Two years ago, the University of Iowa wrestling team looked like it was back.
The Hawkeyes had won three straight NCAA Championships and was re-establishing a dynasty which started in the mid-1970s under former coach Dan Gable.
Then along came Penn State, which exposed a chink in the Hawkeyes’ armor and walked away with the team title last year.
Iowa, which finished third behind Penn State and Minnesota at the Big Ten Championships two weeks ago, has a chance to reach the pinnacle again this week at the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, which begin today and conclude Saturday at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.
For Iowa, which has eight qualifiers and has five wrestlers seeded higher than any other team, its chances boil down to bonus points. The Hawkeyes need to not only win, they need to do so decisively.
“We have to be tough in tough situations and we have to score points for seven minutes,” said Iowa coach Tom Brands. “It’s very simple – we have to get bonus points when we can pick them up. We have a group of guys who can do that. But we have to be consistent doing it.”
That starts with Matt McDonough, a national champion two years ago and a runner-up last year. McDonough comes in ranked No. 1 at 125 pounds.
“You take it one step at a time. There are goals and there are ultimate goals. The ultimate goal is going undefeated and winning four national titles, winning Olympic titles. But you have to set goals one at a time,” McDonough said.
“Halfway through his true freshman year you started to see a work ethic that was going to shape how he was going to develop. It wasn’t automatic. Everything he’s done he’s worked for,” Brands said.
Tony Ramos (133 pounds) and Montell Marion (141) are the three seeds at their respective weights, Derek St. John is No. 2 at 157. Mike Evans (165) and Ethen Lofthouse (174) are five seeds, as is heavyweight Bobby Telford. Grant Gambrall is unseeded.
In order to contend with Penn State, Minnesota, Oklahoma State and Cornell for the team crown, the Hawkeyes will not only have to wrestle to their seeds or better, they will have to score bonus points.
“We weren’t going to win the Big Ten Tournament by wrestling to our seeds. The way you look at it, we were close if we’re wrestling to our seeds and exceeded some,” Brands said. “The thing is you have to slam the door on opponents with big wins, with pins, with bonus points. We didn’t do that enough.”
While Iowa is hoping to be in the chase for the title, Iowa State and Northern Iowa are looking for a measure of respectability and a step toward the future.
Iowa State, which was hampered by injuries most of the season, brings five wrestlers to St. Louis.
Leading the way for the Cyclones is Andrew Sorenson, the No. 3 seed at 165 with a 26-2 record.
Joining Sorenson are heavyweight Matt Gibson, Ryak Finch (125), Luke Goettl (141) and Boaz Beard (184).
Chris Spangler (174) also qualified, but withdrew because of lingering affects from a concussion.
Iowa State, which has crowned national champions each of the last three years, will look to improve on last year’s 20th-place showing in the team race.
“It’s been a challenge for me and my staff this year, but we’re trying to stay focused on what is ahead, not what is behind. It’s easy to feel sorry for yourself,” Iowa State coach Kevin Jackson said. “As a coach, you always want to see your guys wrestle to their potential.”
Northern Iowa also brings five wrestlers – Joe Colon (133), Levi Wolfensperger (141), David Bonin (157), Ryan Loder (184) and heavyweight Blayne Beale.
Leading the way for the Panthers are Bonin and Loder, both national qualifiers last year.
Colon, seeded fifth, has been on a tear. He beat then top-ranked Devin Carter of Virginia Tech 13-3 at National Duals and has won 18 straight matches.
“I like how he’s competing. He’s scoring a lot of points and being very aggressive,” UNI coach Doug Schwab said. “I would put him up against anybody right now. He’s going to give you a dogfight for seven minutes.”
For the Panthers, the future is now. They want to put themselves in the talk as one of the nation’s elite.
“This is what we’ve talked about all season. We are halfway there. We got five guys through and we wanted 10,” Schwab said. “Those guys have to understand that we want to do it right now. We don’t want to wait until next year. If we want to continue to be a program on the upswing, we need to show it in St. Louis.”