By Taylor McNitt
Coming into the 2017-18 season, the Iowa wrestling program faces a number of unknowns. One in particular is the 125 weight class. It’s not a matter of if someone will step up and claim the spot,it’s a matter of who will beat out the others for the spot.
Ex-Hawkeye wrestler Thomas Gilman left the spot upon graduating last spring, and some might have assumed that junior Perez Perez would step in and claim it. But two true freshmen have upset that assumption: Justin Stickley and Spencer Lee.
Stickley and Perez faced off in the wrestle-offs on Nov. 3, with Stickley coming out on top, 15-0.
The two faced off again in Decorah at the Luther Open, and once again, Stickley triumphed.
“It’s exciting,” said sophomore Michael Kemerer, one of the team leaders emerging this year. “It’s no secret that we lost a lot of guys last year, we have a lot of new faces. It’s a different environment, but I’m excited because the young guys who are just stepping in, they don’t often get the credit they deserve. I’m excited to see them; they’re going to prove some things to people.”
And Stickley certainly has proven himself. But Lee has yet to hit the mat publicly, which raises a lot of questions.
Is he up for competition this year, or should he be redshirted?
“That’s a tough question. It’s not for me to answer, but I know that [Lee]’s a dang good wrestler,” Kemerer said. “He’s got international experience, he’s got more international experience than I’ve had. I mean, he’s wrestled, trained, in some of the best rooms in the country, best rooms in the world, for the last couple years. And you look at how he competes, and he competes hard, so that kind of speaks for itself.”
It does speak — loudly. His impact goes beyond his teammates.
Head coach Tom Brands has seen the effect in the wrestling room.
“Spencer Lee is a unique individual,” Brands said. “He’s a competitor from the word go. He’s fun to watch, he’s entertaining. He brings a lot of scoring energy, a lot of boom, boom, boom … he’s having fun. He’ll tell you, in his words, ‘This is awesome,’ and he’s growing every day. We’ll see him soon.”
“We’ll see him soon” is a somewhat vague answer to the question fans are asking. Lee didn’t make an appearance in the wrestle-offs or the Luther Open.
With Stickley and Perez fighting for and holding the 125-weight slot, people are wondering where a freshman such as Lee will fit in.
“[Fans] can get excited about something that they maybe haven’t seen a lot of because he wasn’t in the wrestle-off, and a lot of his workouts are controlled right now,” Brands said. “We’re going to be very careful with what we do.”
The answers still aren’t clear, but one thing is: Even if Lee isn’t competing, he, with the rest of his class, will make a difference on the mat.
“The energy has been good, we have the right kids in here, we have the right freshmen,” senior Brandon Sorensen said. “They’re doing the right things. We’ll see what happens with the lineup, [but] I’m not the coach. I’m not making the decisions.”
And ultimately, it is up to Brands and what he sees on the mat. As it looks going into the Iowa City Duals, Stickley will likely take the 125 spot, but the depth of experience in that weight class could turn the tables throughout the season.