Hawks have 'some unfinished business'
Iowa wrestling aims for national, individual titles
Andy Hamilton • Iowa City Press-Citizen • November 12, 2009
The national championship trophy from March still sits in the glass case at one end of Iowa's wrestling room. It looks just the same and shines every bit as bright as the one the Hawkeyes won the previous year.
But Iowa's newest title trophy still feels hollow to the Hawkeyes.
Sure, they swept through the seventh perfect season in team history and went wire-to-wire at the top of the national rankings. But Iowa has been all about individual championships since Tom Brands became the head coach in 2006, and the Hawkeyes came up empty in pursuit of their greatest goals.
Iowa rallied through the consolations at the NCAA Championships to claim its second straight national title, the second in school history that came without an individual champ.
"I don't think anyone committed to our program was really happy with how it transpired and how we won," All-American Daniel Dennis said. "We want multiple, multiple, multiple champs. It's the same title, and I don't want to say it was meaningless because it wasn't -- it was impressive how we were still able to walk away with the title -- but I don't think anyone was really excited about it."
Iowa held its annual media day Wednesday. It was a chance for the Hawkeyes to reflect on what transpired nearly eight months ago and look forward to rewriting the final chapter this season.
"There's some unfinished business there," Brands said. "You open the door for the opponent to be happy for your demise a little bit, and that's probably what stings the most even though we won the team title. I know there's 85 Division I schools that would trade places with us in a heartbeat, but that's not what it's about to me. It's not solely about the team title, it's about getting those results where guys are feeling good about themselves."
It's about picking up a gold trophy next March in Omaha that feels solid.
Iowa certainly has the firepower. The Hawkeyes are ranked No. 1. They have seven All-Americans on their roster, and Brands could assemble a lineup with seniors filling eight weights.
"We've got a pretty talented group of guys here who can go out and put a whole lot of points on the board," said senior Brent Metcalf, a 2008 national champion and runner-up last season. "Being a senior maybe means they've been through it before and they should understand and grasp the idea of how to go and do it. Does that mean it's automatic? Does it mean that because they're a senior and because it matters more this year that it's going to happen? No way.
"We have to keep that in mind as a team, as individuals that the talent is there, we've shown it and proven it, but we have to go and perform, and you've got to go and do it when it matters most."
Brands and his staff went through a thorough dissection after last season. The knockout performances weren't as recurrent as they had been the previous season. The practices weren't as dazzling. Something seemed slightly askew throughout the year.
But the Hawkeyes kept winning. They went 24-0 and extended their dual winning streak to 38. Still, Iowa had to rally to repeat as champions of the Midlands and the National Duals, and its bid for a second straight national title was in jeopardy entering the tournament's final day.
Past All-Americans Charlie Falck, Alex Tsirtsis and Jay Borschel got knocked out of the tournament before they could reach the medal stand. Dennis spent nearly a month on top of the national rankings and slipped to seventh. Heavyweight Dan Erekson, who placed fourth, was the only Hawkeye who left the tournament with a better placing than his seed.
The biggest stunner came in Iowa's final match of the season when Metcalf's 69-match winning streak was snapped by Darrion Caldwell in the 149-pound title bout.
"The thing that always comes up to me is the two seniors who left with nothing," two-time All-American Phil Keddy said of Falck and Tsirtsis. "It's not about them being an All-American. Both of those guys had goals of being a national champ and they're both going to have that regret forever. All of us seniors have another chance, where they didn't get that. I look at that as a lesson to be learned."
There were lessons Brands and his staff learned, too. Brands didn't integrate sweeping changes, but there were subtle tweaks.
Iowa assistant Doug Schwab said the Hawkeyes adjusted the length of practices to keep the wrestlers fresh in their mind and make the workouts more efficient.
"You look and you try to figure out why we didn't perform like we were capable," Schwab said. "I think last year we deferred to our athletes in some situations, and it didn't work out. You can't just hope that a guy comes around.
"Not that we were hoping, but we're taking them by the hand, and we're going to lead them so they do come around. It was a good learning experience to still win and still go undefeated as a team throughout the year and maybe not really ever feel like you performed at your top level. I guess that says a lot about our guys, that they rise to the occasion when needed."
There's an unrelenting sense of urgency surrounding Iowa wrestling. It's the product of a program that demands national titles that come wrapped with individual bows. It's the result of a team loaded with talent.
Dennis and Metcalf anchor Iowa's first four weights. The Hawkeyes figure to be strong at 141 once they figure out who they'll use there.
Joe Slaton was a national finalist as a sophomore at 133 pounds. Dan LeClere started on Iowa's 2008 title team. Neither is a cinch to start at 141 this season with the emergence of sophomore Montell Marion.
Freshman Matt McDonough cut down from 133 and won Iowa's wrestle-offs at 125.
"The motivation level is high at those two weights we lose," Brands said of 125 and 141. "I don't see a lot of guys questioning themselves or looking at it like (the season is) long and grueling and hard. I look at guys who are motivated there."
There's motivation at the other end of the lineup. Ryan Morningstar was seconds from the national finals at 165. He eventually placed third. Borschel finished third as a sophomore before last year's slip. Keddy went 34-5 at 184 with all five of his losses coming to graduated seniors.
Chad Beatty took an 18-4 record into the NCAA meet at 197 before a 1-2 exit. Erekson had eventual champion Mark Ellis of Missouri on the ropes in the national quarterfinals.
The Hawkeyes have carried those defeats around for nearly eight months. The shortcomings left Iowa with a hollow trophy sitting in the glass case at one end of its practice room.
"One of the biggest things for this year for me and for a lot of guys on the team is feeling good about that win," Metcalf said. "Let's go and win a national title and let's feel good about it. Let's dominate, let's go and perform the way we really can."
Reach Andy Hamilton at 339-7368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.