Spencer Lee, from heartbreak to the NCAA Finals

Nick Piccininni pinned Spencer Lee in the final match of the 2019 regular season. On Saturday, Lee beat him to become an NCAA Finalist.


Shivansh Ahuja

Iowa’s 125-pound Spencer Lee wrestles Oklahoma State’s Nicholas Piccininni during the fourth session of the 2019 NCAA D1 Wrestling Championships at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, PA on Friday, March 22, 2019. Lee won by decision, 11-4.

Anna Kayser, Assistant Sports Editor

According to Spencer Lee, the last time he was pinned was when he was nine years old.

And then, on Feb. 24, Nick Piccininni pinned Lee in 4:55 to open Iowa’s final regular season dual meet at Oklahoma State.

“It was hard for me to be able to get over that. I mean, the coaches were – they were trying to get me through it, but they knew that I hadn’t felt that in a long time,” Lee said.

Lee’s focus coming out of that match had to immediately shift to the Big Ten Championships, and he fought through it by using the mentality he always has: scoring as many points as he can, and always look for the next opportunity.

“I couldn’t dwell upon what happened,” Lee said. “I just had to learn from it and be better for it.”

In the quarterfinals of the 2019 NCAA Championships, Lee and Piccininni met again. Lee as the 3-seed, and Piccininni in the No. 2 spot.

Lee held a lead for the entire match, but Piccininni closed the gap on the scoreboard to within a takedown multiple times. By learning from all four of his losses on the year, Lee was able to continue to pile on.

His wrestling has been dominant through all rounds of the tournament thus far, and that match was no exception. His first three matches were decided by bonus points.

“Besides Nick, all my losses have been I think last-second takedowns in the last maybe seven years now,” Lee said. “So I think that’s just – I’ve just got to be able to go out there and do what I do, just focus on scoring points, and I think that’s it. The next score is the most important score, and that’s the mindset that my coaches have instilled upon me, and that’s what’s got to matter to me.”

Lee’s season has been rocky, with two of his three losses coming in championship settings – both to Northwestern’s Sebastian Rivera, who lost in his semifinal match.

However, Lee’s aggressive nature and forward-thinking mantra has helped him succeed even against his toughest physical and mental opponents like Piccininni.

“Lee is showing who he is on the mat, and I’m excited to see him wrestle and perform at his very best,” head coach Tom Brands said.

Multiple Iowa wrestlers matched up with those they had faced before, which is something not uncommon at NCAAs.

Three of Lee’s four matches had been against someone he faced as recently as the 2018-19 season. For Lee and Piccininni, it was their fourth career meeting.

In 2018, Lee beat Piccininni in a 10-5 decision in a dual meet before pinning him at the 2018 NCAAs.“At this point, it’s the national tournament,” Lee said. “You can only wrestle who they put in front of you. It just so happened to be a rematch, but I just had to go out there [and] wrestle my hardest.”

Now, his focus has shifted again. This time, onto the 125 title match.

Lee will face the undefeated 5-seed in Virginia’s Jack Mueller as the first match on Saturday night for the championship round.

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