Commentary: Wrestling proves to be a contender

BY J.T. BUGOS | FEBRUARY 01, 2011 7:10 AM

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This wasn’t supposed to be a rebuilding year for Iowa wrestling, but it felt like one. Eight starters were gone — seven of whom were All-Americans.

Two-time national champion at 149 Brent Metcalf? Buh-bye.

National champion at 174 Jay Borschel? Sayonara.

National runner-up at 133 Daniel Dennis? Adiós.

Instead of those experienced seniors, redshirt freshmen and sophomores were plugged into the lineup. The Hawkeyes still had “firepower in the stable” as head coach Tom Brands said at the end of last season, but Iowa was no longer a cut above.

Through the Northern Iowa dual on Dec. 9, 2010, though, the Hawkeyes had steamrollered opponents. The only “blip” on the radar was a 22-13 handling of Iowa State, Iowa’s closest match to date.

But then the Hawkeye grapplers finished fourth at the Midlands Championships; they had won the event the past three years. They tied with Oklahoma State on Jan. 16, ending their 69-match winning streak.

Two weeks — and two blowout wins over Ohio State and Northwestern — later, Iowa traveled to top-ranked Penn State. Cael Sanderson’s squad looked like Iowa teams of the past couple years, albeit without the experience. The Nittany Lions featured seven wrestlers ranked in the top six in their weight class.

Iowa certainly had a chance — any Brands-coached team does — but the general consensus was that Penn State had too much firepower and the Hawkeyes would fall just short.

That wasn’t unfair to think. The Nittany Lion’s closest victory to that date was a 21-17 victory over Lehigh — a squad that beat then-No. 1 Cornell on Jan. 20. Other than that, Sanderson and Company had been demolishing all who stepped on the mat with them.

But then Iowa arrived in State College, Pa., and showed why the program has won the past three national championships.

One hundred twenty-five-pounder Matt McDonough set the tone with a pin, and Tony Ramos followed with an upset over No. 5 Andrew Long — last year’s runner-up to McDonough at 125.

Montell Marion scored another upset in his return to the mat, an 11-9 comeback triumph over No. 5 Andrew Alton.

The rout wasn’t on after three matches — Iowa won, 22-13 — but it wasn’t in question whether the Hawkeyes would fly back to Iowa City with a victory over the top-ranked and hottest team in the country.

In the process, Iowa made a statement.

“We showed people this is not a rebuilding year,” McDonough said after the Penn State dual. “And we’re not going to settle for middle of the pack. We want national championships.”

Last year, it was about staying on top of the college wrestling world for the Hawkeyes. Could they three-peat?

This year, it was about proving whether they could make it to the peak after sustaining key personnel losses. Could they be anywhere as good?

Well, Iowa is the last unbeaten team in the country.

The Hawkeyes have been bolstered by the return of Marion — last year’s runner-up at 141 pounds — and the surge of McDonough, who has three-straight pins, including one over Northwestern’s top-ranked Brandon Precin, who had bested McDonough at Midlands.

Iowa hasn’t reached the peak yet, but the Hawkeyes showed they are worthy of being at the summit.

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