March 18. 2009 8:50PM
Heavily favored, Hawks still want to get better
By J.R. Ogden

The Gazette
Related Story: Live coverage of the NCAA Wrestling Championships starts at 10:45 a.m.

(Brian Ray/The Gazette)
Iowa's Brent Metcalf, the defending NCAA champion at 149 pounds, answers a question during a news conference Wednesday at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.

ST. LOUIS ? - Brent Metcalf didn't like the question. What would the University of Iowa have to do to lose the NCAA wrestling title this weekend?

"There's a lot that we have to do to win it," the Hawkeye junior said Wednesday on the eve of the 79th NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships at the Scottrade Center. "Nothing's automatic."

That's true, of course, but Iowa is a big favorite to defend its title this weekend. The three-day national tournament begins this morning and concludes Saturday night.

The Hawkeyes went 24-0 during the dual season, won the NWCA/Cliff Keen National Duals title, the Midlands crown and the Big Ten Conference championship. This, however, is what all those dual wins and regular-season titles leads to and what is remembered best ? winning the national title.

"We have to wrestle better ... we can do better," Iowa Coach Tom Brands said. "We're going to have to earn it.

"We better be ready to slug."

Cornell Coach Rob Koll has a plan to stop the Hawks.

"We're Cornell, an Ivy League school," he said. "We've got a lot of biological engineers working on some cloud seeding, some minor influenza. Nothing to serious, just for a couple of days."

Seriously, though, the Big Red coach said he can't worry about the Hawkeyes. His team is ranked second and was runner-up to Iowa at the National Duals. It has two wrestlers seeded to make the finals ? No. 2 Troy Nickerson at 125 pounds and No. 1 Mack Lewnes at 165 ? and a defending champ in third-seeded Jordan Leen at 157.

Photos by Brian Ray

"We can't control what (the Hawkeyes) do," Koll said.

Ohio State Coach Tom Ryan, a former Hawkeye All-American, said if you go by seeds, the battle is for second place. The Buckeyes were runners-up here last year and are ranked sixth now.

"Our student-athletes have to wrestle better than they are predicted to wrestle," he said. "(The Hawks) certainly aren't going to lay down. So we've got to come out ready to battle."

Iowa State is tabbed third, but Cyclone Coach Cael Sanderson was not among the coaches at Wednesday's news conference. Still, ISU will play a role in the outcome this weekend. The Cyclones are the only team with all 10 wrestlers competing, and heavyweight David Zabriskie and 197-pounder Jake Varner are seeded to make the finals.

(Brian Ray photos/The Gazette)
Iowa Coach Tom Brands listens to a reporters question during a news conference Wednesday before the start of the NCAA Wrestling Championships at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. The first round of the tournament starts today at 11 a.m.

"We know we are going to have to beat guys that are seeded above us," Sanderson said earlier this week. "It's something that if we get after it, we can do something special."

Host Missouri also is a player this year, ranked fifth in the final coaches poll. Coach Brian Smith thinks his team can do something special in front of the "home" crowd.

"If they go out and wrestle the way they can, we'll have a great tournament," he said.

The Hawkeyes are led by Metcalf, the unbeaten defending NCAA champ at 149 pounds. But seven of the other eight wrestlers here are seeded ? Charlie Falck is fifth at 125, Daniel Dennis fourth at 133, Alex Tsirtsis fourth at 141, Ryan Morningstar third at 165, Jay Borschel fourth at 174, Phil Keddy second at 184 and Daniel Erekson seventh at heavyweight.

"We have nine guys here that are motivated and fired up," Brands said. "The next three days can define where they are in the history of our program."

Brands isn't going to sell any of his wrestlers short. Chad Betty is not seeded at 197, but "every one of them is capable," Brands said.

Capable, but able?

"What we have to do is perform at the highest level we have so far this year," Metcalf said. "Then we will have what we want."

Brands said his wrestlers can't worry about the team race, can't worry about the quarterfinals, semifinals or finals. The first match is the most important.

"You've got to get tougher as the rounds go on," he said. "You've got to get tougher as the season goes on, and you've got to get tougher when you're at the most important time of the year, and that's where we're at."