an Iowa wrestler is enough to have a target on your back.
“We always have those high goals and we’re always kind of looking forward,” Kemerer said. “We might have a target on your back. But it’s kind of like a race, you’re not turning around and looking back, you’re looking forward.
“So, I think being aware of it and I think any time you put on the Iowa singlet there’s a target on your back and this just adds another level to it. But we’re very forward looking and looking at being the best in the world.”
The way in which the 2021 NCAA Championships ended with Lee as Iowa’s only individual champion has lit a fire heading into this season because nine of Iowa’s 10 wrestlers failed to achieve their goal.
“It’s an individual sport at the end of the day and we all want to be national champions,” Kemerer said. “So, nine weights we weren’t national champions. “That’s something that fuels us. We want to be up there on that top stand, and it starts with our preparation in the room and going out there and getting better.”
Marinelli said it was a “very, very easy decision to come back for that sixth year.” He still hasn’t won an individual national title, and this is his last chance to achieve that elusive milestone.
“I haven’t accomplished what I needed to do,” Marinelli said. “So, I think I would regret not coming back and giving myself that chance.”
Iowa’s climb back to the top has certainly motivated an already devoted fan base as it was announced Wednesday that 11,600 season tickets had been sold.
Iowa competed in arenas that were mostly empty last season due to the global pandemic.
Lee was asked Wednesday what excites him the most about this coming season.
“Fans in Carver,” he said of Carver-Hawkeye Arena. “I think it was hard coming into Carver and not really being nervous as much as usual because it’s a little different when people are cheering and loud.”
Iowa will begin its quest for a second consecutive national title when it faces Princeton on Nov. 19 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
It’ll be a drastic change from last season, which didn’t start until January due to the pandemic.
“This season is different, and I’ve had some pointed conversations with some of these veterans over here that are pretty credentialed in that this is not like last year,” Tom Brands said. “You do not have until January 10th to get ready to step on the mat. We’re going early November in an intersquad. We’re going middle of November with a dual meet right here in Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“You’ve got to speed things up in your head. Weight control, those types of disciplined things, getting your doggone academics in order and keeping them in order. You don’t have maybe as much time because we will travel and so on and so forth, and those things that come in that can be distractions if you’re not managing them. You’ve got to have that foresight that it is a different year.”