Ryan Adams for the Daily Iowan
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — The Iowa wrestling program’s 37th Big Ten Championship was preceded by circumstances not present for the first 36.
For months, the Hawkeyes did not know when their season would start because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut down the 2020 season just ahead of the national tournament. Heading into the 2021 Big Ten Championships at the fan-less Bryce Jordan Center, Iowa had not competed since Feb. 7 after positive COVID-19 tests led the program to pause activities.
The entire regular season, the Hawkeyes only competed in five duals. Iowa even had to share the regular season conference title with Penn State.
But there’s no disputing the Big Ten’s true champion.
The top-ranked Iowa wrestling team dominated the field in Pennsylvania, winning the Big Ten team title with 159.5 points to repeat as conference champions. Penn State finished in second place (124), followed by Nebraska in third (105.5).
“Everything was uncertain [this year], and that uncertainty was part of the conversation,” Iowa head coach Tom Brands said. “ We had to be ready for everything this season.”
The Hawkeyes were ready over the weekend in State College.
Or, as Brands likes to say, they were “ready, ready.”
The team’s point total is its highest since 1995 (185), and the 35.5-point margin of victory is the largest by a conference champion since the 2010 Hawkeyes won by 37 points.
Four Hawkeyes — Spencer Lee (125 pounds), Jaydin Eierman (141), Alex Marinelli (165), and Michael Kemerer (174) — earned individual championships on Iowa’s path to the team title.
Austin DeSanto (133) and Kaleb Young (157) lost their finals matches on Sunday to finish in second place. Jacob Warner (197) and Tony Cassioppi (285) ended the tournament in third place, while Nelson Brands (184) came in fourth.
The Hawkeyes used six pins, two technical falls, and two major decisions on their way to 159.5 points, a total that surpassed the 157.5 that won Iowa the tournament a year ago.
All nine Iowa wrestlers who placed earned automatic bids to nationals.
Max Murin (141) is the only Hawkeye to not place at Big Tens, but will likely receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Championships, which start March 18 in St. Louis.
“A lot of us are happy with how we competed,” Lee said. “But we wanted everyone to be in the finals. We wanted 10 finalists. We’ve got things to improve on. We’re going to have 10 at nationals and we have to be ready to go.”
Lee and Brands were named the Big Ten Wrestler and Coach of the Year for the second season in a row after the tournament ended. This is the second and fifth times those two have earned those honors, respectively.
Lee defended his first Big Ten title last year by defeating Purdue’s Devin Schroder in the finals via 21-3 technical fall. Over the two-day tournament, Lee outscored his three opponents 44-7 on his way to becoming the third Hawkeye to win Big Ten Wrestler of the Year multiple times.
Uncharacteristically, Lee surrendered a takedown to Schroder and trailed 2-0 at the start of his championship match. But a 21-1 run full of plenty of takedowns and nearfall points put Lee on top and ended the match in the second round.
Was there ever a doubt?
For the second straight year, @Hawks_Wrestling’s @LeeSpencerlee36 is the B1G champion at 125 pounds. 🏆@ncaawrestling // @trackwrestling pic.twitter.com/UcmYoXCyqM
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) March 7, 2021
Minnesota’s heavyweight Gable Steveson, who has won the past two Big Ten titles at 285 pounds and was named the outstanding wrestler of the 2021 championships, said Lee is “no-question” the best pound-for-pound wrestler in college wrestling.
Two finals matches after Lee took the mat, Eierman’s 6-5 decision over Penn State’s Nick Lee earned him fourth career conference championship, but first in the Big Ten as a Hawkeye.
Eierman won three MAC championships at 141 pounds in his time at Missouri. He closed out his first Big Ten Tournament in his first year as a Hawkeye just the way he imagined he would.
“This is why I transferred,” Eierman said. “To get better and better and better every day.
“This is an unreal feeling. Last year I was on the outside looking in. It’s a lot more fun being on the inside. I’m getting a better feel every match. This is a great tournament, a great opponent every match. It is a great preview for nationals.”
“This is why I transferred. To get better and better and better every day.”
Emotional moment for @JEierman141 after winning a Big Ten title in his first season with @[email protected] | @trackwrestling pic.twitter.com/JjHK2khS8Y
— Iowa On BTN (@IowaOnBTN) March 7, 2021
Eierman’s victory clinched Iowa the team title. But there was never much doubt the heavily favored Hawkeyes were going to come out on top.
Iowa went 28-8 overall on the weekend. The Hawkeyes led by as many as 49 points and entered Sunday with a 23-point advantage. But Iowa certainly didn’t let up after securing the team’s honor.
At 165 and 174, Marinelli and Kemerer hit milestones in back-to-back finals matches.
Marinelli defeated Ohio State’s Ethan Smith by 3-2 decision to win his third consecutive Big Ten title. “The Bull” is the 26th Hawkeye in program history to win at least three conference championships.
Coming into this year’s tournament, Marinelli had only competed two times this season. He tested positive for COVID-19 after Iowa’s Jan. 22 dual with Minnesota and had not wrestled since.
“It’s just as sweet [as the other two],” Marinelli said. “The only thing I can say is that I am thankful to be wrestling with my guys. We have waited a whole year and come full circle. I am thankful to be on the board with the three-time champs and feel very blessed. I have the best teammates and coaches in the world.”
How does this Big Ten title compare to the other two for @alexmarinelli65?
“It’s just as sweet.”@ncaawrestling | @trackwrestling pic.twitter.com/4q7KcjDb8q
— Iowa On BTN (@IowaOnBTN) March 7, 2021
A two-time Big Ten runner up, Kemerer finally won his title in finals attempt No. 3.
The Murrysville, Pennsylvania, native defeated Penn State’s No. 3 Carter Starocci by 7-2 decision for the victory. Kemerer had previously lost in the 157-pound finals in 2017 and the 174-pound finals last year.
“Knowing how it feels to not be on top makes it feel better,” Kemerer said. “I watched some of my teammates win it last year, so I felt like I was missing out. I wanted to finally get that title.”
This is the first time since 2001 that Iowa has four individual conference champions. And all of this year’s champs figure to be back on the team next season. All four of Iowa’s one seeds won titles and nine of the team’s wrestlers wrestled at or above their seed.
Iowa did everything it was supposed to do coming into championship weekend. But the expectations don’t stop there.
This is a program that judges itself on NCAA Championships, not just Big Ten Championships.
And a national champion will be named on March 20.
“Let’s do it again,” Brands said. “That’s what competitors do. Let’s do it in St. Louis.”
Final team standings
1 IOWA 159.5
2 Penn State 124.0
3 Nebraska 105.5
4 Michigan 92.0
5 Minnesota 77.5
6 Purdue 76.0
7 Northwestern 74.0
8 Michigan State 73.5
9 Ohio State 69.5
10 Rutgers 52.0
11 Illinois 32.0
12 Wisconsin 30.5
13 Indiana 22.0
14 Maryland 2.0
125 – #1 Spencer Lee (IA) tech. fall #7 Devin Schroder (PU), 21-3 (4:30)
133 – #1 Roman Bravo-Young (PSU) dec. #2 Austin DeSanto (IA), 5-2
141 – #1 Jaydin Eierman (IA) dec. #2 Nick Lee (PSU), 6-5
157 – #1 Ryan Deakin (NU) dec. #2 Kaleb Young (IA), 6-0
165 – #1 Alex Marinelli (IA) dec. #3 Ethan Smith (OSU), 3-2
174 – #1 Michael Kemerer (IA) dec. #3 Carter Starocci (PSU), 7-2
184 – #5 John Poznanski (RUT) dec. #9 Nelson Brands (IA), 3-2
197 – #3 Jacob Warner (IA) dec. #4 Cameron Caffey (MSU), 8-3
285 – #3 Tony Cassioppi (IA) major dec. #7 Greg Kerkvliet (PSU), 9-0