Iowa men’s wrestling to explore options at 125 pounds

The Hawkeyes have multiple contenders to fill senior Spencer Lee’s place for the rest of the 2021-22 season.


Jerod Ringwald

Iowa’s 125-pound Jesse Ybarra grapples with Army’s 125-pound Ryan Chauvin during a wrestling meet between No. 1 Iowa and Army at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City on Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021. Ybarra defeated Chauvin 3-1 with a take down in sudden victory.The Hawkeyes defeated the Black Knights 36-7.

Chloe Peterson, Assistant Sports Editor

The Iowa men’s wrestling team will begin its slate of Big Ten duals on Friday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, and the Hawkeyes will take on the Minnesota Golden Gophers without their best 125-pound wrestler.

Three-time national champion Spencer Lee announced he will undergo double ACL surgery, missing the rest of the 2021-22 season.

Lee only wrestled three matches in 2021-22 — all at the Rokfin Duals in Niceville, Florida, on Dec. 20 and 21. The senior went 3-0 in the Hawkeyes’ duals against Central Michigan, Lehigh, and North Carolina State. 

Lee tore his left ACL in the 2019 NCAA Championships, but elected to do intensive rehab instead of repairing the tear. The 125-pounder said his knee “came back remarkably fast” to the point that he could compete without pain. 

But when he tore his right ACL in the 2021 Big Ten Championships, it did not bounce back like he expected. Lee was experiencing extreme instability and soreness in competition with both knees compromised. 

In a Zoom meeting with reporters Wednesday, head coach Tom Brands said Lee was evaluated every day leading up to the decision to undergo surgery.

“There’s an injury there, and it doesn’t work,” Brands said. “It doesn’t work. He made it work under dire circumstances, and he persevered last March, but it’s not going to work. So, that’s where we’re at.”

Lee won his third national title at the 2021 NCAA Championships in St. Louis last March with two torn ACLs. The Hawkeyes took home their first team title since 2010 last year.

Now, Iowa will try to become back-to-back national champions without its sole reigning individual NCAA medalist. 

Even without Lee, Iowa’s wrestlers haven’t changed their mindsets.

“I think everybody wants to perform their best and score the most points possible anyways,” junior heavyweight Tony Cassioppi said. “I don’t think Spencer being out changes anyone’s approach, because we’re all super focused on reaching the top of that podium.”

The Hawkeyes will explore their options at 125 pounds, including redshirt freshman Jesse Ybarra and true freshman Drake Ayala.

Ybarra is in the Hawkeyes’ probable lineup for their duals against Minnesota and Purdue this weekend. Iowa will face off against Minnesota at 8 p.m. on Friday and Purdue at 2 p.m. Sunday.

“We have two options there, and we like having options,” Brands said. “Right now, we have Ybarra. And that’s where we’re at. We’ll figure it out as we figure it out.”

Ybarra has filled in for Lee in three duals so far this season, accruing a 2-1 record. He won by medical forfeit in the Hawkeyes’ bout against Princeton, and took down Army’s Ryan Chauvin via 3-1 decision. Ybarra’s sole loss this season came against Iowa State’s Kysen Terukina via 8-2 decision.

Ayala is a three-time high school state champion out of Fort Dodge, Iowa. He has competed unattached from the Hawkeyes so far this season. He recently finished third in Chattanooga Athletics’ Southern Scuffle.

Ayala was not slated to compete as a Hawkeye this year, but Brands could opt to pull his redshirt — allowing Ayala to wrestle in duals in the Black and Gold singlet in 2021-22.

“All year, [Ayala has] been consistent,” Brands said. “He’s hungry, he knows that this sport takes commitment. He comes from a great place that emphasized that his entire life … he’s a leader.”

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