By Mike Finn
The Iowa wrestling room in Carver-Hawkeye Arena, which helped the Hawkeyes win 16 of the school’s 23 all-time NCAA team championships — including the last three — since it was built in 1983, is not available for Tom Brands’ squad this year.
With the room part of the arena’s multi-million dollar facelift, the 2010-11 Hawkeyes are training this season in the nearby Iowa Fieldhouse. But Matt McDonough got a chance to create his own form of training in the wrestling room that had more bricks than mats laying in it this preseason … when he took a sledgehammer and pounded on a large tire in the room where he trained last season to earn his first NCAA title at 125 pounds.
The moment was actually staged by the Iowa sports promotion staff, which used the image on the school’s wrestling poster this season. But it doesn’t take much for those who follow the Hawkeyes to see the reason for the tire-pounding.
For like the Iowa wrestling room, the Hawkeyes — according to many — are also rebuilding this season. Nine of the ten weight classes must be filled by new wrestlers this season, including at seven weights where 2010 All-Americans have graduated from last year’s team. Returning starters account for just 44 of the 134.5 points the Hawkeyes scored last March in Omaha.
But don’t dare put Brands among those who might actually say Iowa is rebuilding.
“Oh no,” Brands said before suggesting his interpretation. “That’s laying down the hammer. That (poster image) can mean anything you want it to mean.”
“You can make it whatever you want; putting the hammer down on guys, intensity, a little bit of pain, a little bit of pride. That person could be anyone on this team,” said McDonough, who returns for his sophomore season as the top-ranked 125-pounder on a team that has just two seniors — Jake Kerr (165) and Luke Lofthouse (197) — in the starting line-up with a combined 51-57 career mark between the two Hawkeyes.
The rest of the squad are all underclassmen and only two early-season starters — 184-pound sophomore Grant Gambrall (15-5 in 2010) and heavyweight Blake Raising (9-9) had any varsity experience before this year. Four of the starters are redshirt freshmen in Nick Trizzino (133), Dylan Carew (149), Derek St. John (157) and Ethan Lofthouse (174), the brother of Luke.
That inexperience means little to McDonough.
“People think when you are young, you don’t know all the ways of the trade,” McDonough said. “What people don’t realize is that we’ve been doing this since we could walk. Realistically, we are not young. There are a lot of guys who know how to get things done. They know how to compete and know how to wrestle the Hawkeye way.”
Brands isn’t ready to predict an outcome for these much-younger Hawkeyes, but won’t settle for less … whether you want to call them expectations or not.
“I’m not sure we’ve ever had expectations,” said Brands, who is in his fifth year since returning to his alma mater in 2006. “I know what guys are capable of and now we have to see them in tough situations. We have to see them rise in adversity. When you face adversity, you are going to be defined in how you handle it.”
One of Iowa’s first tests this season is scheduled for Dec. 3 in Iowa City, where the Hawkeyes meet an Iowa State Cyclone group that faces as many questions about experience as Iowa. Only Jon Reader, a senior who is moving up to 174 after collecting two All-American honors (2008 and 2009) at 165, is the only Cyclone with any significant experience.
Gone are three All-Americans from last year’s third-place team in Omaha, including 2010 national champions Jake Varner (197) and David Zabriskie (HWT), who were part of a team that saw the Cyclones finish in the top five in each of the last four seasons.
That left second-year head coach Kevin Jackson with a team that has just 22 of last year’s 75 NCAA points and two other seniors but one is a transfer (141-pound Chris Drouin from Arizona State) and Nate Carr (the son of Iowa State’s three-time NCAA champion who had the same first name) was just 21-11 in two previous seasons with ISU.
Among the other starters are two redshirt freshmen — Trent Weatherman (157) and Cole Shafer (184) — and one true freshman (Brandon Jones) at 133.
And yet Jackson, whose team is 4-0 before the Iowa dual — with wins over Virginia Tech, Kent State and Old Dominion — will not lower his expectations of this year’s team.
“At a program like Iowa State, you can’t afford to rebuild. I see the positives and the opportunities in any team,” said Jackson, a former All-American from ISU. “Realistically, to win an NCAA (team) championship, you have to get six All-Americans in the top four. Do I feel that we have six guys on our team that can get in the top four? I do.
“My expectations of winning a team championship do not change. But when you look at the big picture and the youth and the inexperience, it does cost you some sleepless nights.”
Neither Brands nor Jackson, whose current teams are ranked outside the top ten in WIN’s Tournament Power Index (TPI), want to see their programs have a year like Oklahoma State did in 2009. Three years after the Cowboys won four straight titles and an NCAA-record 34th team championship in 2006 they finished in a program-low 16th place.
Both Iowa and ISU are in this position this season after bringing in separate talented classes that eventually finished their careers. That included Brands who brought two — 149-pound Brent Metcalf, the 2009 Hodge Trophy winner, and Jay Borschel (174) — of last year’s All-Americans with him when he left Virginia Tech.
“You play with what you are dealt and you deal with it,” said Brands, who learned Nov. 30 that Dylan Carew would miss the rest the season after suffering a knee injury after a 2-0 start.
Brands believes this young group is coachable, open-minded and experienced after training with national champions in the room.
“Ethen Lofthouse trained with Borschel,” said Brands, whose recruiting class was ranked No. 1 nationally in 2009. “He knows what it’s like to get ridden hard against the best guy in the country and there hadn’t been a rider like him in a long, long time.
“The key is keeping them motivated, keeping their eyes on the future. They are going to get their turn and it may be sooner than later. Who knows what’s going to happen. If a guy goes down, who knows who will step in?”
Jackson has had less time to prepare for the eventual departure of stars like Varner, a three-time finalist and two-time champ.
“Ideally, what you want to do is bring a freshman in and redshirt him,” Jackson said. “And then the next year when he competes, he may not be able to beat the starter out but we want him getting competition behind a guy who is nationally ranked.
“Hopefully by his redshirt sophomore year, the starter leaves and he is ready to step in and replace that starter with the mentality and experience to win a national championship. That is the ideal program that you want to see.”
Jackson believed the Iowa dual would tell him a lot about his team’s potential but said nothing is certain until March when the NCAAs are held in Philadelphia.
“I won’t know that until March,” he said, “but I feel that we are better than what we have been predicted.” n