By James Geerdes
The 55th -annual Ken Kraft Midlands Championship is finally here, and Iowa has an impressive résumé. New faces dot the lineup for the Hawkeyes as well seasoned veterans.
Every weight class has top-tier talent so, above all, Midlands will serve as a gauge to see where Iowa wrestling stands among some of the nation’s best.
Familiar stomping ground
The Midlands Championships knows the Hawkeyes well.
Historically, Iowa is the biggest wrestling powerhouse at Northwestern’s event. The Hawkeyes have won 26 of the 54 team titles, the most by any team. Seven Hawkeyes are in the Midlands Hall of Fame, including head coach Tom Brands, assistant coach Terry Brands, and former head coach Dan Gable.
Since 2006, when Tom Brands took over, Iowa has won eight Midlands championships and notched 25 individual titles.
Senior Brandon Sorensen will seek to embed himself in Midlands history this year as he guns for his third title at 149 pounds. He would join 11 other Hawkeyes who boast the honor. Sorensen is 22-4 all-time at Midlands.
Sophomore Michael Kemerer is Iowa’s other defending Midlands champion, and he will hunt for his second title this year.
The match of the year
2017 has the chance to go out with a bang. That chance is in the form of a match between Iowa’s true freshman Spencer Lee and Rutgers sophomore Nick Suriano.
Free the Lee is finally happening — well, that is, if Lee makes it happen, Tom Brands says.
Questions have surrounded Lee and his redshirt thus far this season, and if Brands decides to pull it, Iowa will have a lot more talent in the form of the high-caliber 125-pounder.
Lee has three college wrestling matches under his belt, but they have only shown just a hint of his college capability and talent.
No. 2-ranked Suriano and Lee have met twice in pre-college competition. Each has one win against the other, with Lee taking the most recent his freshman year of high school.
“I’m sure everyone wants to see [a matchup against Suriano],” Lee said. “I haven’t wrestled him since high school. You know, we’re 1 and 1, he beat me when I was in eighth grade and I got him as a freshman. But none of that really matters anymore, right? This is college wrestling. This is a new year, a new day, a new time. It will be a lot of fun. Obviously, I’ve got to win the first match, and the second, and the third, and the fourth. But he would be a lot of fun to wrestle; he’s a great competitor.”
Marinelli is still at it
Alex Marinelli will make his third appearance for the Hawkeyes this season at Midlands. He already has some impressive matches under his belt this season, including a win over Rutgers’ No. 9 Richie Lewis.
Last year, the redshirt freshman finished fourth at the event; this year, he says, he is capable of more.
“I got to go out there and let it fly,” Marinelli said. “I gave some of these guys too much credit last year. I know that if I attack and attack, they can’t keep up with our pace.”
Midlands offers another potential matchup between the two. In addition, Illinois’ Isaiah Martinez will be in the mix, a No. 2-ranked wrestler and two-time national champion.
A crowded class
All of Iowa’s weights are competitive. But the 197-pound spot goes beyond normal weight classes in Brands’ lineup: Iowa has three potential All-Americans in the class.
Cash Wilcke currently holds the starting job, but true freshman Jacob Warner has wrestled strongly while unattached this season. Wilcke was an All-American last year and is currently ranked eighth.
In addition to Wilcke and Warner, Pat Downey transferred to Iowa after being released from Iowa State’s program last spring.
Although he tweeted his Midlands weight, he later tweeted that he would not compete in the tournament. He has the versatility to also wrestle at 184 or 197, and he will await his Iowa début come January, when he is academically eligible.
Downey won a national title at Iowa Central in 2015 and placed fifth in 2016’s NCAA Championships.
Wilcke and Warner have been the 197-pound contenders in the wrestling complex, but with the addition of Downey, the class got much more competitive.
Separating the lighter weights
197-pounds is not the only weight class in which Iowa has an abundance of talent. Brands has swapped men in and out at 133 and 141 as well.
The 141-pound spot has been held by Vince Turk for the majority of the season. Sophomore Carter Happel was introduced into the Iowa lineup against Rutgers and Maryland, and he is currently 1-1. Turk is 3-2 and still the guy, Brands says.
“It’s still Turk,” he said. “He emerged in the early part of the season, he’s still a half a head ahead, and now we go to Midlands.”
Paul Glynn and Phillip Laux have alternated the duties at 133-pounds.
“I think that Laux is probably a little bit more ahead than I described at ‘41,” Brands said. “I guess that there’s a phrase out there, ‘Free the Lee,’ and it’s more like, ‘Free Paul Glynn.’ Let Paul Glynn be free to wrestle his match. I don’t anticipate that he’ll be in his rut for long.”
Glynn has a 2-3 record this year, and Laux is 7-1. Both wrestlers will be at Midlands, giving Brands a good assessment of who deserves the starting spot.
“We’ll see [if people will separate themselves out at 133 at Midlands],” Brands said. “There are options there as well.”