Commentary: Hawkeye wrestlers just getting started

BY J.T. BUGOS | MARCH 23, 2011 7:20 AM

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The Iowa wrestling team iasn't feeling any satisfaction in its third-place finish at the NCAA championships.

But perhaps the Hawkeyes should.

Not many people outside of the Iowa wrestling room gave the squad a real chance to win a national title this season — not after the loss of two individual champions and eight All-Americans. The team fell short in Philadelphia, but it was still in contention going into the final day.

After a fourth-place finish at the Midlands Championships in late December, few people believed the Hawkeyes could finish atop the standings at NCAAs. But then the Hawkeyes went out and ran through the Big Ten dual season undefeated. They showed growth and proved that even in an alleged rebuilding year, Iowa was never to be counted out.

I said before the season started that if Tom Brands could capture his fourth-straight championship, there would be no stopping the Hawkeyes from winning seven-straight titles. If a squad made up mostly of freshmen and sophomores could win this year, the next three years would be wrapped up with most of the team sticking around through 2014.

Even without taking home the team title, Iowa showed it will be in the conversation as long as Brands is at the helm building hard-nosed wrestlers.

Next year, the Hawkeyes will see even more success.

Matt McDonough will rebound from his finals loss. His career trajectory is following former Hawkeye Brent Metcalf's, who won the title his first year competing for Iowa only to get stunned in the finals the next year by North Carolina State's Darrion Caldwell. Metcalf went out last year and pulverized the 149-pound weight class on his way to a second title.

Nothing is guaranteed in this sport, but expect to see something similar from McDonough.

Derek St. John was Iowa's most improved grappler. The redshirt freshman had high expectations, but after not placing at Midlands, those expectations looked like they would go unmet.

St. John rebounded in a big way and ended up taking fourth at NCAAs. Over the Big Ten season, at the Big Ten championships, and at NCAAs, he showed that Midlands was an aberration.

Penn State's David Taylor, the national runner-up and winner of three meetings between the two wrestlers this season, still stands in St. John's way of capturing a title, but St. John narrowed the gap each time against the Nittany Lion's freshman phenom. Next season's battles could be 2012 NCAA finals previews.

Grant Gambrall found himself in Philadelphia after what Brands called a frustrating season for the sophomore. Gambrall was up and down all season but gained consistency at NCAAs to place third.

Redshirt freshmen Tony Ramos and Ethen Lofthouse underperformed at NCAAs, but they displayed the talent this season that will keep them high in the rankings throughout their Iowa careers.

After last season and the mass exit of All-Americans, Brands said Iowa still had firepower in the stable. Turns out the fifth-year head coach was right.

After this season, Brands said the Hawkeyes underachieved at NCAAs. Again, nothing is guaranteed in the sport of wrestling, but it seems safe to say Philadelphia was only the beginning for this group of Hawkeyes.

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