IOWA CITY, Iowa — The next phase of Iowa’s wrestling season will determine whether this season goes down as a success or fuels another round of frustration at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
The No. 3 Hawkeyes won their final five regular-season duals to finish 12-2 overall and 8-1 in Big Ten matchups. Seasons are made in March with the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments, and the Hawkeyes have plenty of competitors who can contend for a national title.
But before the Big Ten Championships on March 4-5, the Hawkeyes compete in a postseason dual meet at No. 24 Edinboro on Saturday night as part of the National Duals lineup. In the second season of a 16-team format, eight Big Ten teams participate at eight other league champions or at-large squads.
The National Duals format has made multiple alterations over the last five years and none of them have turned out right for Iowa. In 2013, Iowa dropped a pair of duals against Minnesota and Missouri in a two-day tournament in Minneapolis. Two years ago, top-ranked Iowa hosted the same National Duals format but were upset by No. 2 Missouri in the finals. Last year, the first year of the current bowl-like structure, No. 4 North Carolina State strolled into Iowa City and knocked off the Hawkeyes, 21-17. There were no National Duals in 2014.
So Iowa coach Tom Brands wants to emphasize the importance of extending the program’s momentum. The dual with Edinboro is another step about taking the right approach toward the postseason. In other words, the last few years’ worth of National Duals defeats in intolerable.
“I could say it’s no big deal, we just stay focused and we just stay on our routine and whatnot,” Brands said. “But you know it’s that time of year when we’ve got to ratchet it up. One of the messages we give them is sometimes we have letdowns this time of year. We got beat by North Carolina State last year. We got beat by Missouri the year before in the National Duals. That’s because of a letdown, and there can be no letdown.”
Edinboro is 8-5 this year and the Eastern Wrestling League champion. Iowa is 7-0 against the Fighting Scots and won the last dual, 22-19, on Dec. 5, 2013.
Iowa’s focus centers more on what comes after the Edinboro dual. The Hawkeyes have eight ranked wrestlers, including five in the top five. Thomas Gilman (23-0) is ranked No. 1 at 125. Michael Kemerer (24-1) is No. 2 at 157. No. 4 Cory Clark (11-2 at 133), No. 4 Brandon Sorensen (22-2 at 149) and No. 5 Sammy Brooks (20-2 at 184) all are returning All-Americans. Clark and Brooks won Big Ten titles last year, as did Gilman. Sorensen finished second in the NCAA tournament at 149. Kemerer, a redshirt freshman, has beaten the No. 3 wrestler twice this year and his only loss was to No. 1 Jason Nolf of Penn State.
But if Iowa challenges Penn State and Ohio State for the Big Ten title, unheralded wrestlers No. 18 Topher Carton (20-6 at 141), No. 11 Alex Meyer (19-5 at 174) and No. 17 Joey Gunther (17-5 at 165) must wrestle past their seeding and score an upset or two. Same with Cash Wilcke (13-8 at 197) and fill-in heavyweight Steven Holloway (6-9).
Carton has wrestled nine ranked wrestlers the last six weeks and has won three of those matches. Sunday, he beat No. 10 Colton McCrystal, 6-4. But don’t expect Brands to rub Carton’s shoulders and become impressed over the competition at 141 pounds.
“(Carton) is definitely making progress, but I’ll say this: Join the crowd,” Brands said. “Everybody is wrestling ranked opponents, and everybody’s got to be ready. This is the time of year where, if you’re in the Big Ten, you’re going to be going against a National Duals opponent now and you’re going to be in the Big Ten Championship. These aren’t situations where you’re going to walk into a tournament and have a round or two to catch your breath. You’ve got to be ready to go.
“Now, that’s why seeing the performance (against Nebraska) is big for (Carton), and it’s big for us to see that progress. He’s been a little bit more consistent, and what I mean by that is being able to score over the seven minutes. That’s the direction we’ve got to be able to keep going. He’s tough. But we’ve got to be consistent going in that direction.”
Kemerer scored a takedown on No. 3 Tyler Berger in the first period and dodged a near takedown with 6.8 seconds left to hold for a 3-2 win. It was a rematch of the Midlands Championships, which Kemerer won in double overtime. It’s possible they could compete two more times this year.
Brands said Kemerer’s improvement is evident.
“(Kemerer) has definitely come a long way,” Brands said. “This is the end of his first year in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. We’ve got another dual meet, we’ve got the Big Tens and nationals, but look at his first dual meet at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on the big stage against Iowa State. Look at the progress. That’s probably a characteristic of this team. That there is progress.”
“It’s weird because it’s just focusing every day on just getting better, so it turns into a gradual thing where it’s maybe you look better than you did earlier in the season,” Kemerer said. “But to me, it’s just every day, it’s just those small gains every day, and it adds up, I guess.”
2017 NWCA Dual Championship Series
Friday, Feb. 17
No. 16 Michigan at No. 7 NC State, 7 p.m. ET/6 p.m. CT
No. 12 Rutgers at No. 11 Lehigh, 7 p.m. ET/6 p.m. CT
Purdue at No. 17 South Dakota State, 8 p.m. ET/7 p.m. CT
Saturday, Feb. 18
No. 3 Iowa at No. 24 Edinboro, 7 p.m. ET/6 p.m.
Sunday, Feb. 19
No. 4 Ohio State at No. 8 Cornell, 1 p.m. ET/noon CT
Indiana at No. 20 Appalachian State, 3 p.m. ET/2 p.m. CT
No. 2 Penn State at No. 1 Oklahoma State, 4 p.m. ET/3 p.m. CT
No. 6 Nebraska at No. 5 Virginia Tech, 7 p.m. ET/6 p.m. CT