Iowa wrestlers seek "bulletproof" Midlands performance


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Iowa entered the Midlands tournament in December 2010 ranked fifth in the nation, with wrestlers seeded in the tournament's top 10 in nine weight classes. The Hawkeyes had enjoyed a promising start to the season, and a fourth-straight Midlands championship seemed within their grasp.

But Iowa finished fourth.

Matt McDonough was the team's only wrestler to place in the top four of his weight class, and he suffered his first loss of the season in the 125-pound finals. Derek St. John entered the tournament as the No. 3 seed but went 1-2 and did not place.

Iowa eventually rebounded from the disappointing performance to go undefeated in Big Ten dual season and finish third at the NCAA Tournament, but head coach Tom Brands said he doesn't want a repeat of last year's performance when the team returns to Evanston, Ill., for Midlands on Dec. 29.

"We had a huge letdown there last year," Brands said on Dec. 8. "We got it ironed out, but we don't want to have to deal with letdowns. We'd rather be bulletproof or approaching that."

The top-ranked Hawkeyes will face tough competition at Midlands; 10 teams ranked in the nation's top 25 will participate. Five of those are in the top 15, including No. 7 Illinois, No. 10 Lehigh, and No. 11 Oklahoma.

"We're going to find out a lot more where we're at in national terms," Brands said. "I'm looking forward to Midlands, and I know our guys are, too."

Several Iowa wrestlers could see matches with national-title implications.

McDonough lost in overtime to Illinois' Jesse Delgado on Dec. 2, and he later said he wants a rematch with Delgado "more than anything." He may get that chance at Midlands; he could also see Oklahoma's No. 5 Jarrod Patterson or Northwestern's No. 8 Levi Mele.

St. John will need to quickly recover from the injured knee he sustained against Northern Iowa on Dec. 8. Ranked second nationally, St. John could see No. 3 Jason Welch of Northwestern or No. 4 Ganbayar Sanjaa of American.

The Hawkeyes have received an impressive start from redshirt freshman Bobby Telford, and he could have his first chance to make a national statement at Midlands. The nation's top-ranked heavyweight, Ryan Flores of American, will participate; Flores beat Telford at Midlands last season, 8-0.

But the tournament is perhaps biggest of all for Montell Marion, Iowa's only current top-ranked wrestler. Marion has breezed through the season with an 11-0 record at 141 pounds, and hasn't been remotely tested. He hasn't faced a ranked wrestler yet this season.

That will likely change at Midlands. The tournament features four other wrestlers ranked in the top 8, including No. 2 Zack Kemmerer of Penn and No. 4 Boris Novachkov of Cal-Poly.

After a 10-2 win against Illinois' Darly Thomas on Dec. 2, Marion said he knows he needs to keep improving in order to beat the heavy competition at Midlands and later in the season.

"To be honest with you, I wanted more," he said. "I felt like I could have got in on the legs earlier, put him down harder and faster. Just get that technique sharpened up. I want that stuff perfected going into the middle of this season."

Follow DI wrestling reporter Sam Louwagie on Twitter.

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