By James Geerdes
CLEVELAND — Ohio State head coach Tom Ryan wanted one thing.
“My life is complete, but it will be a little more complete if he manages to win a second national championship,” Ryan said on March 14. “And if he doesn’t, on my deathbed I will say that I will probably be a little less satisfied with life. That’s how bad that I want to see this guy end with a national championship.”
“This guy” is Nathan Tomasello, last year’s 133-pound national champion and a four-time All American. Ryan will have a note on deathbed bed after Iowa true freshman Spencer Lee topped “this guy” in the semifinals to help lead an Iowa squad to a healthy third place in the team score at the NCAAs.
Lee’s route to the finals was not an easy one, but he still leads all college wrestlers in team points with 23. In his first college season, the 125-pounder has used two tech falls and two pins to put himself in the finals.
In his path stood No. 14 Luke Welch, No. 6 Nick Piccininni, and No. 2 Tomasello. Lee’s journey has crossed Tomasello’s three times now, and Iowa’s 125-pounder has had his arm raised twice. Tomasello has one of Lee’s two college losses but Lee ended the Ohio State senior’s chance of becoming a two-time NCAA champion.
“Just believing in yourself and your training and focusing on wrestling every position as hard as you can, because if you don’t against an opponent as good as [Tomasello], he’ll capitalize on you,” Lee said. “And I knew I had to step it up for today.”
And that’s exactly what he did. The freshman’s team points helped propel Iowa into third, but Michigan remains close behind.
It may not be first place but it’s certainly not where many thought this Iowa team would end up. And much of that is thanks to Lee’s efforts.
Hawkeye coach Tom Brands and Company entered the NCAA Championships ranked No. 7 in the final Division-1 coaches’ poll. After two days of action in Cleveland, Iowa sits in third place with just Lee in the finals.
Michigan has acquired 73.5 points, still 13 behind Iowa. Two Wolverines advanced to the finals, and they have plenty of firepower on the backside. Three other Wolverines were also named All-Americans and are competing for podium spots.
Just two weeks ago, Iowa landed a distant fourth at the Big Ten Championships with only 90.5 points. Michigan had 118, while Penn State and Ohio State had 148 and 164.5, respectively. Those numbers seem to be reversing themselves after the semifinals, as Iowa has taken the No. 3 position, and Penn State has taken the No. 1 spot.
Now, Penn State has established a dominant lead at the tournament with 120.5 points. The Nittany Lions put five wrestlers in the finals and still have three on the backside. Ohio State has 109.5 points but only has two in the finals, with six on the backside.
Iowa wrestlers used a solid second day to put themselves in third. Although 165-pounder Alex Marinelli fell to former national champion Isaiah Martinez, Iowa crowned five All-Americans. Brandon Sorensen, Michael Kemerer, and Sam Stoll join Marinelli and Lee with the honors, with the trio pushing through the blood rounds of consolation matches.
Sorensen, Kemerer, and Stoll are still alive and wrestling for places on the podium in the March 17 sessions.
“There was a lot of wrestling left after this morning, and there was a lot of wrestling left after yesterday,” Brands said. “Now, we’re getting to the end. We’ve got our guys in position for placings. Spencer Lee’s in the finals.”
Lee will see Rutgers’ Nick Suriano in the 125-pound finals, but Iowa’s backside will need to stay strong to keep its team score soaring.
“We had some guys who got upset, Stoll and Sorensen, and they came back strong, and then you throw Kemerer in there, he came back strong,” Brands said. “We’ve got five All-Americans. And Marinelli’s going to have to come back strong tomorrow morning as well. He’s in a little bit different category than everybody else maybe. It’s kind of like we’re riding a wave right now with Lee and those three All-Americans, and then you got Marinelli, but he did a good job of moving forward. So that’s where we’re at, we’re moving forward, and we got another day tomorrow.”