By Pete Ruden
The Iowa wrestling program has always been one of the best.
The dynasty started in 1976, when the legendary Dan Gable took over as the Hawkeyes head coach.
Iowa won 15 NCAA team titles under Gable’s watch, including nine in a row. The Hawkeyes then went on to win three more championships under the next coach, Jim Zalesky.
As soon as Zalesky’s time was up, the Tom Brands era began, which has brought three more titles.
While it might not have been a national championship, Brands’ Hawkeyes picked up another award this year, being named The Daily Iowan’s Team of the Year for the 2016-17 season.
After being ranked third in the country for the majority of the season, the wrestlers ended the season with a third-place finish at the Big Ten Championships and a fourth-place finish at the NCAAs.
Following a 13-win regular season with an action-packed schedule including top-tier teams such as Oklahoma State, Penn State, and Ohio State, the year culminated with Iowa’s star 133-pounder Cory Clark winning an individual national title.
He battled injuries and disappointment, but in the end, he came out on top.
Such a monumental accomplishment needed an honor unlike any other, and March 29 was declared Cory Clark Recognition Day in honor of the Pleasant Hill, Iowa, native.
It was a long time coming for Clark, who had finished second at nationals the previous two years, and the moment was completely different from the past.
“I thought if it wouldn’t have got done, it would have been a disaster, because that was my goal as a senior in high school,” Clark said after his championship run. “So to get it done this year is incredible.”
Throughout the regular season, though, another lightweight was dominant. Thomas Gilman was masterful in his craft all year long on his way to an undefeated regular season and a Big Ten title.
However, Gilman’s season didn’t end how quite how he hoped. He suffered his first loss of the season in the national semifinals and settled for third place.
Still, after tremendous seasons, there are spots for both Gilman and Clark in the Hawkeye Wrestling Club, along with 2016-17 teammates Alex Meyer and Big Ten champion Sammy Brooks.
Brooks, who was a back-to-back Big Ten champion in his time as a Hawkeye, as well as being a two-time All-American, will also leave the team.
His interview about his mullet after the 2016 conference title became famous, and it is one of the reasons he has been one of the more entertaining Hawkeyes in recent years, both on and off the mat.
Meyer and 141-pounder Topher Carton will also be gone. An All-American in 2016, Meyer has hopes of going into the medical field, while Carton will also be missed after qualifying for nationals in his only season as a full-time starter.
The graduating seniors have played huge roles for the program in terms of wrestling and other things. While the Hawkeyes have some strong returners, the presence of those who made the season what it was will be missed.
“Part of a senior class that has been vital to a culture change a little bit,” Brands said. “When I talk about culture change, I’m talking about being good leaders for our young guys, our freshmen, incoming freshmen. They host recruits, they do it all. They’ve been on board every step of the way, and that’s every one of those senior class members.”
Iowa has a nucleus returning in 149-pound senior Brandon Sorensen and 157-pound sophomore Michael Kemerer.
Sorensen was an NCAA runner-up in 2016 and placed third in 2017, giving the Hawkeyes some needed experience.
While Sorensen certainly had a year worth noting, Kemerer had one of the most impressive seasons on the team. As a redshirt freshman, the Murrysville, Pennsylvania, native placed third at NCAAs and second at Big Tens.
With highly touted recruit Spencer Lee coming in and Alex Marinelli coming off his redshirt season, the Hawkeyes have potential to make some noise after losing key contributors.
They will also return Joey Gunther, Cash Wilcke, and Sam Stoll, who all have experience competing at the NCAA Tournament.
With that, the team will be in good hands when next season comes around.
“I’m gonna miss those [seniors] a lot,” Kemerer said. “Learned a lot from those guys. We’ll be a young team next year, so I gotta take the stuff that they’ve taught me and teach it to some of these younger guys. We just gotta get back to winning, and it starts with our young guys right away, just getting in with that right mentality.”