Opinion | It’s been a privilege to cover Iowa wrestling for the last two seasons

DI Sports Editor Austin Hanson reflects on the Hawkeyes’ recent national title run and his time covering the team over the last two years.

Mar+20%2C+2021%3B+St.+Louis%2C+Missouri%2C+USA%3B++Iowa+Hawkeyes+wrestling+team+pose+for+a+photo+after+winning+the+NCAA+Division+I+Wrestling+Championships+at+Enterprise+Center.+Mandatory+Credit%3A+Jeff+Curry-USA+TODAY+Sports

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


It’s been five days since Iowa wrestling won the 2021 NCAA Division I Championships at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis, Missouri, and I still feel like I haven’t had adequate time to process the feat.

For the Hawkeyes, last weekend’s team national championship was their 24th in program history and their first since 2010.

Despite a medical forfeit from 165-pound Alex Marinelli after the tournament’s quarterfinals and a torn ACL in one of 125-pound Spencer Lee’s knees, the Hawkeyes still finished 15.5 points clear of all challengers.

Lee earned his third individual national title and outscored all his tournament opponents, 59-8, with a bum knee. In total, seven Hawkeyes earned All-America honors (it probably would’ve been eight had No. 1 seed Marinelli not been injured): Lee, 133-pound Austin DeSanto, 149-pound Jaydin Eierman, 157-pound Kaleb Young, 174-pound Michael Kemerer, 197-pound Jacob Warner, and heavyweight Tony Cassioppi.

Lee and the rest of Iowa’s All-Americans brought a national title back to a town and a university that were starving and impatiently waiting for elite-level success.

For a program that won 23 national championships in a 35-year span from 1975 to 2010, an 11-year wait between NCAA titles seemed to feel about the same as the Chicago Cubs’ 108-year World Series drought.

In his post-meet press conference with reporters, head coach Tom Brands put it best, saying, “It’s been eleven years since a real important trophy’s been in Iowa City,” and “This isn’t automatic. This was earned.”

RELATED: Iowa wrestling claims long-awaited NCAA Championship

After I logged off the video conference with Brands Saturday night, I struggled to find the right words to say and write — which is unique for me, as I’m rarely speechless. Given the gravity of the situation, I felt unsure that I was fit to write the story. Did I deserve to write about such a momentous occurrence?

Iowa had just won a historic national championship, right in front my eyes. Lee had just admitted he wrestled the entire tournament on a torn ACL, and yet, I still didn’t feel like I had words that could accurately depict and describe what I had seen and experienced from Thursday morning’s Session I action to Friday night’s finals.

Everything happened so fast. Each day I arrived at the Enterprise Center a little after 8 a.m. and stayed until midnight when I was told it was time for me to exit my seat by venue staff. The days were long and the nights were short, but I was just glad I had a chance to be there.

After I filed my story, exited the Enterprise Center, and spilled out onto the quiet and brisk streets of St. Louis Saturday night, making my way toward my vehicle for the weekend and driving back to my hotel, I found myself reflecting on my own personal journey to the NCAA Championships and the Hawkeyes’.

Eighteen months ago, wrestling wasn’t even on my radar. I didn’t know how the sport was scored or how long the periods were. I might not have even known who Spencer Lee was. I certainly wouldn’t have recognized him had I passed him by.

The first time I ever even watched wrestling was at Iowa’s Nov. 17, 2019, dual at Carver-Hawkeye Arena against Tennessee-Chattanooga.

RELATED: New and familiar faces help lift Iowa wrestling to 39-0 win

The week prior at media day — back when things were still done in-person — I was interviewing Lee, Marinelli, and Kemerer. I didn’t know the athletes or their roles or their sport at that point. I was also unsure why media day was outside in the cold at Kroul Farms in Mt. Vernon, Iowa, but the burning firewood and the crisp late-fall air were charming, and I had a good time.

All I knew was that wrestling is Iowa’s biggest and baddest sport, and that I was talking to some top-tier athletes.

There were some growing pains trying to write about wrestling, interview the athletes, and learn as much as I could about the sport and the Hawkeye program all at once.

At times, I wasn’t sure if I could cut it. But I’m glad I stuck with it because covering wrestling has given me some of the most thrilling opportunities of my young career, and I’m happy to have just been along for the ride with the Hawkeyes over the last two years.

I was at Carver-Hawkeye Arena when Cassioppi defeated Wisconsin’s Trent Hillger for the first time, asserting that he was ready to compete at a high level, even as a freshman.

I covered the meet that saw 184-pound Abe Assad make his Hawkeye debut, as Brands decided to pull Assad’s redshirt and go all in on winning immediately.

RELATED: Iowa wrestling blanks Indiana in Bloomington

I watched Iowa’s miraculous comeback victory against Penn State, and felt Carver-Hawkeye Arena shake as a sellout crowd witnessed Kemerer’s upset of then-No. 1 Mark Hall to boost Iowa to a 19-17 win on Jan. 31, 2020.

I saw the Hawkeyes honor former Iowa wrestler Brandon Sorenson with bandanas last January after he was diagnosed with Lymphoblastic Leukemia.

I also covered the Hawkeyes when their 2020 season was canceled because of COVID-19, robbing them of a chance win a national title.

RELATED: Hawkeye wrestling denied ending to dominant 2019-20 season

Also tied up in that heartbreak was Pat Lugo, who lost out on what would’ve been the last NCAA Championship of his career. He was ranked No. 1 at his weight, and he was wrestling better than he ever had before heading into the eventually-canceled tournament.

Unfortunately for Lugo, he did not receive an additional year of eligibility from the NCAA, so he never got his chance to prove himself on a national stage.

RELATED: Pat Lugo reflects on 2019-20 wrestling season, Hawkeye career

Pre-pandemic, I even had Brands call me out for laughing at something he said at a press conference (see the 2:56 mark of the video below).

Now, I’ve seen things come full circle for Iowa. I witnessed history. I watched Iowa wrestling bring a long-awaited title back to Iowa City even after last season’s NCAA Championships were canceled.

I might not have covered every meet or media availability session, but it has been an honor and a privilege to cover Iowa wrestling over the past two years, and I thank The Daily Iowan, our publisher Jason Brummond, and our Executive Editor Sarah Watson for giving me the opportunity to cover Iowa wrestling.

RELATED: Opinion | The Daily Iowan provides young journalists with unique opportunities, and it’s worth supporting

I also greatly appreciate the efforts of Iowa wrestling’s sports information director Chris Brewer. Without him, I likely would not have seen Iowa’s national title last weekend live and in-person, nor would I have had near as many chances to talk to the likes of Lee, Marinelli, Kemerer, and Eierman.

So, congratulations to Hawkeyes. Following them on their journey for the last two years has been a pleasure, and I’m excited to see what lies ahead.

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