IOWA CITY, Iowa — Few wrestlers at the NCAA Tournament this weekend have more experience under the brightest spotlight than Iowa’s Cory Clark.
The senior 133-pound national qualifier twice previously battled for an NCAA title only to finish second both times. He won a Big Ten title last year but allowed an escape with 1 second left a week ago to keep him from another. He’s a three-time All-American but never has won a national title.
This is his last chance, and as the No. 4 overall seed in a stacked weight class, he’ll have that opportunity.
“Right now I think I’m in a good spot to do what I’ve been wanting to do this whole year, [which] is win the national championship,” Clark said. “I’ve had some tough losses, and I’ve had to take time off. The crazy thing about that is I feel like I’m right there ready to win a national championship.”
It’s been an unconventional senior year for Clark. He injured his left shoulder and sat out December. Clark returned in January, but coach Tom Brands kept Clark off the mat in a few Big Ten duals, which Brands called “preventative.” Clark lost three matches, all of which were decided in the final seconds.
But Clark of Pleasant Hill, Iowa, also has 93 career victories and three top-5 finishes at the NCAA Tournament. Another placing at nationals would make Clark the 19th four-time All-American in program history. He’s a veteran, he’s savvy and mentally he’s in a good place. He feels no pressure entering his final week as an Iowa wrestler.
“I think maybe not even a sense of urgency, but one thing I’ve gotten better at is keeping my cool and staying calm,” Clark said. “I’m anxious to wrestle. But I’ve gotten better at keeping my cool and not getting worked up. I think when you’re younger, I used to warm up and then when my warmup was over, up until I wrestled, I would just be moving, pacing, just ‘rahhhh,’ ready to wrestle. Now I’ve gotten good at getting warmed up and relaxing and knowing and trusting that my body is ready to go and that I can go the full 7 minutes, and therefore I can relax and get my mind to its best spot to wrestle my best.”
That’s an advantage for Clark, especially after his 5-4 loss to top-ranked Nathan Tomasello of Ohio State in the Big Ten finals on March 5. Clark was docked a point and trailed 4-1 during the match but still rallied to tie with a late takedown. Then with 1 second left, Tomasello slipped away for the escape to pull out the win.
For fragile wrestlers, such a loss would be mentally crushing. Clark reviewed video from the match to eye areas of improvement but then moved on. He’s more focused on the upcoming tournament than replaying the hypotheticals from his Big Ten title loss.
“It was frustrating, but I had to get over it quick and move forward,” Clark said. “I’m excited to come to this tournament where there’s a good chance I’ll meet up with [Tomasello] again. I’m not really looking ahead, but if I get that opportunity, that would be great. So who knows?”
For Clark, it’s about wrestling his match rather than competing from negative positions, Brands said.
“I think that if you ask him, this is his best time of [the] year,” Brands said. “He’s a serious customer, but we also have to be ready to go every match. That’s the biggest thing.
“The Big Tens, he was a Big Ten champ a year ago, and this year he wasn’t. I don’t know that that affects him going into this tournament. He’s not one of those guys where he dwells on things. He’s a guy, he needs reassurance, maybe just a little nod or something, but he’s good to go. He’s ready.”
— Scott Dochterman (@ScottDochterman) March 14, 2017
Clark’s side of the bracket is fierce. He’s likely to face Michigan’s Stevan Micic in a quarterfinal match. They met previously this season, with Clark winning 2-0. Then top-ranked Tomasello is a potential semifinal opponent. Should Clark advance to the finals, he could face Nebraska’s Eric Montoya or Oklahoma State’s Kaid Brock, both of whom narrowly defeated the Iowa wrestler earlier in duals. South Dakota State’s No. 2-ranked Seth Gross (30-1), who started his career at Iowa, also could await Clark.
Still, Clark’s experience and toughness make him dangerous. He’s the one wrestler at 133 nobody will overlook.
“If Cory Clark comes out on top of the national tournament, it’s going to be well-earned, let’s just say that,” said former Iowa two-time national champion Mark Ironside, who serves as the school’s radio analyst on the television show On Iowa Live.
“He’s right there. Honestly, I’m extremely, extremely confident, very confident in a guy like Cory Clark.”