Sunday, March 23, 2008

RETURN OF THE CHAMPIONS!

Iowa wins 1st title since '00




By Andy Hamilton
Iowa City Press-Citizen





ST. LOUIS -- They hadn't yet gotten their hands around the title trophy to symbolize the culmination of one feat when the Iowa wrestlers already were thinking ahead.

Thoughts of classroom chores, offseason events and training plans prominently circulated through the minds of the Hawkeyes Saturday night -- and there's also the intention to come back next year and do this all over again.

The eight-year wait for Iowa's return to glory officially ended Saturday at the Scottrade Center. Brent Metcalf and Mark Perry Jr. captured individual gold, and the top-ranked Hawkeyes completed their long journey back to the top of the college wrestling world.

"It's trouble for the country," said Perry, who ended his sparkling career with a second title, becoming the 19th multi-time champion in school history. "They're building a machine. The kids are so close and that's so big -- the unity we developed in one year. We didn't have any for as long as I've been here. But it was awesome to be part of this team."

Wrestling with the old-school ultra-aggression the program prided itself on during its decades of dominance, the Hawkeyes built a virtually insurmountable advantage by winning 28 of their 36 matches during the tournament's first two days.

Iowa took the lead in Thursday's opening session and never loosened its grip on first.

"That's a tribute to our guys and how they approached it," said second-year Iowa coach Tom Brands, who was voted the national coach of the year by his peers. "They came in here to win, and not only win and squeak by, but to dominate."

The Hawkeyes scored 117.5 points on their way to the 21st title in program history and first since 2000. Ohio State finished second -- 38.5 points back. It was the largest winning margin for an Iowa team since Dan Gable's last squad obliterated the tournament scoring record in 1997, and it matched the 10th-biggest gap between first and second in meet history.

"The Iowa program is building, and it's working toward dominance," said Metcalf, who will lead a charge of five All-Americans coming back next season. "(Winning by) 30 points isn't enough. We want to set the record, I don't know what it is, but we want 300 points if that's possible -- that's the direction we're heading. We're enjoying our win, but we've still got work to do."

The celebration won't last long. The work starts all over again today.

"We're going to get on the bus and we're going to go home and we're going to get ready for class," Brands said. "We've got to get ready for class."

Iowa spent the season schooling its opposition. The Hawkeyes went 21-1 in duals, established a new scoring record at the Midlands, tore through the National Duals and swept the Big Ten crowns.

Iowa put the finishing touches on its championship season during Saturday morning's consolations. Jay Borschel led a crew of four Hawkeyes in the wrestlebacks by placing third at 174. Heavyweight Matt Fields ended his career with an overtime victory against Iowa State's David Zabriskie for fifth. Junior 125-pounder Charlie Falck and sophomore 184-pound Phil Keddy each lost twice Saturday to place sixth.

Meanwhile, six teams jostled throughout the day for position behind the Hawkeyes before the Buckeyes (79), Penn State (75) and Nebraska (74) emerged with trophies.

"We've got a bunch of guys who like to come out and compete and dominate and score points, lots of points," Borschel said. "That's what we did, and that's really what the goal was all weekend -- keep pouring it on the guy and keep scoring points."

That philosophy enabled the Hawkeyes to concentrate on individual glory Saturday night.

The final round didn't start well for Iowa. Joey Slaton's title hopes were gone in a flash. Fighting off a shot in the early moments against Oklahoma State's Coleman Scott, Slaton (36-5) got locked in a cradle and was pinned in 49 seconds.

"I felt great tonight," said Scott, who lost in the finals a year ago. "I prepared and did everything right, and coach (John Smith) kept telling me, he always stresses when you're taking somebody down, look to take them to their back and keep them there and get the pin."

That same principle turned the tide in Metcalf's 14-8 championship victory against Penn State's Bubba Jenkins at 149. The top-seeded Iowa sophomore fell behind early when he surrendered two takedowns on the perimeter of the mat.

"I'm happy with the win, but not so much the performance," Metcalf said. "I don't like giving up points. That's not how you want to wrestle, and that's not how I want to wrestle. Those two takedowns were on the edge, and the philosophy of Brent Metcalf and the philosophy of Iowa wrestling is to wrestle on the edge, and that's where I failed."

Metcalf (39-1) flipped the bout in his favor late in the second period when he took Jenkins down, and subsequently, to his back for five points to go ahead 10-5. He tacked on two more scores in the final two minutes and showed little emotion after claiming his first championship.

"There will be plenty of time for celebration," said Metcalf, who was named the outstanding wrestler of the tournament. "Right now, I'm just after the match here and I'm analyzing. I'm already trying to improve (because) April 23 I've got to be better (for the U.S. Open)."

Perry (25-3) capped his career with a 5-2 championship win against Michigan's Eric Tannenbaum at 165. The Iowa senior seized control of the match in the first 20 seconds when he scored on a go-behind takedown and rode Tannenbaum the rest of the period.

"That was all Tom Brands right there," Perry said. "That's being ready off the whistle. I'm not very fundamental. Brands just loves solid stuff, and that's as solid as it gets for me."

Perry's biggest problem the rest of the way was in his surgically repaired right knee. He missed two months late in the season after undergoing a meniscus repair. He got the knee wrenched during a scramble midway through the second period, felt a pop and spent the rest of the match fighting off the pain.

"I have to credit my coaches," Perry said. "They've been instilling in me that you've got to suck it up. You're not going to forfeit in the national finals, but obviously I went on the defense after that big time. I did as good as I could. I could hardly squat down in my stance without caving in. It's not the way I wanted to finish my wrestling career."

But finishing with a second title and a first team championship was exactly what Perry had in mind when the season started. It seemed like a far-fetched dream two years ago when the Hawkeyes finished sixth in the Big Ten and were lapped by Oklahoma State at the national tournament.

"The way it developed so quick really shocked me and the older guys and pretty much everybody," Perry said. "It just all fell together so quickly. When the season started, I really had no clue how tough we were going to be."


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