IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Just when the college wrestling world thought the giant was fast-asleep, somebody did something to awaken the University of Iowa wrestling program. The end result is a program back on top with goals even higher than those reached in winning last year's NCAA title.
Tom Brands returns for his third season as head coach after leading Iowa to its 21st NCAA title, its 32nd Big Ten title, a 21-1 dual record and a perfect 8-0 Big Ten dual mark in 2007-08. The Hawkeyes crowned two NCAA champions, one Big Ten champion and seven all-Americans. For his squad's accomplishments, Brands was named Coach of the Year by the NWCA, W.I.N. Magazine and the Big Ten.
While the Hawkeyes lose two-time NCAA Champion and four-time all-American Mark Perry (165) and all-American Matt Fields (Hwt.) from the lineup, they return NCAA and Big Ten Champion Brent Metcalf (149) and all-Americans Charlie Falck (125), Joe Slaton (133), Alex Tsirtsis (141), Jay Borschel (174) and Phillip Keddy (184). Also returning from 2007-08 are NCAA qualifiers Dan LeClere (141) and Ryan Morningstar (157).
"I feel good that we have some firepower in there," Brands said. "If everybody does their job, that means we would have improvement at each individual weight class, including our returning national champion. Now the goal is to add to that firepower."
"It's not like we have an automatic coming back here. We still have to prove our worth. There are teams out there just as motivated as us."
Brands did just that when he assembled his staff for 2008-09. His first plan of action was to remove the interim from Doug Schwab's title, making him a full-time assistant coach in his third year on the staff. The next step for Brands was filling the second assistant coaching position with one of the few people who could match his intensity, competitiveness and expectations - his twin brother, Terry, was the natural choice. Tales of the Brands brothers are legendary. They have not coached together in a full-time permanent capacity since both served as assistant coaches at Iowa in 2000. Hawkeye fans are eager for the boost the duo could give an already successful program. Former Hawkeye Mike Zadick will serve as the team's volunteer assistant coach, former Oklahoma wrestler Jared Frayer will be Iowa's strength and conditioning coach and former Hawkeye Luke Eustice will serve as the team's administrative assistant.
The Hawkeyes also added firepower with the seven newcomers. The group consists of sophomores Colby Covington (165 - Springfield, OR) and Joe Moore (133 - Okoboji, IA), and freshmen Mark Ballweg (133 - Waverly, IA), Jeret Chiri (149/157 - New London, IA), Grant Gambrall (174/184 - Iowa City, IA ), Matt McDonough (133 - Marion, IA) and Nate Moore (125 - Iowa City, IA). They bring a collective prep career record of 1,071-142, 11 state and 17 conference titles to the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex. Covington transferred from Iowa Central Community College, where he was the 2007 NJCAA National Champion, at 165 pounds, with a 34-0 record.
While the new coaching staff and the accomplishments of the returnees and newcomers are impressive, Tom Brands will be the first to stop anyone from making extra room in the Hawkeye trophy case.
"It's not like we have an automatic coming back here," Brands said. "We still have to prove our worth. There are teams out there just as motivated as us."
Those teams will be gunning for the Hawkeyes during the 2008-09 season. Iowa opens the schedule with two multiple-team dual competitions - first hosting the Iowa City Duals on Nov. 21 and then traveling to the Journeymen/Brute Northeast Duals in Troy, NY, on Nov. 29. The rest of Iowa's home slate includes duals against Wisconsin (Jan. 23), Illinois (Jan. 25), Bucknell (Jan. 30), Purdue (Feb. 13) and Minnesota (Feb. 15). The Hawkeyes will compete at the annual Midlands Championships (Dec. 29-30) in Evanston, IL, as well as the Cliff Keen/NWCA National Duals (Jan. 10-11) in Cedar Falls. Iowa's away dual schedule includes trips to Northern Iowa (Dec. 11), Oklahoma State (Jan. 18), Michigan State (Feb. 6), Penn State (Feb. 8), Indiana (Feb. 20) and Northwestern (Feb. 22). The 2009 Big Ten Championships are set for March 7-8 at Penn State and the NCAA Championships return to St. Louis, March 19-21.
Here is a weight-by-weight breakdown of the 2008-09 squad:
Senior Charlie Falck returns for his final campaign with several goals - the most important winning a national title. The two-time all-American posted a 21-1 dual record last year, going 7-1 in the Big Ten and leading the squad in dual wins (21) and dual winning percentage (.954). One of Iowa's more experienced competitors, Falck has wrestled in 53 duals, which is the most of anyone in the Hawkeye practice room. Redshirt freshman J.J. Krutsinger and freshman Nate Moore will provide depth. Krutsinger posted a 6-2 record while competing unattached last year. Moore brings a 181-3 high school career record and two state titles into the room.
This weight class is one of Iowa's strongest and deepest. Junior Joe Slaton was an NCAA finalist and placed third at the Big Ten meet last season with a 31-5 overall record. He also won a Midlands title, went 18-3 in duals and 7-1 in the Big Ten. Also back is junior Daniel Dennis, who refuses to take a backseat and will also fight for the spot. Dennis was a strong contender last season, but was sidelined early with injuries. He held the starting spot in 2005-06, going 15-18, and redshirted in 2006-07. Redshirt freshman Montell Marion could also contend after going 11-5 last season competing unattached. Sophomore Joe Moore, redshirt freshman Tyler Halverson and freshmen Mark Ballweg and Matt McDonough will provide quality depth. Ballweg, who is the younger brother of Hawkeye 149/157-pounder Matt, won two state titles and posted a 156-8 record in high school. McDonough brings three state titles and a career prep mark of 151-15.
Hawkeye fans are anxious to see the result of this hotly contested wrestle-off. Senior Alex Tsirtsis returns for his final campaign after redshirting last season. But last season's starter - junior Dan LeClere - isn't stepping back voluntarily. Both could start for virtually any Division I program, but there is only room for one this year. Tsirtsis is a three-year starter at this weight with one all-America honor and a 69-32 career record under his belt. LeClere won a Midlands title and qualified for the 2008 NCAA Championships, posting a 22-11 season record. Senior Derek Coorough will provide depth.
Junior Brent Metcalf returns after collecting nearly every collegiate wrestling accolade possible in 2008. He was
Senior Alex Tsirtsis
awarded the Dan Hodge Trophy, which is presented to the nation's top collegiate wrestler, and the Jesse Owens Big Ten Male Athlete of the Year Award, which is given annually to the best male student-athlete in any Big Ten sport. He was named outstanding wrestler at the NCAA and Big Ten Championships after winning individual titles. He earned Big Ten Wrestler of the Year honors, and was named Big Ten Wrestler of the Week twice - in consecutive weeks - becoming the first wrestler in conference history to achieve that feat. His 35-1 season record boasted an undefeated 7-0 Big Ten dual mark. He ended the season on a 32-match winning streak. Metcalf also led the team in collegiate wins (35), dual wins (21), collegiate and dual winning percentages (.972, .954), dual team points scored during the season (100) and technical falls (6). Sophomore Matt Ballweg, redshirt freshmen Stew Gillmor and Ethan Sebert and freshman Jeret Chiri will back him up.
Junior Ryan Morningstar returns with 41 career starts at 157. A two-time NCAA qualifier, he holds a career record of 48-26 with a 22-14 mark last season. Several Hawkeyes will try to knock him out of the starting spot, including juniors Nick Kolegraff and T.H. Leet, sophomore Brooks Kopsa, Matt Ballweg, Gillmor, Chiri and redshirt freshmen Nick LeClere and Weston Marling.
Finding a replacement for Perry will be no easy task. The two-time NCAA champion and four-time all-American posted a career record of 96-16 and was a three-time NCAA finalist and four-time Big Ten finalist. His 2007 NCAA title was the first of the Tom Brands era. Several Hawkeyes are ready for the opportunity to fill his shoes. Covington and sophomores Aaron Janssen and Jake Kerr are the front runners. Janssen and Kerr split time at this weight last season when Perry was out with a knee injury. Junior Michael Fahrer, redshirt freshman Ryan Kurovski, Leet and Marling are also available.
Junior Jay Borschel posted a 32-5 season and 20-2 dual record en route to third-place finishes at the NCAA and Big Ten Championships last season. He led the team in major decisions (11), and ranked second in collegiate wins (32) and dual team points scored during the season (79). Junior Rick Loera and freshman Grant Gambrall will provide depth here and at 184. Loera has wrestled well-above his weight the last two seasons, filling in for injured 184 and 197-pounders. Gambrall brings a 166-16 career prep record with two state and conference titles.
Junior Phillip Keddy returns after showing steady improvement last season en route to his first all-America honor and a 28-11 season mark. He placed third at the Big Ten Championships and sixth at the NCAA meet. All of his losses were by three points or less. Keddy will be backed up by Loera and Gambrall.
Iowa has not qualified a 197-pounder for the NCAA Championships the past two seasons, and Brands is looking to rectify that problem. Last season an underweight Chad Beatty fought hard and won five matches, but could not overcome his opponents' weight advantage. He spent the summer training with Hawkeye football strength coach Chris Doyle in order to level the playing field. Sophomore Luke Lofthouse and redshirt freshman Jordan Johnson are also in the running. Lofthouse went 12-17 at 174 in 2004-05, but spent the next two years on a Mormon mission to Africa. He returned to Iowa City last fall and posted an 8-6 unattached mark while redshirting the 2007-08 season. Johnson also redshirted last season, going 7-4 competing unattached. Redshirt freshman Brodie Ambrose will provide depth.
Four-year starter Matt Fields is gone after earning his first all-America honor in his final campaign. Junior Dan Erekson, who was a two-year starter at 197 pounds, redshirted last season and joined Beatty in the football weight room to bulk up. Erekson went 13-2 while competing unattached last season at heavyweight. Johnson will provide back up.