Tuesday, April 15, 2008
In UI wrestling room, 'iron sharpens iron'
Dennis' weekend title displays depth of NCAA champs' stable
By Andy Hamilton
Iowa City Press-Citizen
The Iowa wrestling coaches knew last fall they would have one of the top wrestlers in the country at 133 pounds -- they just didn't know who it would be.
Turns out the Hawkeyes have at least two of the nation's best at that weight.
Daniel Dennis -- who missed nearly all of the Hawkeyes' national championship season after sustaining a broken jaw in November and watched teammate Joey Slaton reach the NCAA finals at 133 -- claimed a freestyle title Sunday at the University Nationals in Akron, Ohio.
"University Nationals was kind of a step toward what I want to accomplish next year," Dennis said. "It's not the national title I want."
The sophomore from Ingleside, Ill., emerged as the champion of a 132.25-pound bracket that featured three college All-Americans, including Iowa's Alex Tsirtsis. Dennis posted a 3-0, 3-0 victory in the finals against Michigan State's Franklin Gomez, the reigning Big Ten champion at 133 and No. 1 seed entering this year's NCAA Championships.
Though his performance may have turned the heads of some wrestling followers, Dennis said he didn't need a championship-level outing to prove to himself he belongs with the nation's elite.
"It definitely wasn't a question in my mind, and I don't think it was a question in our coaches' minds or anyone that's been training with me, but you can definitely look at it like that, and I know a lot of outsiders do," Dennis said. "I think I'm at the level where I should be competing with everyone at my weight."
The Hawkeyes anticipated Dennis would be competing with Slaton for the starting job at the beginning of the season. But Dennis slammed into the knee of teammate Montell Marion during the week leading up to the team's wrestle-offs.
Slaton, also a sophomore, seized the starting job and produced a sparkling season, going 36-5 and placing second in the country. Meanwhile, Dennis, after learning his odds of receiving a medical hardship were virtually nil, wrestled in one match. He won a 6-3 decision against Boise State's Cory Fish, who came one victory from earning All-America honors.
"I watch him in the room and he's really capable, he's unbelievably strong," Iowa assistant Doug Schwab said. "But there's a difference between holding position and trying to maybe win a workout or stay even in a workout and trying to dominate a workout. There's a huge difference in that. If he gets to doing those things, it's going to be one hell of a battle for that weight class. I love that we have all kinds of guys who believe in themselves that they can win and win at a high level. It just makes the room tougher."
Iowa's practice room -- already a stable of studs at the light weights -- should get even better in the fall with the arrival of freshmen Nate Moore, Matt McDonough and Mark Ballweg, creating yet more competition for starting spots.
"We talk about it -- iron sharpens iron, one man sharpens another," Schwab said. "It's been a while since we've seen that kind of depth, and I think it's just a testament to the guys believing in what we're doing, believing in the system, and they're feeling a difference probably more than anything. They can tell when they go out to compete that they're ready and they're prepared."
That environment could create the most compelling intra-squad meet in years, especially at 133.
"You can't count any one of us out," Dennis said. "Montell is real tough and he's getting a lot better. I think we could have the first, second and third guys if we could all compete at nationals. What order that goes in could vary every time, but we have three kids who are tough as hell at that weight, and I think we can do well with whoever's in the lineup. But I think if you change one of us to a different school and our support has gone away and we're taking away from what the starter is going to be. I think it's real vital that we're all in the room together because we're all feeding off each other, and I think that helps out a lot."
The Hawkeyes won't be able to fit all of their highly skilled wrestlers into the lineup. Somebody will have watch at 133, find another weight or transfer to claim a starting position. Dennis has heard about the Internet message board chatter suggesting he should leave Iowa.
"That's absolutely ridiculous," he said. "For me to transfer, I think that would be the dumbest thing I could do. That would definitely hurt me, I think it would hurt Slaton, I think it would hurt Montell, I think it would hurt Charlie Falck and I think it would hurt everyone that we're in the room wrestling with. We all feed off each other, and I couldn't make a worse decision. That would be absolutely stupid and I would never think about doing that."
• The NCAA champion Iowa wrestling team will be recognized before the start of the Hawkeye football spring practice/scrimmage Saturday at Kinnick Stadium. The team, which won both an NCAA and Big Ten championship this season, will be introduced at about 1 p.m.
Reach Andy Hamilton at 339-7368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.