IOWA CITY, Iowa — In one short week, freshman wrestler Spencer Lee has built Iowa from unlikely NCAA contender to potential challenger for runner-up status.
Now, the 2018 NCAA trophy already should have “Penn State” engraved on it for the seventh time in eight years. Iowa — along with everybody else — is at least a year from battling the Nittany Lions for that distinction. But before Lee took the mat, the No. 7 Hawkeyes (8-0) were in also-ran territory. Now? We may know by the end of their dual Sunday against No. 3 Oklahoma State (6-0) whether the Hawkeyes are with the Cowboys, Ohio State and Missouri in that next tier.
Lee (1-0) was the nation’s top recruit in the Class of 2017 and won three straight Pennsylvania state titles his first three seasons of high school wrestling. Despite tearing an ACL last January, Lee still competed in the state wrestling tournament as a senior. He lost his only career prep match in the state finals.
On the international stage, Lee was a two-time junior world champion and was a Cadet world champion. After one match as a Hawkeyes wrestler, Lee has vaulted into the 125-pound rankings at No. 9.
As much as Lee has energized the Hawkeyes in competitions, he’s just as important to the team in practice, coach Tom Brands said.
“[Tuesday] he had a workout with a live go with a guy for an hour and 15 minutes or whatever it was, and then spent another 20 minutes to a half hour with a guy coaching him and helping him,” Brands said. “That’s the kind of teammate that you want. That’s the kind of teammates that I had, that I remember and have the fondest memories. Teammates that are mentors. When they whipped my butt, they helped me.
“So he’s cut from the same cloth as a guy like [Thomas] Gilman and [Sammy] Brooks. I talked about that a lot last year. Instead of having a guy maturing into that role, you have a guy coming in to that role.”
At a place like Iowa, where wrestling rates as a high-profile sport, that kind of attention on a young athlete could develop into pressure. Lee doesn’t see it that way.
“You can’t really let that overwhelm you,” Lee said. “You just have to wrestle every match and focus on one match at a time, and I’m here to help the team improve and the team’s helping me improve. We have a great environment. I couldn’t ask for better teammates or better coaches.”
That said, Lee does provide Iowa with a jolt at the top of the lineup. Last week he used a fireman’s carry to pin Michigan State’s Rayvon Foley in 46 seconds. That’s the fastest fall by an Iowa wrestler this season.
Lee’s energy is contagious. Sophomore 133-pound wrestler Paul Glynn said Lee’s victory helped propel him to a pin in his match.
“Going out there and hearing that crowd roar after he got that first pin of his, it was freaking awesome,” Glynn said. “It pumped me up for my match. But I have to stay calm a little bit because I got a little too pumped up there after he pinned that guy.
“It’s awesome having Spencer be that little spark plug right off the gate.”
The Hawkeyes have four other wrestlers rated in the top five nationally. Senior Brandon Sorensen (13-0) and sophomore Michael Kemerer (14-0) are both ranked second at 149 and 157 pounds, respectively. Junior heavyweight Sam Stoll, who missed most of last season after knee surgery, is 11-0 and ranked third. At 197 pounds, sophomore Cash Wilcke (13-0) is ranked fifth.
Freshman Alex Marinelli (165 pounds), who carries a similar stature to Lee, is ranked No. 11 and 7-0.
If Lee can meet expectations and if his teammates compete to at least their rankings, there’s no reason why the Hawkeyes can’t contend for second nationally this season. Although that’s never palatable at Iowa, it does show the program is well-positioned in future years.
As for this season, Brands likes his chances with Lee in the lineup both in duals and in future tournaments.
“He impacts our whole team because he’s a natural catalyst,” Brands said. “Because of how he wrestles, because of his energy, because of his personality.
“He’s selfish in the right ways, but he’s also not selfish in the wrong ways. He’s very team oriented.”