Tuesday, March 28, 2017

A Look Back at Iowa Wrestling's 2017 NCAA Tournament

I needed a little bit of time to recover before I could do any sort of analysis of the NCAA Wrestling Tournament. It was yet again the best sporting event of the year, even though I can admit that the finals were less than stellar this year. But that's the beauty of the tournament; it's often the leadup that makes things magical. There were incredible matches throughout the tournament, which makes it easier to take Penn State's dominance on Saturday night. But Penn State's dominance is far too depressing of a topic for me right now, so instead, let's look at the mixed bag of Iowa's performance at the NCAA Tournament.

9. Topher Carton - 141 - 2-2: DNP
Here's the thing with Carton's performance. It really wasn't disappointing. It just kind of happened. He won his first match in the pigtail pretty easily. Then he went against George DiCamillo, who made the National Finals this year and got majored, but that's really not too shocking either. He bounced back and majored Cole Martin in the consolation side of the bracket. Then he took on Luke Pletcher which could be seen as a toss up match, but Pletcher seemed to have his number this year and beat Carton 9-6. It was a totally fine performance, but Carton wrestled well enough this year where you could envision him pulling off an extra win or two, but it just didn't happen for him.

8. Thomas Gilman - 125 - 5-1: 3rd Place
Is this too low for Gilman? Probably, but Gilman was the best guy at 125; it wasn't particularly close, and he still didn't come away with a National Title. He came out exactly like he should on his way to the semifinals with two major decisions, followed by a pin. The number two and three seeds had already been sent packing, so it seemed as if Gilman would cruise to a title. But weird things happen at the NCAA Tournament. Gilman wrestled super tight the entire match against Darian Cruz, but Gilman controlled the offense in the match, but eventually his hesitation cost him. He shot in, got Cruz's leg and...held it there. All it took was one beat and Cruz spun hard, kicking his leg free and getting behind Gilman for the two. Thank god for the guy at the top of this list, because I was legitimately distraught on Friday night when Gilman lost. Bravo to Cruz for getting the win, but there is no doubt that Gilman was the best 125 pound wrestler this year. He ended up taking care of business on the backside and getting third place, but anything less than first place was going to be a huge disappointment. I still can't believe he didn't win the National Title.

7. Joey Gunther - 165 - 2-2: DNP
I kind of came into the tournament thinking that if things broke right, Gunther would get one win. Instead, he got two wins, so congratulations to him. He got handled in his opening match, but then came back to win back-to-back matches on the backside of the bracket. His luck ran out when he went up against Bryce Seitert of Northern Iowa, but it was a really solid performance for Gunther. He got better and better during his Freshman season, and usually that would be something to build on. Unfortunately, super recruit, Alex Marinelli, will likely take over the starting spot at 165 next year, and Kaleb Young is going to be tough to beat out at 174. I don't know where things go from here, but Gunther grinded out a lot of matches this year, so let's hope he continues to grind for the Hawkeyes.

6. Alex Meyer - 174 - 2-2: Round of 12
Sometimes results aren't necessarily as important as how someone wrestles in the tournament. Alex Meyer may have only gone 2-2, but he wrestled his ass off. In the first round, he took care of his unseeded opponent and followed it up by upsetting the number six seed in Ryan Preisch from Lehigh. Then, for six and a half minutes, he wrestled his best match of the season. He went up against Bo Jordan of Ohio State, who made the NCAA Finals (and probably should have won if replay had given him what looked to be a takedown). Meyer was up 3-2 with less than a minute left in the match, but with about thirty seconds left, he couldn't stop Jordan from getting to his legs and Jordan got the takedown and ride out to win the match 4-3. After that, he had a match with Kyle Crutchmer and unfortunately got hit with a six point move. He worked his butt off to come back with nonstop aggression but Crutchmer was able to stall his way to victory, 13-10. Last year, Meyer was an All-American, and this year he wasn't. Usually, that would put him lower on this list, but I was able to watch all four of his matches, and even though the results weren't there, the wrestling was, and there's no shame in how Meyer ended his Hawkeye career.

5. Sammy Brooks - 184 - 4-2: Fourth Place
Brooks came in ranked as the three seed, and he ended up finishing fourth. In his wins, he looked as good and possibly better than expected as he pulled off multiple pins and probably the most exciting single moment for Iowa when he managed to reverse a throw and pin Emery Parker of Illinois in the Quarterfinals. I nearly yelled in excitement while watching at work, so that probably would have blown my cover that I only had it on as background noise. Then he went up against Bo Nickal, and it appears Nickal just has Brooks's number as he pinned him yet again in the first period. He bounced back with a convincing win over returning National Champion, Myles Martin, but then got down early and eventually took a pin against TJ Dudley, another guy who has given Brooks a lot of trouble. The Mullet ends his career with back-to-back All-American honors which isn't too shabby.

4. Brandon Sorensen - 149 - 5-1: Third Place
Sorensen wrestled as well as anyone could expect. He came in seeded fifth, but I think every wrestling fan saw that as an absolute worst case scenario. He lost to the top two seeds at the end of the second overtime by riding time advantage. What hurt him on seeding was getting upset by Pat Lugo of Rutgers and losing to Micah Jordan in the Big Ten Tournament. He would end up avenging that loss twice over during the NCAA Tournament. First, he beat Micah Jordan in the quarterfinals, 3-0, but that fifth seed meant that he'd be facing the overwhelming favorite, Zain Retherford, in the semifinals. The good news is Sorensen was the only person to not get tech fall'd against Retherford; the bad news is that Sorensen got pinned in one of the most painful moves I have seen on a wrestling mat. Even after the disappointing loss, he bounced back on Saturday to major decision Solomon Chishoko of Virginia Tech before beating Micah Jordan again for third place, and he didn't give up a single point in either of those matches. Sorensen will go into next season as the second ranked wrestler, but unfortunately, Zain Retherford will be back, which just about guarantees that he's fighting for second place.

3. Michael Kemerer - 157 - 6-1: Third Place
I'll admit that these next two picks may be higher than some might place them. Sorensen got third place as a fifth seed, while Kemerer got third place as a two seed. But it's one of those situations where watching Kemerer, there's really only one guy who wrestled better, and that guy ended up with a title. In his first match, he got a major decision, and he followed that up with a tech fall. His quarterfinal match was against Dylan Palacio which was a nonstop scramble until Kemerer got caught in a weird position and got pinned. The pin seemed questionable, but had Palacio gotten four back points, it was going to be tough for Kemerer to come back. That was definitely disappointing, but it didn't slow down Kemerer. He ended up going on the backside and taking three straight major decisions, including one over Tyler Berger, who gave him one of the best matches of the year during the Midlands this season. He ended going up against Joe Smith of Oklahoma State, who stalled his way to overtime, but Kemerer kept shooting and shooting and shooting until he took Smith to his back in overtime to win the match 7-1 and take third place. Nolf is a monster at 157, but Kemerer looked better in his second match against him than he did in his first, so it wouldn't be completely shocking if he is able to close the gap even more next year. Either way, Kemerer is going to be a ton of fun to watch for the next three seasons.

2. Cash Wilcke - 197 - 3-2: Round of 12
On results alone, there is no way to put Wilcke this high. I mean, the guy didn't even place. But holy shit did this guy beat expectations. When they announced the seedings and at-large bids, you know where Wilcke was seeded? He wasn't seeded. In fact, he didn't even qualify for the dang tournament. He was literally the last guy added as an injury replacement. If he went in and won one match, it would be something for Iowa fans to celebrate. Instead, he came up with a big upset over 13th seeded, Tom Sleigh. Then he did lose to Jared Haught but came back in the consolations to get a win over Josh Marchok. He then had arguably the most insane match of the tournament against Frank Mattiace of Penn. Wilcke had a one point lead going into the final minute but gave up a reversal with about 15 seconds left. Finally, he gets a restart, but there are only two seconds left, and Mattiace has the one point lead, so it's basically over. But Mattiace also had two cautions, so he couldn't jump the gun or he'd give up a point. Wilcke explodes out and gets out before time expires, maybe partially helped by a timekeeper that was slow to start the clock. That sent my jaw to the floor and those guys both to overtime. Then in overtime, Mattiace has another false start, his third caution, and Wilcke gets the penalty point to win the match. It was insanity. He had gone from not qualifying for the tournament to one match away from All-American status. He ended up losing 7-6 in a match that wasn't quite that close, but it was such an impressive performance from Wilcke and has me way more excited about what he can do next year when he drops to his more natural weight of 184.

1. Cory Clark - 133 - 5-0: National Champion
This is a no brainer for top spot as Cory Clark, who had lost the last two years in the NCAA Finals, finally got over the hump and won a National Championship. And man, what a run he had this year. He had no easy outs in the tournament and earned it every step of the way. In his first match, he got Connor Schram, who was unseeded after being a returning All-American. Then, he took out Pat D'Arcy who upset the #13 seed in his first match. After that, he faced a super tough freshman in Stevan Micic from Michigan. After giving up an early takedown, Clark started to take over the match and won 6-4. That set up a match with Nathan Tomasello, a former National Champion, and the #1 ranked, only undefeated wrestler at 133. Clark may have lost in the B1G finals, but he controlled the action, with the benefit of two cheap takedowns, and took care of Tomasello 7-4. That set up a finals against his former teammate, Seth Gross, who had absolutely steamrolled his competition leading up to the finals. Gross's closest match was his opening match, where he shutout his opponent 5-0. Then he won by tech fall, followed by two major decisions. Again, Cory Clark gave up an early takedown but he kept battling and in the third period, he was able to get the decisive takedown to take a 4-3 lead. He rode out Gross in impressive fashion and was able to stand atop the podium. As disappointed as I was about Gilman not getting a title, I was just as happy to see Cory Clark finally end up on top. He is going to be dearly missed next season and beyond, but he ended his career the right way and earned his asterisk on the Iowa wrestling room wall.

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