Fun and games over for Hawks
Andy Hamilton • Iowa City Press-Citizen • March 11, 2009
The NCAA Championships are no time for a close shave.
At least, that seems to be the attitude Iowa's wrestling team is taking into next week's national tournament.
Those goofy-looking mustaches that juniors Daniel Dennis and Jay Borschel had been sporting for more than two months are gone.
This is business time for the top-ranked Hawkeyes. This is when the defending national champions want to look their best.
"It started as a joke and it was just screwing around as a joke," said Dennis, who shaved his mustache Monday night after placing fifth at the Big Ten Championships. "To me, I don't really like joking or screwing around when I'm not winning. It's funny and goofy. It's funny to do as long as you're winning. But it's time to get serious now."
Iowa claimed its second straight Big Ten championship Sunday. Brent Metcalf and Dan Erekson won individual conference titles and nine Hawkeyes qualified for the NCAA meet, which begins March 19 in St. Louis.
All nine earned automatic tickets into the national tournament by placing fifth or better at the Big Ten meet. But two conference champions, two more finalists, a pair of third-place finishes, a couple fourths and a fifth was "too balanced" for Iowa coach Tom Brands.
"We need to be more lopsided toward that championship end," Brands said.
Iowa's nine qualifiers have combined for a gaudy 230-33 record this season. Each of the Hawkeyes has won at least 18 matches and none have lost more than six.
"We've got some capable guys who are motivated and hungry for postseason honors, and those are the guys that you see going to St. Louis," Brands said. "There are nine guys and, individually, every one of them is capable."
Most already have proven it on college wrestling's biggest stage.
Metcalf has won his last 65 matches at 149 pounds, including Sunday's torturing of Penn State's second-ranked Bubba Jenkins that resulted in a second-period fall.
Senior Charlie Falck is a two-time All-American at 125. Borschel (174) and Phil Keddy (184) reached the medal stand last year when the Hawkeyes finished 38.5 points ahead of second-place Ohio State.
Alex Tsirtsis, an All-American in 2007 at 141, is making his fourth trip to the national tournament. Erekson and junior 165-pounder Ryan Morningstar have won matches at the NCAA meet. Dennis and Chad Beatty are Iowa's only first-time qualifiers.
"We're not automatic," Brands said. "We're going to have to earn it, and we better be ready to slug. I think we did a pretty decent, not great, but pretty decent job on Sunday coming back (in the Big Ten consolations)."
No comeback was more impressive or gutsy than Beatty's. The junior sustained a knee injury in Saturday night's semifinal round. Needing a win in the consolation semifinals to clinch fourth place and the conference's last automatic spot in the NCAA meet at 197, Beatty could have opted to default out of the tournament and hope his work throughout the season was good enough for an at-large selection.
"It's very unique when you have a guy do what Chad Beatty did, and that's wrestle when he really had no business being out there in that consolation semifinal match," Brands said. "But he had to do it -- had to because you don't leave it to chance. If you're going to a committee decision, maybe he gets in, maybe he doesn't, but we wouldn't find out until Tuesday or Wednesday. We're at the time of year when you have to be able to come back."
Beatty aggravated the injury after falling behind 2-0 in the first period of his match with Minnesota's Gordon Bierschenk. He regrouped after an injury timeout and pulled out a dramatic 6-3 victory, scoring a takedown and two-point near-fall in the final three seconds.
Beatty said the condition of his knee has improved every day. Perhaps more important, his mind seems to be in good shape.
"It's all how you look at it," Beatty said. "I think what (Iowa assistant) Terry Brands said to me during that match really helped me and made me realize it doesn't matter. I just need to realize it doesn't matter and I've got to get tough and do it."
Dennis had a comeback of a different type. He entered the Big Ten meet ranked No. 1 nationally at 133 before sustaining consecutive losses to Ohio State's Reece Humphrey and Illinois' Jimmy Kennedy. He trailed by three points in the third period against Penn State's Jake Strayer before rallying for an 11-7 win.
Dennis said he doesn't think he "was ready for a battle" at the Big Ten meet. He said he "was trying to win on too much skill and too much technique" rather than making it a hard match for his opponent.
"In all honesty, it can't happen again or the same thing is going to happen," Dennis said. "I have to go out there and get ready to wrestle and make it a hard match for my opponent. I don't really like talking about it that much, but it's something I need to be doing. It's hard to say that because I'm embarrassed I didn't do that. But it's something I can learn from and not let it happen again."
Reach Andy Hamilton at 339-7368 or email@example.com.