IOWA CITY — Alex Marinelli remembers the 2018 NCAA Wrestling Championships all too well.
Marinelli, then a freshman 165-pounder for the University of Iowa wrestling team, came into Cleveland as the five seed. Marinelli pinned his first two opponents, then edged fourth seed Chad Walsh of Rider by a point, putting him in the semifinals, two wins away from a national championship.
The rest of the weekend is something Marineli would just as soon forget. He lost a 5-2 match to Isaiah Martinez of Illinois, then lost his next two matches by major decision and pin, sending Marinelli home with a bitter taste in his mouth.
Marinelli vowed to never have that feeling again.
Marinelli (23-0) comes into this year's NCAA Championships as the top seed when wrestling begins at 11 a.m. Thursday at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Marinelli knows all of that means absolutely nothing unless he goes out and performs to the best of his ability every time he steps on the mat.
"You always want to be the one seed. You always want to be on the top, no matter what. But it only matters after the tournament where you are at. It matters if you are No. 1 at the end. You never want to be knocked off. That's why you have to go out there, be on your toes. Be ready. Everyone is going to be firing. It doesn't matter what seed you are. You always want to be that darkhorse. You always want to be that guy that knocks someone off. I'm the top guy and I have to prove I should be," said Marinelli, who beat defending national champion Vincenzo Joseph of Penn State, 9-3, in the championship match at the Big Ten Championships two weeks ago in Minnesota. "Coming off the mat, Tom (Iowa head coach Brands)said, 'On to Pittsburgh.' He didn't have a lot of emotions because it's not the end-all, be-all. OK, you won the Big Tens. You did your job. It's not like it's amazing you beat this kid because I should. That's what's amazing about Tom. He's on to the next thing already. I come off the mat and it's like, 'OK, you beat Vincenzo. OK, good. Let's go win a national title.'"
"It's not a big deal and you don't make it a big deal. Where you are at in the bracket is where you are at in the bracket. Wherever you are at in the bracket is where you are at. You look at your first match and you don't look ahead of that. It doesn't matter what name is behind your seed," Brands said.
If Marinelli needed any reminders as to how painful last year's finish at nationals was, he got one on Sunday during the annual pre-nationals team meal. There, Brands showed video highlights of the 1991 NCAA Championships, a vivid reminder of what can, and often does, happen at nationals. He knows he has to be focused on one match at a time and he has to wrestle to the best of his ability every time.
"We watched the 1991 team when Tom won after Terry (Brands) lost. He just wanted to make it known that you don't ever want to feel that feeling. You don't want to feel disappointment. It hurt. It showed in the highlight film. Usually highlight films are about great things that happened, but it showed pain," Marinelli said. "Tom Ryan gave up the takedown at the end to Pat Smith. That's just devastating and you never want to feel that. The thing that made that highlight special is that after the matches you could see Gable and all the teammates surrounding them after they lost and pat them on the back and say, 'It's all right. We're a family.' That's what we are. It gives you chills because we experience that day to day. With Spencer losing in the finals at the Big Tens. He was right beside me when I won. It's a great thing."
Marinelli knows he has a target on his back as the top-ranked and top-seeded wrestler in the bracket. He comes in with an unblemished record. He also knows he can beat anyone in the bracket and he certainly doesn't want to endure the pain he felt at last year's nationals.
"First of all he's a unique guy when it comes to competition. He's been that way for a long, long time, of the stories I've heard since he was in seventh grade, eighth grade. Going back to maybe even before that. The legend and the lore of him is that he's been the same size forever. So he was born at about 175 pounds and he hasn't changed at all. Playing football in junior high he was the same size. So that's kind of funny that way," Brands said. "He's a very driven fellow. What I mean by that is that he takes a lot of pride in being the guy that you aren't going to talk about in a good way. That's a very essential characteristic of champions. I'm just not going to let my opponent get one up on me."
"I told my buddies this seed doesn't matter. It matters where you are at the end of the tournament. Done deal," Marinelli said. "Don't let the time tick on the clock. Last year I realized the match went along really fast and I wasn't in the zone the whole time. Be in the zone and take every moment for what it's worth. If you look at it, it's a very fast weekend. It's two, two, one. I would love to wrestle them back to back to back. But that's the thing with a tournament. You have to go make weight every day and do it right. Last year I went into the tournament knowing I had Isaiah Martinez. But you have to wrestle more to the best of your ability. Sometimes people wrestle up to their competition. That doesn't make any sense because you have to wrestle to your own ability."