Wrestling searching for championships

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Iowa senior Edwin Cooper Jr. waits on the mat at the Iowa vs. Indiana Wrestling match inside Carver-Hawkeye on Friday, Feb. 5, 2016. Iowa defeated Indiana, 45-0. (The Daily Iowan/Courtney Hawkins)

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Hungry.

That’s how Iowa 133-pounder Cory Clark described the overriding feeling in the team’s locker room as it prepares for the Big Ten Championships.

No wrestler on the Hawkeye roster has won a Big Ten individual title, and that’s something they desperately want.

“It’s a big deal, to win an individual title,” Iowa head coach Tom Brands said. “It’s a steppingstone to what’s next, and it’s a title that defines their career.”

Outside of last year’s shared team title with Ohio State — which Iowa doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of interest in — nobody on the roster has won one of those, either.

There was a sense after last season’s conference championship that a lot was left on the mat, and that has driven Iowa this year. For Brandon Sorensen (149) and Thomas Gilman (125), it’s even more personal.

Both lost in the Big Ten finals last season. If either had won, Iowa would have taken the team title outright.

“It’s not a good feeling,” Sorensen said. “You don’t want it to happen again.”

Sorensen and Gilman are both undefeated this season, and it seems they’ve taken the disappointment to heart.

No one on the team has more bonus-point victories than Gilman, and his intensity on the mat has been unparalleled. Sorensen is undefeated this season and has flourished in his first year as the full-time starter at 149.

In order for Iowa to have a realistic chance at team championship, it’ll need huge contributions from both.

“I’m a different wrestler this year,” Gilman said. “But it’s not just about winning titles, it’s about the way you win those titles. If I go out and win a Big Ten title and tech and pin my way through the tournament, that’s great — but you still have to take it one match at a time.”

That mindset has been prevalent for Iowa throughout the season, but when championship season rolls around, it becomes a matter of survival. Gilman has been good about getting bonus points this season, but the Hawkeyes need them from other wrestlers as well. If they are to give themselves any leeway, bonus points are a must.

“We have some guys that are coming on, and we better have some other guys that are coming along, too,” Brands said. “This is a qualifier.”

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The Big Ten is a tough conference, and the opening rounds of the tournament will not be easy.

An early slip — which happened to several Iowa wrestlers at the Big Ten meet last season — can prove fatal to a team’s championship effort. The consolation bracket does not count for nearly as many points as the winners’ side of things, and even a strong performance there will be far overshadowed by wins in the semifinals or finals.

That fate has befallen 197-pounder Nathan Burak throughout his Iowa career; he has never finished better than fourth.

“We train to get those NCAA and Big Ten titles and win in a dominating fashion, and we didn’t do that last year,” Burak said. “It’s a lot harder to win a team title if we’re not winning individual titles.”

This year, it won’t just be harder, it will be damn near impossible. Penn State and Ohio State will more than likely both put at least one wrestler in the finals, and they will probably place more than that.

Iowa has to keep up, and in order to do that, it’s pretty simple: win matches and win them big.

That’s the only way the Hawkeyes will take home a title in their home venue this year, and they’re well aware of that.

“We’re ready to go, and we’re fired up,” Clark said. “We still have something to prove … not only to ourselves but a lot of people, and I feel like this is the time of the year where everyone comes out and shows what they’ve got.

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