Opinion | Last-second stinger: Iowa men’s wrestling season in review

Daily Iowan Sports Reporter Kenna Roering breaks down how the 2023 men’s wrestling season should be remembered.


Ayrton Breckenridge

The Iowa wrestling team poses for a team picture after session six of the NCAA Wrestling Championships at BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla. on Saturday, March 18, 2023. Iowa finished second in team points with 82.5.

Kenna Roering, Sports Reporter

My first NCAA Division I Men’s Wrestling Championships experience wasn’t far from what I expected in terms of the team race. The Hawkeyes placed runner-up with 82.5 points, trailing Penn State, who crowned two individual champions to finish with 137.5 points.

Iowa also finished second to Penn State at last year’s NCAA Tournament, where the Nittany Lions crowned five individual national champions. Iowa was just one of four schools, including Oklahoma State, Virginia Tech, and Missouri to have all 10 wrestlers competing at this year’s national tournament. But the Hawkeyes failed to take home any individual titles.

“We have to come back strong. We will. We have character. I believe that,” Iowa head coach Tom Brands said following the tournament. “The hard part is having the right look on your face that has optimism for the future, and it’s hard to do right now. I said it last year — I’m an envious guy. I’m jealous. And here we are again.”

What made the tournament feel a whole lot less successful for the Hawkeyes was the upset that rocked the entire collegiate wrestling world. Purdue’s Matt Ramos pinned Iowa’s three-time national champion Spencer Lee in the final second of their semifinal match. The defeat crushed Lee’s hopes of becoming Iowa’s first-ever four-time national champion as well as his 58-match winning streak.

I was shocked along with the other 16,000 people inside the BOK Center and everyone watching at home. I still don’t think I’ve fully processed what happened while I’m writing this. It was a heartbreaking finish for those everywhere that have spent the last six seasons rooting for Lee, especially after all the adversity he’s been through. I think there’s very few people in the world that would battle through such unprecedented circumstances and win a national title with two torn ACLs.

What made it even harder was hearing the sadness in Tom Brands’ voice following Lee’s loss. In an interview after the semifinal round, Tom Brands said Lee’s loss felt tragic to him.

“It’s hard. This is really hard,” Tom Brands said. “But you still have to move on. As easy as it sounds, that’s the next step. It seems cruel to say that because the magnitude of it is high.”

Instead of vying for third place, Lee medically forfeited the medal round and automatically finished sixth at 125 pounds, ending his career with a record of 98-6. This will obviously be Iowa’s biggest loss next season, as Lee is now turning his focus to his Olympic and world title aspirations.

But he does plan on staying in Iowa City to train for his future endeavors and to take on more of a mentorship role. I think his presence in Iowa’s practice room will be beneficial for the squad’s future success.

Out of the Hawkeyes’ 10 national tournament qualifiers, 141-pound Real Woods was the only grappler to make it to the championship finals. He fell to Northern Colorado’s No. 2 seed Andrew Alirez, 6-4.

But Tom Brands said after the conclusion of the tournament that the Hawkeyes need to see the glass half full and give celebration status to those who earned it.

Woods, a Stanford transfer, became a three-time All-American with his second-place finish — the highest finish of his career. Woods’ appearance in the championship match also extended Iowa’s streak of NCAA finalists to 33 consecutive tournaments.

Although the loss stings, Woods said he is proud of himself. Hawkeye fans should also be proud of his first season in the Black and Gold.  Tom Brands said Woods’ resilient character will help him move on from the loss and come back stronger, and I think Woods will be a top contender at 141-pounds again next season.

“That is what life is about, and that’s what is so beautiful about this sport,” Woods said. “This is the kind of stuff you’re going to deal with in life. Through any hardship, you’re going to deal with this pain and the fact you need to move forward and move on and continue to grow. That’s just life.”

Iowa crowned six All-Americans, including Lee and 197-pound Jacob Warner, who became the second and third five-time All-Americans in program history, joining former Hawkeye 174-pounder Michael Kemerer. This marked the 10th consecutive season Iowa’s crowned at least five All-Americans.

Warner, 149-pound Max Murin, and 174-pound Nelson Brands combined for six consecutive wins in the consolation bracket to stay in contention for third place following Lee’s loss. Warner, the 2022 national runner-up, ended his Hawkeye career fifth on the podium. Penn State’s Max Dean, last year’s title winner at 197 pounds, finished seventh.  This shows how difficult the NCAA tournament is and why I think every Hawkeye fan should be pleased with six podium finishes.

Murin finished sixth for the first NCAA podium finish of his career. Murin fought to the last second in the quarterfinals against Cornell’s eventual four-time NCAA Champion Yianni Diakomihalis. Murin fell, 8-7, marking Diakomihalis’s smallest margin of victory throughout his final NCAA tournament run.

Nelson Brands showed his toughness throughout the tournament, coming away with two wins in sudden victory and five wins against top-10 seeds en route to fifth place, the highest finish of his career. Nelson Brands was recovering from Tommy John surgery and broke his collarbone in October 2022, so I think a fifth-place finish is a big success for the adversity he faced this season.

Tony Cassioppi finished fourth after being pinned by Air Force’s Wyatt Hendrickson in the third-place bout, but he still became Iowa’s 25th four-time All-American.

So, while I think this tournament and season in general will be remembered more for its failures than feats, there is still a lot to celebrate.

And Tom Brands’ squad is already aware there is a lot of reflection and rebuilding to be done for next season, and I guarantee the Hawkeyes feel worse about their own performances than any of the fans ever could.

The Hawkeyes can return seven of their 10 starters next season — as long as Cassioppi, Woods, and Nelson Brands come back for their final season of eligibility.