UI ever striving for numero uno
On the bus and on the mat, Hawks a competitive bunch
Andy Hamilton ? Iowa City Press-Citizen ? March 19, 2009

The bus is rolling through Ohio late on a Sunday night in February and the nation's No. 1 college wrestling team is turning a recreational card game into yet another battle for supremacy.

Hours earlier at a stop for dinner, Iowa coach Tom Brands suggested a team bonding activity to pass the time during the last 680 miles on a four-day, 1,700-mile road trip through six states for dual meets at Michigan State and Penn State. But if you didn't know the Hawkeyes well, you'd swear the Uno tournament was becoming more divisive than unifying.

Alliances formed at the start of the game have been frayed. The notebook being used to keep score is easily racking up more frequent flyer miles on the trip than the Hawkeyes. It's been grabbed at, slammed to the floor, thrown out of frustration and it's starting to take the shape of an accordion. Although there haven't been any volcanic meltdowns causing everyone on the bus to stop what they're doing and check out the commotion, confrontations are popping up as often as mile markers on the side of the road.

Chad Beatty, one of the first wrestlers eliminated from the tournament, is getting loud.

"Beatty," Iowa assistant Terry Brands hollers, "you can't go around beating everybody up just because you suck."

Jay Borschel is in dead last at his table, and he's distancing himself from the pack with every word -- a few not fit for print -- that comes out of his mouth. Under Iowa's code of Uno, the player with the most points in a hand can't talk until he wins another hand. Borschel is supposed to be mute, but he's getting dealt two more cards every time he talks and the deck in the middle is shrinking quickly.

"If he keeps talking, we're not going to have any cards to play with," Alex Tsirtsis says. "Seriously."

"Play the game right or don't play at all," Brent Metcalf tells Borschel.

Metcalf and Borschel considered each other allies at the beginning of the game. They planned to make their way through the first two rounds of the tournament together and reach the final eight-man table. But Borschel is going down, his hand is filled with enough ammunition to sink those sitting next to him and he's contemplating taking Metcalf down with him.

Metcalf was one of the main attractions two days before, on Friday night, when the Hawkeyes opened their trip with a 22-15 victory at Michigan State. Nearly 100 people from his hometown of Davison, Mich., made the 50-mile drive to East Lansing and filled up one section of bleachers in Jenison Field House to see the defending 149-pound NCAA champion wrestle his first match in his home state since he wrapped up a 228-0 high school career with his fourth Michigan state title.

Metcalf put on a show for nearly five minutes before notching his 12th pin of the season, the highlight of a largely lusterless night for Iowa. Strange as it may sound, the Hawkeyes felt they needed to bounce back from the victory, and they did so Sunday afternoon by winning eight matches and pounding Penn State 31-6.

Later Sunday night, it now appears as if the most hotly contested event of their trip will be the Uno tournament.

"There's not a single guy who likes to lose," Phil Keddy says. "It's going to get heated and there's going to be some things said. In any competition with us, that's the way it's going to get. It makes the time go by faster and makes things a little bit more interesting."

Final challenge begins today
Over a month after that road trip, the Hawkeyes arrive today at the most anticipated competition of their season. The NCAA Championships begin at 11 a.m. at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. Thus far, Iowa has answered every challenge.

"As a team, everybody has come together," Charlie Falck says. "There have been some people who haven't been on board, and they've kind of been weeded out. I wouldn't say they get pushed away, but they know who they are. Not that we have too many on the team now, but everybody sees the big picture and knows what's expected of them and where their priorities should be. Since Brands has been here, I've seen kids do complete 180s from a lifestyle point of view.

"He gets in your head. He believes in the process so much, and you can just tell that by talking to him and with his actions. Tom Brands never has a real off day where he's maybe not all in. He brings it to the table every day at the highest level possible, and you can tell that and you feed off it."

Spend a little time around the Hawkeyes and it becomes apparent that Brands has his fingers on the pulse of everything that goes on with his team.

Clairvoyant coach
On the second day of their longest road trip of the season, the Hawkeyes meet for breakfast at 11 a.m. at a caf? across the street from their hotel in East Lansing.

The wrestlers and coaches are sitting at four tables in the front of the diner when the waitress delivers part of the order for the table directly behind Brands and asks who ordered the coffee just loud enough for the Iowa coach to hear.

"It's gotta be for Keddy," Brands says as Keddy raises his hand.

The Hawkeyes like to joke about the clairvoyance of their coach.

"We feel like he knows what's going on before something even happens," Ryan Morningstar says. "We'll be sitting at home and we'll be like, 'He knows we're sitting on the couch right now.' We talk about it all the time. He knows everything that goes down. I don't know how he does it. It's like he's got an extra force with him or something."

Later in the meal, Brands begins taking academic inventory.

"Where's Jake Kerr?" he asks. "Kerr, don't you have an online assignment to do today?"

Kerr says he completed the assignment the day before, and Brands continues down his academic checklist. It becomes clear the next day just how much Brands has underlined the importance of classwork.

The Hawkeyes cut nearly two hours off their Saturday drive by making their way to Perrysburg, Ohio, after the Michigan State dual. They make a quick stop for breakfast and board the bus again. Just a few miles down the road, Brands goes through the bus collecting all of the cell phones belonging to the wrestlers and puts them in a white plastic bag. He tells them they need to devote the next hour to academics but throws in a clause.

"If you're on the Dean's List, you can say, 'Brands, I'm on the Dean's List, I don't feel like studying,'" he says.

Tournament of champions
Nearly 36 hours later, the Hawkeyes are back on the same stretch of Interstate 80 headed the other way after the victory against Penn State and the second round of the Uno tournament is winding down.

Brands collected the cell phones again on the way out of State College and they're sitting in the plastic bag in the front row of the bus. Alarms sound periodically and the grocery sack looks as if someone bagged a string of Christmas lights.

"When we were on the Penn State trip two years ago, Gable had a big speech about how we spend too much time with gadgets instead of spending time with each other," Keddy says. "I think taking the phones was more of a bonding thing and made us interact with each other instead of being on our phones or with our games."

Not that the Hawkeyes need any motivation to compete, but Brands offered an incentive. The four wrestlers who reach the final eight-player table could have their phones back.

Metcalf, Tsirtsis, Montell Marion and Matt Ballweg emerge as the last four wrestlers in the tournament. They're getting ready to go against the Brands brothers, assistant Doug Schwab and radio color analyst Mark Ironside, who were the top four from the coaches' table.

Metcalf has fused the words "fraternity" and "sorority" and says something about wanting to join the coaches' "fratority." He tells Terry Brands that the coaches had it easy, only having to place in the top four of their eight-player table to reach the championship while the wrestlers had to finish in the top four twice at eight-player tables to advance. Metcalf compares it to a wrestling tournament with three weigh-ins and tells Terry Brands that the coaches "only had to make weight once."

Three hands into the final table, Metcalf gets stuck with the most points in his hand and he spends most of the drive through Indiana on mute. He manages to outlast Ballweg, Marion, Tom Brands and Tsirtsis before bowing out.

"Fourth-place fratority," Metcalf says. "That's not bad."

Schwab gets knocked out a couple hands later, and finally, at 2:50 a.m., nearly eight hours after it started, the Uno tournament that started in western Pennsylvania comes to an end in the middle of Illinois. Most of the wrestlers were asleep in the back of the bus when Ironside threw his cards after losing to Terry Brands.

It wasn't long before the Hawkeyes were waking up and competing again.

The next contest? See who can guess the time the bus pulls back into the parking lot in Iowa City.

Reach Andy Hamilton at 339-7368 or ahamilton@press-citizen.com.