Andy always writes a good column, this is no exception.
Thursday, November 8, 2007
STRAIGHT TO THE TOP
Iowa has one thing on the brain: Team titles
By Andy Hamilton
Iowa City Press-Citizen
The issue for the Iowa wrestling program in recent seasons was never what the Hawkeyes said but rather what they sincerely believed.
Iowa rolls out its objectives each November and all fingers point straight toward finishing on top in March. It was a universal principle passed down through the glory days, and even though coaches, wrestlers and program stature have changed through the years for the Hawkeyes, the spoken goal never did.
It's always national championship or bust at Iowa. The talk is always about titles.
The Hawkeyes opened the page to another chapter of Iowa wrestling Wednesday when the team held its annual media day gathering, and title talk surfaced again. The quest to regain a championship that hasn't been in Hawkeye hands for seven years begins with Iowa ranked third in one preseason poll and fourth in two others.
"We need to be a lot better than where we're ranked right now," second-year coach Tom Brands said. "If we're third in one poll, we need to be two spots higher. If we're fourth in another poll, we need to be three spots higher."
The Hawkeyes haven't been on top of the national rankings since December of 2000. They haven't been on top at the end since the previous March. Instead, they've had a front-row seat while Minnesota and Oklahoma State have played tug-of-war with the NCAA title trophy during the past seven seasons.
The top-ranked Gophers have eight starters back from the team that won the national championship in March. The Hawkeyes have a room filled with guys with their sights set on finishing seven rungs higher than they were at the end of last season when Iowa finished eighth at the NCAA meet.
"It's a lot more attainable than people think," said Mark Perry Jr., the defending NCAA 165-pound champion. "I know the 40 guys in the room and the five coaches, we think we're going to win it. For the first time since I've been here -- and the credit has to go to Brands and his coaching staff -- we have multiple, multiple, multiple guys who honestly believe they are going to win the national tournament.
"That was not the case in the past. I think we had one or two guys who really thought they were going to win the tournament, and right now, I honestly believe we have nine, 10, 11, 12 guys. Some guys who might not even make the (starting lineup) believe they are going to win the nationals. That's something that's never been done and it might not ever be done. But the point is, Brands has everybody believing they're the best, and when you believe you're the best, you're going to produce a lot better results."
The Hawkeyes have always talked titles. Problem is, they haven't always believed their own talk.
"I don't know how it looks for other guys, but we've fallen short in that mindset since I've been here," Perry said. "Guys have been there, we've been in the national finals, we've been in the Big Ten finals, and everyone's kind of fallen short. Most likely, it was due to our preparation. I believe that's really what paid off for me at the end of the season.
"Brands told me I needed to do things a little different and prepare right, and I kind of got on a roll at the end of the season. I think, for my teammates, seeing me do that gave them a lot of faith that they are definitely capable. I plan on seeing a lot of them on top of that stage with me this year."
Brands sat Wednesday at the same table where he conducted his first media day news conference the previous November. One theme he stressed at this time a year ago was the need to take the 31 wrestlers in the room and get each believing he could win an individual national title.
"I know that last year (the number of those in the room who believed that) was the minority and this year it's starting to be the majority," Brands said. "I think people are excited. I think people are excited about what they see when they come in and watch their workout. You see a lot more scraps on the mat. When you see those scraps, you see guys who are trying to take something away from you, and when they're trying to take something away from their opponent, then they're walking with that I-own-the-mat mentality. And when they're walking with that I-own-the-mat mentality, then they feel pretty good about being the next national champion at their weight class."
The feel-good attitude was sparked in March when Perry won his national title by defeating Oklahoma State's Johny Hendricks for the first time in seven college tries. It was fueled during the spring when Ryan Morningstar and Matt Fields won freestyle titles at the University Nationals, freshman Jake Kerr qualified for FILA Junior World Championships and Iowa assistants Doug Schwab and Mike Zadick won spots on the U.S. Freestyle World Team.
"Anytime there are good things happening, it's easier to believe," Brands said. "That's a formula we've got written down."
Brands and company are banking on in-house competition as another component for success. Besides Perry, Iowa's roster features All-American 125-pounder Charlie Falck, 2006 All-American Alex Tsirtsis and highly acclaimed 149-pounder Brent Metcalf, who notched freestyle victories last year over a former Olympic champion, a one-time World University champion and three ex-NCAA finalists, while sitting out after transferring from Virginia Tech.
"We've got 40 guys on boat right now, not 10, not 12, not 15," Metcalf said. "We've got the entire team on boat right now working toward the same goals and approaching practice every day with the same mentality."
That boat is crowded with talent. NCAA qualifiers Morningstar, Fields, Phil Keddy and Dan Erekson, former Iowa high school stars Jay Borschel, Joey Slaton, Dan LeClere and Chad Beatty and a collection of others form what might be the most depth the Hawkeyes have assembled since the middle of their six-year title run that ended in 2000.
"If you don't come ready to compete hard in this room, you're going to get eaten up," Morningstar said. "You can't have a bad day. We want to raise our level so high that our worst day is still going to be a good day compared to other people in the country."
Those benefiting the most could be the wrestlers with the least job security. The three-most highly contested weights -- 133, 141 and 174 -- feature seven wrestlers who combined for 18 high school state championships.
"It's really motivating," sophomore 133-pounder Daniel Dennis said. "There's no time to slack, at all. You can't let a day go by where you're not worrying about getting better because you know if you don't, you're not going to be the guy that's starting."
Dennis doesn't just have a lineup spot in mind. He's a Hawkeye. He's talking titles.
"Truly, that's what every guy at their weight should be thinking," Dennis said. "That's what I'm thinking. To me, that's realistic. To some people, it may not be. To some, it just seems he's just saying that because the coach wants him to. But they've got you really believing that and when you're performing well you feel like you are (going to win a national title)."
Reach Andy Hamilton at 339-7368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.