Tuesday, March 25, 2008

NCAA title could be just the beginning for Hawks

By Andy Hamilton
Iowa City Press-Citizen

Plans for the next national championship were in the works for the Iowa wrestling program long before Saturday night -- and it won't take a renovation project to assemble the next title team.

The Hawkeyes must replace two-time NCAA champion Mark Perry Jr. and All-American Matt Fields from the team that rolled through the tournament over the weekend at the NCAA Championships in St. Louis.

Perry and Fields accounted for 36 points at the Scottrade Center. The Hawkeyes won the title by 38.5.

"It was awesome to be part of this team," said Perry, a four-time All-American who claimed his second title with a 5-2 win against Michigan's Eric Tannenbaum at 165. "They pretty much return everybody besides myself and Fields. We've got (Dan) Erekson, who I think can win the nationals next year when he starts believing it -- and I'm not just saying that for no reason. He could be a very talented heavyweight. They're after some very talented '65-pounders, and everyone is going to be a year older.

"They're going to have (Dan LeClere and Alex Tsirtsis) battling off at 141 for the spot, they're bringing in recruits who will be battling starters. When you've got guys who are pushing you that hard just to make the lineup ... I'm not going to lie, I didn't think Joey Slaton was going to make the team this year and he's in the national finals (at 133)."

That in-house competition is a top reason for Iowa's return to glory, Perry said.

"That's why Iowa has made such a huge jump," he said. "We have so many athletes and so much talent in the room that we're being pushed every day. There's not a day when you can just grab somebody and have an easy day. Every day is a grind in the Iowa wrestling room."

The Hawkeyes piled up 117.5 points during the three-day tournament, getting titles from Perry and sophomore Brent Metcalf at 149 and a runner-up finish from Slaton, a sophomore, at 133. Jay Borschel (third at 174), Charlie Falck (sixth at 125) and Phil Keddy (sixth at 184) also return as All-Americans.

Keddy made a big leap during his second season as a starter with the Hawkeyes. He went 14-16 as a freshman but followed that up with a 32-11 year as a sophomore. All 11 of his losses came to the top five wrestlers on the medal stand at the national tournament, including a 4-3 defeat to Ohio State's eventual-champion Mike Pucillo, who needed a takedown with seven seconds remaining to get past Keddy in the quarterfinals.

"Phil Keddy has improved tremendously," coach Tom Brands said. "If Phil Keddy makes (another) jump (like he did) from last year to this year ... we'll be sitting pretty good there. He could very well have been in the finals, and that's closing the gap a little bit right there."

Keddy's surge as a sophomore was emblematic of the program during Brands' sophomore season as head coach. Iowa finished eighth in the nation in 2007, 41 points behind tournament champion Minnesota.

"We've been working on it for a couple years and waiting for everyone to get on board with his mentality and his attitude where every guy at his weight class is thinking he's going to win the championship and he's the toughest S.O.B. out there on the mat," Borschel said. "Finally, guys are starting to believe 'I'm the best at my weight class and I'm competing for the championship.'"

The groundwork for the title was put in place two years ago when Iowa brought Brands back to his alma mater after two seasons at Virginia Tech. Brands made sweeping changes to the program upon his arrival, raising internal expectations, demanding more from his wrestlers on and off the mat and bringing back the attacking style that made the Hawkeyes a force for decades under coach Dan Gable.

"(The program has) come a long way with just getting guys over that pain (and attitude that) it's going to be hard work and 'I've got to work through fatigue,'" Brands said. "It's been about just getting tougher mentally."

The main objective for the Hawkeyes entering next season is to get even tougher than they were this year. The bar is set pretty high. Iowa went 21-1 in duals and won every tournament it entered. Ohio State -- the closest team to the Hawkeyes in the final standings -- loses heavyweight runner-up J.D. Bergman from the team that finished with 79 points. Third-place Penn State must replace NCAA champ Phil Davis at 197 and All-American Mark McKnight at 125.

Nebraska (fourth with 74 points) and Iowa State (tied for fifth with 72) return the core of teams that hung around the Hawkeyes in the early rounds of the tournament before Iowa went on a tear Thursday night and throughout the day Friday.

The Hawkeyes hauled home the two individual golds, Metcalf was named the outstanding wrestler of the tournament, Brands was voted the national coach of the year by his peers and Iowa claimed the biggest prize of all -- its first team title since 2000.

"That's taking some hardware home, that's what Gable used to say -- let's go in there and steal all the hardware," Brands said. "That's fun and kind of cocky to say, and everybody here will use it against me, so I'm not going to give them any firepower."