Iowa wrestling claims long-awaited NCAA Championship

Iowa wrestling claimed its 24th NCAA team title Saturday night, ending an 11-year championship drought.


Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Mar 20, 2021; St. Louis, Missouri, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes wrestling team pose for a photo after winning the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships at Enterprise Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Austin Hanson, Sports Editor

ST. LOUIS — Over the last 11 years, the NCAA Division I Wrestling team championship trophy has resided in trophy cases in both Columbus, Ohio, and State College, Pennsylvania.

Soon, the hardware will return to a familiar destination — Iowa City.

On Saturday, Iowa wrestling won its 24th national title, ending an 11-year championship drought — the longest the program has faced since it won its first national title in 1975.

The Hawkeyes posted a 129.0 team score across three days and seven sessions of NCAA Championship wrestling to clinch an overall team victory. Iowa finished the 2021 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships 15.5 points clear of all challengers.

“It’s been eleven years since a real important trophy’s been in Iowa City,” Hawkeye head coach Tom Brands said Saturday. “This team, and these 35 guys back in that wrestling room, and these ten guys here, and this coaching staff, and this administration brought a trophy back that is important to our fan base. So, that’s gotta be said. Is there relief? Not really. But there is joy.”

Since 2010, the trophy has been away from Iowa City. Iowa’s 2010 title capped a stretch of three-straight national championships that began in 2008.

After their 2010 championship run, the Hawkeyes struggled on a national stage — finishing in as low as fifth place at the NCAA Championships. For a program that claimed 23 national titles over a 35-year period from 1975 to 2010, fifth-place finishes did not meet expectations.

“I think it puts in context the work we had to do, how far we were off, ” Brands said. “… I think it’s time to enjoy, and that’s really hard for me to say. But, as the leader of the program, I gotta steer it that way because our fanbase has craved this. This isn’t automatic. This was earned.”

The 2021 team title is Tom Brands’ fourth as head coach of the Hawkeyes.

While Iowa sat dormant from 2010 to 2019, another program emerged as the nation’s next dynastic national powerhouse — Penn State. While the Hawkeyes were seemingly on the sideline, Penn State won eight national championships in a nine-year stretch.

On Saturday night, the Nittany Lions flexed their muscles again, though they didn’t snatch the NCAA team title from Iowa.

Penn State crowned four individual national champions Saturday: 133-pound Roman Bravo-Young, 141-pound Nick Lee, 174-pound Carter Starocci, and 184-pound Aaron Brooks.

Lee defeated Iowa’s Jaydin Eierman in the finals via 4-2 decision in sudden victory and Starocci downed Iowa’s Michael Kemerer 3-1 in sudden victory. So, while the Hawkeyes did claim the team title, the Nittany Lions still swiped two individual national titles from them.

Eierman bested Lee, 6-5, March 7 to win a Big Ten Championship. Kemerer did the same, dispatching Starocci, 7-2, to claim his first Big Ten individual title.

The rest of Iowa’s lineup, however, proved to be too much for the Nitanny Lions at the NCAA Championships as seven Hawkeyes — including Eierman and Kemerer — earned All-America honors for the 2020-21 season. Senior 133-pounder Austin DeSanto and sophomore heavyweight Tony Cassioppi both finished the NCAA Championships in third place at their respective weights.

Junior Jacob Warner finished in fourth place and senior Kaleb Young in seventh.

Iowa’s top-performer was 125-pound senior Spencer Lee — as has been the case the last two times Iowa competed at the NCAA Championships.

The Murrysville, Pennsylvania, native won his third individual national title, defeating Arizona State’s Brandon Courtney, 7-0, in the tournament finals, despite wrestling the entirety of the 2021 NCAA Championships on a torn ACL.

“You do your job as an individual, and team titles come,” Lee said. “I didn’t just do this for me. I did this for the seniors that lost out last year. I’m getting kinda emotional. I wanted them to win with us. They didn’t get that opportunity. I mean, I don’t even care about this trophy right now … We do our jobs as individuals and the team titles come, how’s that? Other than that, I do it for those guys that missed out. They missed out on being national champs. I’m sad about it, but I’m thankful to the NCAA for allowing us to have this.”

Lee wasn’t the only Hawkeye that struggled with injuries during the 2021 NCAA Championships. Senior 165-pound No. 1 seed Alex Marinelli medically forfeited his first consolation match, losing out on his opportunity to wrestle his way to All-America honors after he was eliminated in upset fashion in the tournament’s quarterfinals by eventual-champion Shane Griffith of Stanford.

Despite all that Brands and company have been through both this weekend and in the last ten years, there was never a doubt that Iowa would return to the top of college wrestling.

“There’s never doubt,” Brands said. “I mean, this program has never redshirted its best team. This program has put its best team on the mat every year. We will continue to do that. Our fanbase expects it, our administration expects it, our coaching staff expects it. The kids we recruit, those parents expect it, and we want to deliver to those athletes. So, that’s important to us.”

“You gotta remember who you’re talking to here, as well, is from a competitive aspect, Tom and Terry Brands,” Brands said. “The level of athlete that you’re coaching is who you recruit. It’s Spencer Lee, Michael Kemerer, Alex Marinelli, on and on and on, Tony Cassioppi. Now with a transfer, Jaydin Eierman. So, we expect to deliver every year.”