IOWA CITY — Tom Brands put the fun back in wrestling last season at owa, and it produced a national champion in freshman Spencer Lee and a third-place finish at the national tournament in Cleveland.
This year, Brands and the Hawkeyes are ready to start hanging more banners in Carver-Hawkeye Arena, as in Big Ten Conference and national championship banners.
The Hawkeyes have all the pieces in place to make a run at Penn State, which has won three straight national team titles and seven of the last eight.
It has been nearly a decade since Iowa last won a national team title, and the Hawkeyes are ready to end that drought this season.
"We haven't had 10 weight classes. We got some new faces. We had two new faces last year. We had Alex Marinelli, Spencer Lee. Fans are excited about those guys returning. You guys talk a lot about Spencer Lee. Let's talk about Marinelli. What does he bring to the table? He's a ferocious competitor. We love him. He lives the right lifestyle. He's the voice in that locker room. He'll go nose-to-nose with somebody in that locker room if they need it," Brands said at Monday's media day inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena. "You look at the new faces we have. We have four returning All-Americans, that means six weight classes are up for grabs. We're really excited about what's going on."
Iowa will build around returning All-Americans Lee (125 pounds), Marinelli (165), Michael Kemerer (174) and Sam Stoll (285).
Lee is the ringleader, having won a national championship as a true freshman last year after Brands pulled the redshirt off him in early January. Lee brought the excitement back to Carver-Hawkeye Arena, adding a renewed energy that the rest of the team fed off. Lee ha become not only a fan favorite, but a team leader and team spokesman. As Lee goes, so go the Hawkeyes.
"He scores a lot of points. That's what we want. We want guys that score points. Not only match points, but match points equal bonus points for the team. You saw that last year," Brands said of Lee, who went 22-2 last season. "You talk about what kind of influence does he have. Well, he inspires guys to wrestle like Spencer Lee, be like Lee, score a lot of points, turns into bonus points. We scored 30 bonus points in the national tournament last year. Been a while since we've done that. Spencer Lee led all champions with the most points scored in that tournament. It's a testament to how he trains, his mindset, what he puts on his shoulders for this team."
While Lee is the emotional leader of the team, Marinelli is the vocal leader. His physical, aggressive style made him an immediate fan favorite last season and helped him finish sixth at the Big Ten Championships and sixth at nationals. He is the Hawkeyes' workhorse in the middle of the lineup.
"Marinelli is a guy that loves to win. When things are going right, he's hopping, feels really good about himself. When things don't go so right, he tends to hang onto it maybe too long. I think that's probably the biggest thing he's had to adjust," Brands said. "We've thrown some things at him in the summer that hopefully have made him I'm not going to say grow up because he's very mature, he's getting married next summer, but he's a very mature guy. He hangs onto this stuff too long. We've done some things with him where he's going to have to move on quicker."
Kemerer, meanwhile, moved up two weight classes after finishing third and fourth at 157 the last two years. Stoll is recovering from a gunshot wound to the left knee and is ready to not only repeat as an All-American, but make a serious bid for a national title.
Cash Wilcke, an All-American two years ago at 197, made the move down to 184 this season.
So what is all the commotion and excitement about in the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex? It all centers around six new faces ready to make names for themselves and put Iowa back atop the wrestling world.
Those new faces include sophomore Austin DeSanto, a national qualifier at Drexel last season who will start at 133, giving the Hawkeyes a solid one-two punch to start most duals.
"Spencer Lee is awesome. He's such a nice guy," DeSanto said. "He took me under his wing. He helps me out a lot. He's a good mentor to me."
"DeSanto is the first person running the circle. He's the first person on the ropes. He's the first person running at our 6 a.m. lifts. He's energetic. He wakes everyone up," Lee said of DeSanto. "We're hoping we can score a lot of points. One-two punch. That's kind of what we always joked about at the beginning of the year. It's going to be a lot of fun."
Freshman Max Murin has earned the spot at 141, perhaps the deepest weight in the Iowa room, while junior Pat Lugo, a transferred last year from Edinboro, will step in at 149 to replace graduated four-time All-American Brandon Sorensen.
"I've wanted to be a Hawkeye since I was younger. I'm just thankful for the opportunity. I'm looking to take advantage of the opportunity," said Murin, a two-time Pennsylvania state champion who was 16-3 last year as a redshirt.
"I'm excited. It's been almost a full year since I competed for any team," said Lugo, a two-time national qualifier for Edinboro. "There are going to be some big shoes to fill, but I feel I can not only fill those shoes, but outgrow them."
Kaleb Young, who saw some action at 174 last year, has made the move down to 157, while freshman Jacob Warner is ready to make his long-awaited debut at 197.
"Nothing has changed in that regard either. I mean, we're surrounded. We have a school to the north, a school to the west, schools to the east, schools to the south. The challenge is great, and we're up for it. We're never not up for it. Just got to do a better job. Got to do a better job when it comes to being two, three or four. Two, three or four is easy. One, that's tough. Being one is tough," Brands said. "Here is the thing. If you want to be the champion, be the champion. That will narrow the gap in and of itself. So we want to be the champion, so let's just be the champion.