Brands bringing back the fun at Iowa

By Matt Levins The Hawk Eye

Iowa Coach Tom Brands at media day

IOWA CITY — Tom Brands smiled as he addressed the media during Iowa wrestling media day on Wednesday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Brands even cracked a few jokes and made a point to walk around and shake hands with media members.

The 12th-year Iowa coach had a little extra bounce in his step.

It's all part of a new approach the Hawkeyes are taking this year. After finishing fourth at last year's NCAA Championships — a banner season for many teams, a major disappointment for Iowa — and hearing the grumblings of the Hawkeyes being a robot factory, nothing more than zombies, Brands and crew are putting the fun back in Iowa wrestling.

Brands has plenty of reason to smile. After all, while the Hawkeyes said goodbye to five All-Americans — including national champion Cory Clark at 133 pounds — the 2017 recruiting class is ranked No. 1 in the country by Intermatwrestle.

Yes, there is help on the way, and Brands hinted that he might just do something he has done only one other time in his first 11 seasons at his alma mater — put a true freshman on the mat. In fact, he hinted that several true freshmen might see the lineup before all is said and done.

The season starts on Saturday at the Luther Open, and Brands was having a blast.

"There's a lot of exciting things for fans to be paying attention to or looking toward to, but there's also a lot of unknowns. We have a unique recruiting class this year where we have two or three guys that could maybe step in the lineup, and we have a transfer who, you look at a couple different weight classes he could go and how you would shift some things around, there's some unknowns there that are exciting," Brands said. "And with unknowns, you also have some uncertainty. That means that this year, we're not going to know what we have until later on, and we're not in a hurry to get everything pieced together. But I know one thing. We've got a lot of guys in that room that are bringing a lot of life and a lot of energy every day."

The two true freshmen Iowa fans are drooling over are Spencer Lee at 125 and Jacob Warner at 197. Lee, who is coming off a torn ACL suffered late in his senior season at Franklin Regional (Pennsylvania), was the No. 1 recruit in the nation. Warner was the No. 1 recruit in the country at 197.

"Because Spencer Lee is a unique individual. He's a competitor from the word go. And you do what's best by the individual, and we'll certainly do that. And in Spencer Lee's case, it might be best thing for him to compete and not sit him, not put him on the shelf. And not that he would get dusty, you know, using a metaphor there. But it might not be the best thing for him. But we're going to be very careful with what we do," Brands said. "Warner, a little bit different than Lee. But here's the thing. When you communicate to these young people, you're communicating now, hey, you might -- Costello, same way, Myles Wilson, same way. Max Murin, same way. You might be talking to them: Hey, you know, you might be redshirt, but you've got to pick it up every day. But you don't really have to because of the approach."

While much of the attention and excitement centers around Lee and Warner, a pair of returning All-Americans form the nucleus of this year's team. Senior Brandon Sorenson is a three-time All-American, finishing third at 149 last season. Kemerer, a sophomore, took third at 157 last year. If the Hawkeyes are to make a run at their first national championship since 2010, it will start with those two.

"They are the leaders because of their credentials, and they bring the same kind of life into that room that everybody else does. They might have a little bit of a different method, but they bring that same life," Brands said of Sorenson and Kemerer. "And when you look at the things that are going on in that room with the dialogue that we're having, to your point, about the facility and the dialogue about the unknowns and how we're moving forward there."

"The energy has been good. We've got a lot of good freshmen coming in. We had a good recruiting class," Sorenson said. "They're going it on their own. We're sitting really good that way."

Junior Sam Stoll is back at heavyweight after suffering his second torn ACL last season. While true freshman Aaron Costello has impressed in the practice room, having Stoll on the mat is vital to the Hawkeyes' success.

"He's an anchor, literally and figuratively, and you know what, when you see his wrestle-off score was 2-0, his face doesn't reflect what he's thinking, but he's fired up and he's moving forward," Brands said. "And it's absolutely essential that he is healthy and he's done a lot of things in his life to give him every edge to make sure he stays healthy. He's a different guy. He's got a little bit more athleticism because he's lighter. He's got a little bit more scramble-ability because he's lighter, and when you have those things and there's a little bit more pizzazz and a little bit of giddy-yup in your step, it's positive for him."

Redshirt freshman Alex Marinelli, like Lee and Warner, is chomping at the bit to get on the mat. Brands toyed with the idea of pulling the redshirt on the four-time Ohio high school state champion before deciding to sit Marinelli for a season. He will be the starter at 165 this season.

"You know, you look back last year, we had a lot of talk about Alex Marinelli, is he going to come out a redshirt or not. Well, now he's out a redshirt. That's exciting. That's exciting for the fans. That's exciting for you because you've asked that question. And we're excited," Brands said.

Redshirt freshman Carter Happel and sophomore Vince Turk are battling for the starting spot at 141, Paul Glynn and Phillip Laux are in the mix at 133, Joey Gunther leads the way at 174 and Mitch Bowman is the starter at 184.

Steven Holloway, a two-time state champion for Medaipolis High School, is in the mix at 197, along with fellow sophomore Cash Wilcke, who made it to the round of 12 at last year's national tournament. Brands' decision on Warner will impact that weight class heavily.

"I'm obviously not where I want to be. I didn't end up where I wanted to be in the wrestleoff, but I just have to come back every day and work," said Holloway, who went 6-12 last season while filling in for Stoll at heavyweight. "Everyone's got a chance to start, no matter what. We wrestle the guys at your weight every day. If I go out there and beat the crap out of Warner and Cash and Ton sees it and I continually do it, he's going to put me out there."

Either way, Brands is having the time of his life. He is putting the fun back into Iowa wrestling. It's up to the wrestlers to bring the excitement.

"It surprises me because I'm so looking inside. I'm not worried about what's going on out there. I'm not worried about it. It's like, you don't really care; "One thing about Brands, he doesn't care what people think about him," Brands said. "Well, you know what, I do care when people think about me now because they are using it against us. We don't have any funds; we're robots. Hey, we're having a blast, man. We're having a blast."