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Wrestling not yet title-ready

BY SAM LOUWAGIE | JANUARY 20, 2012 7:20 AM

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The Iowa wrestling team typically lets its visiting opponents choose which weight class goes first for dual meets. A traditional wrestling meet begins at 125 pounds and works its way upward through the heavyweight match.

But not when Hawkeye opponents have a say in the matter.

Illinois came to Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Dec. 2 and chose to start at 149 pounds. Iowa's Mark Ballweg lost an 8-4 decision.

Northern Iowa visited on Dec. 8., chose to start at 184 pounds, and earned its only victory of the night over the Hawkeyes' Vinnie Wagner.

Oklahoma State and Northwestern both elected to begin at 285 pounds this month, and the heavyweights from both teams beat Iowa's Bobby Telford.

Opposing teams want to begin a meet with their best chance of victory, and the weights they have chosen to get that chance are illustrative of where the holes lie in Iowa's lineup this season.

While the Hawkeyes entered the season with a No. 1 ranking behind a handful of dominant wrestlers, they do have some significant problems to address. One of Iowa's top two competitors for the national championship, Oklahoma State, exposed those holes on Jan. 7. The other waits for its chance to do the same in Happy Valley on Jan. 22.

Penn State, the defending national champion, took over the top spot in InterMat's rankings after Iowa's loss to Oklahoma State. And the Nittany Lions have a championship contender waiting to pounce at nearly every spot where the Hawkeyes are most vulnerable.

Mike Kelly has struggled to a 1-3 record in dual meets since taking over as Iowa's starter at 149. Penn State's Frank Molinaro is ranked No. 1 at that weight, undefeated this season, and a three-time All-American.

Iowa 174-pounder Ethen Lofthouse lost to the Nittany Lion's No. 2-ranked Ed Ruth two times last season.

Iowa 184-pounder Wagner has performed admirably and picked up a few gritty wins this season, but he's unranked. Penn State's Quentin Wright won the 184-pound NCAA title last season and is ranked second at the weight this year.

Iowa's lower weights are as good as ever, though. Matt McDonough has dominated since dropping an early upset, and looks like the nation's best 125-pounder. Tony Ramos has transformed from fringe All-American to strong title contender at 133 pounds. Montell Marion has won 18 of his 19 matches this season.

But things look more dicey for Iowa as the weights get higher.

Penn State and Oklahoma State have the nation's top two wrestlers at 149, while Iowa is unranked at the weight.

The Hawkeyes' Derek St. John would be a title contender if he were healthy, but he hurt his knee more than a month ago and hasn't returned to the lineup.

Grant Gambrall finished third at the NCAAs last season, but an off-season concussion forced him to move up from 184 pounds to 197. Gambrall has struggled enough at the higher weight and has fallen out of the rankings entirely.

In other words, stellar performances from McDonough, Ramos, and Marion won't be enough. Iowa needs help from somewhere. It needs St. John to return to the lineup and wrestle at full strength. It needs Telford to rediscover his offense and snap out of a four-match losing streak. It needs Lofthouse to break through and beat Ruth or for Gambrall to adjust to heavier opponents.

Iowa will need wrestlers to step up and fill a few of these holes if they hope to beat Penn State — either on Jan. 22 or in March.

Follow DI wrestling reporter Sam Louwagie on Twitter.


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