Wrestling Mailbag: Welcome to Iowa-Penn State week, plus more on Iowa girls wrestling

·18 min read

So. Big dual in Iowa City this weekend.

The stage is an easy one to set: No. 1 Penn State vs. No. 3 Iowa, Friday night at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, live on Big Ten Network, a matchup that sold out two months ago.

The Hawkeyes enter 11-0 overall this season, 5-0 against the Big Ten Conference, and and have won 29 consecutive duals dating back to the 2019-20 season. The Nittany Lions are 13-0 overall, 5-0 against the Big Ten, and winners of 24 in a row, a run that began after Iowa beat them, 19-17, in Iowa City during the same 2019-20 season.

So, yeah. Big deal.

And we’re going to learn a lot about both teams on Friday.

Iowa last wrestled Penn State in 2020, at a sold-out Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Iowa last wrestled Penn State in 2020, at a sold-out Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Duals and tournaments are different, yes, but seeing two titans line up and get after it gives us an idea of how each guy stacks up at the weight class. Using InterMat’s latest Division I rankings, we could see 19 ranked wrestlers out of a possible 20, including 14 ranked 10th or better, 12 in the top five and seven that are ranked either first or second.

There's an opportunity here for both teams to set the tone for the remainder of the season — for the Hawkeyes to show the rest of the country that they're still here and dangerous, and for the Nittany Lions to offer a second exclamation point in as many weeks that they might be college wrestling's top team this season.

That's the lens through which I'll be viewing Friday night, and I invite you to view it that way, too. Both teams will still have their goals in front of them regardless of how the dual ends up. This dual does not decide the national championship, but it will give us a better idea of what both teams must do to win the national championship, if that makes sense.

We’ve probably used this cliché before, but Friday night is only Round One. The Big Ten Championships in March will be Round Two (with Michigan and others in the mix) and the NCAA Championships in Detroit will be Round Three (with everybody else).

Strap in and enjoy the ride, in other words. Nobody should tell you how to be a fan of your favorite team, whether it's Iowa, Penn State, or whoever else. But Friday night will be all kinds of fun. Soak it in, rise and fall with the action, and don't be prisoners of the moment — because regardless of the outcome, the sun will still rise on Saturday.

Previously: Austin DeSanto returns to starting lineup as second-ranked Iowa wrestling beats Ohio State

Now, then. Onto the Wrestling Mailbag. Keep A.J. Ferrari, Oklahoma State’s star 197-pounder, in your thoughts. He was in a gnarly car accident Monday night. Early returns suggest that he and everybody involved will be fine, but that’s always scary news.

Please give me a follow on Twitter and I’ll keep you up to date on all things wrestling in Iowa. Don't forget to tune into the Register's wrestling podcast, In the Room, each week. You can find the latest episodes below.

Thanks for your help here, and for reading.

► MORE WRESTLING COVERAGE FROM THE REGISTER

Iowa vs. Penn State wrestling at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City

We'll break down this dual more both here and as the week goes, of course, but I think it's fair to say Penn State is the team to beat coming in.

Look at what it's done recently against other top-tier teams:

  • 21-16 win over #9 Cornell, rallying from down 16-8 by winning the final four matches, which included two matches decided by two points or fewer after dropping two matches decided by two points or fewer in the first-half of the dual

  • 29-10 win over #5 Arizona State, winning seven of 10 matches with three major decisions, a pin, a technical fall and a monster win at 149, Beau Bartlett over then-No. 5-ranked Kyle Parco

  • Most recently, a 29-6 beatdown over now-#2 Michigan, winning eight of 10 with a win by technical fall, another by injury default and a 4-1 record in matches decided by two points or fewer, all of which came in a row from 165-197.

That's a battle-tested team — and it's important to note that the wins over Cornell and Arizona State came at the Journeymen Collegiate Wrestling Duals, and was when Penn State was without Drew Hildebrandt, an All-American from Central Michigan who transferred in, and Brady Berge, who's now filled a hole for the team at 165 pounds.

Since 2008, Iowa actually holds a 7-3 advantage in head-to-head duals. They're an even 2-2 in the past four meetings, and Penn State has won three of the past five, and before that, Iowa won five in a row between 2008-13.

In that same stretch, Iowa holds a 4-2 advantage in duals contested at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Penn State has also won two of the past three duals contested in Iowa City.

So … ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Penn State also just walked into Michigan's Crisler Center and silenced an announced 6,185 by thoroughly handling the best Wolverine team maybe ever. But that atmosphere will be different than a sold-out Carver, which is formally 14,905 fans but we all know there will be every bit of 16,000 people and probably more in that building on Friday.

That atmosphere is part of what makes this rivalry and these moments fun, and that passion is a huge part of what makes wrestling great. Penn State might be the favorite on paper, but that doesn't mean Iowa can't win it.

Iowa fans cheer during a NCAA Big Ten Conference wrestling dual, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.
Iowa fans cheer during a NCAA Big Ten Conference wrestling dual, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

Iowa, Penn State wrestlers in the national wrestling rankings

Here's where Iowa wrestlers sit in the latest InterMat rankings, released Tuesday:

  • Drake Ayala, #11 at 125

  • Austin DeSanto, #3 at 133

  • Jaydin Eierman, #2 at 141

  • Max Murin, #10 at 149

  • Kaleb Young, #12 at 157

  • Alex Marinelli, #5 at 165

  • Michael Kemerer, #2 at 174

  • Abe Assad, #17 at 184

  • Jacob Warner, #4 at 197

  • Tony Cassioppi, #5 at 285

And here's where Penn State wrestlers sit:

  • Drew Hildebrandt, #7 at 125

  • Roman Bravo-Young, #1 at 133

  • Nick Lee, #1 at 141

  • Beau Bartlett, #19 at 149

  • Nobody ranked at 157

  • Brady Berge, #11 at 165

  • Carter Starocci, #1 at 174

  • Aaron Brooks, #1 at 184

  • Max Dean, #2 at 197

  • Greg Kerkvliet, #3 at 285

On paper, Penn State is favored in seven of 10 matches, based solely on the rankings, but I think you can reasonably say the Nittany Lions are favored at 133 and 184, Iowa is favored at 157 and 165, and the rest are probably toss-ups.

The Hawkeyes need to score bonus in the matches in which they are favored, and they need to win more of the toss-ups matches. That same game plan can be applied to Penn State — win the matches you're supposed to, and win the ones in the middle.

Sometimes it's really that simple.

Those toss-up matches are the ones that'll decide this dual — at least I think so. Can Ayala knock off an All-American in Hildebrandt? Eierman has beaten Lee before, and he'll need to do it again. Bartlett and Murin both wrestle close matches pretty regularly. This is one Murin needs to win.

Kemerer and C-star split last year, but Kemerer needs to win this time around for Iowa to win. The Dean-Warner matchup, for my money, is probably the most interesting of all 10. Cassioppi beat Kerkvliet at last season's Big Ten Championships, but Kerkvliet is now fully healthy and he looked like a menace in beating Michigan's Mason Parris last week.

There's a scenario in which this dual could end 15-15. There are also scenarios that have both Iowa and Penn State winning big. They could also both win close. The Nittany Lions crushed Michigan, yes, but half of the matches were decided by two points or less.

It's just a matter of execution, and these questions about who can win, what happens if whoever wins and how it impacts the dual at large are what makes this matchup and these individual matches so incredibly intriguing.

Iowa's Michael Kemerer, right, beat Penn State's Carter Starocci in the Big Ten finals last season. Starocci then beat Kemerer in the NCAA finals two weeks later.
Iowa's Michael Kemerer, right, beat Penn State's Carter Starocci in the Big Ten finals last season. Starocci then beat Kemerer in the NCAA finals two weeks later.

The 2022 CIML wrestling tournament

I wish I could be at the CIML Tournament on Friday at Johnston, for a couple reasons.

First, it's the last CIML tournament with all the teams involved, for one, because starting next year, 11 schools will depart for the newly created Iowa Alliance Conference. That's going to stink from a wrestling perspective, but I understand why the schools are defecting.

Second, this Friday's CIML wrestling competition is going to feature a TON of firepower.

Consider the teams:

  • Southeast Polk, #1 in 3A

  • Waukee NW, #3 in 3A

  • Fort Dodge, #7 in 3A

  • Dowling Catholic, #8 in 3A

  • Ankeny, #9 in 3A

There will be as many as 74 ranked wrestlers, per IAWrestle's latest rankings, including five No. 1s, nine No. 2s and three weights featuring both No. 1 and No. 2 (120, 126, 132). Both 138 and 170 could have as many as eight ranked wrestlers in those brackets; 106 and 120 could have as many as seven; and 113 and 182 could have as many as five.

That's a whole lot of talent.

But unfortunately, I can't miss the Iowa-Penn State dual.

This could've been the year that they moved CIML to Saturday. I know they started hosting it on a Friday because when they originally scheduled it, it clashed with the small-school sectional tournaments, and they wanted to make sure they had referees for the tournament. It wouldn't clash with sectionals this year.

Thankfully, IAWrestle will be there to stream it, and I plan on going back and watching the action some time Saturday and Sunday.

Waukee's Blake Hauck wrestles Southeast Polk's Andrew Reed on Monday, Jan. 4, 2021, at Waukee High School.
Waukee's Blake Hauck wrestles Southeast Polk's Andrew Reed on Monday, Jan. 4, 2021, at Waukee High School.

Favorite moments from the 2022 Iowa girls state wrestling championships

The girls state championships was a spectacular tournament. We'll go in order:

1. Favorite moment — the easy answer here is the moment the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union announced that it had sanctioned girls wrestling as an official sport. The arena turned pink, the crowd stood up and roared, and it was a really cool moment for everybody involved.

But the championship matches were pretty righteous. A lot of them will stick with me.

I was amazed at the four freshman champs — Union's Jillian Worthen (100), Underwood's Molly Allen (105), Sigourney-Keota's Reanah Utterback (110) and Iowa Valley's Emma Peach (140) — because they looked like they had been there, done that. They smiled and cheered and flexed, but they were all more than ready for the moment.

Eva Diaz's nail-biting victory over Jasmine Luedtke at 115 will stick with me because Diaz had to gut that one out with a third-period ride — and when she did, her older sister, Madison, screamed so loud in the stands behind me that I'm pretty sure my hearing was legitimately impacted.

Wilton's Hannah Rogers won at 120 and the emotions she showed were incredible because you could see how much it meant to her to win. Bettendorf's Ella Schmit won at 125 and it felt like a coronation.

Charles City's Lilly Luft won another intense match, and the way the Charles City coaches and crowd reacted when she took Macy Smith feet to back to ice it in the third period was a lot like what you'd hear at Wells Fargo Arena every February.

We can keep going down the list. They all had memorable reactions after winning the biggest matches of their lives (so far), and that's the magic behind a state wrestling tournament — especially this one for the girls, because it has grown into such a big thing over the past four years.

This was the best girls state wrestling tournament ever, setting up next year's to be even better.

Charles City's Lilly Luft, right, reacts after scoring a decision over Waverly-Shell Rock's Macy Smith at 130 pounds in the finals during of the Iowa Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association (IWCOA) girls' state wrestling tournament, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022, at the Xtream Arena in Coralville, Iowa.
Charles City's Lilly Luft, right, reacts after scoring a decision over Waverly-Shell Rock's Macy Smith at 130 pounds in the finals during of the Iowa Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association (IWCOA) girls' state wrestling tournament, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022, at the Xtream Arena in Coralville, Iowa.

2. Freshmen winners — Too early to tell, to be honest, but they all have a good shot.

If you want to place odds on it, I would think Peach might have the best odds. The three lightest weights might all end up running into each other at some point — which would be pretty awesome — but they could also all avoid each other and all win four (which is something we might see on the boys side this year).

3. Who has the best chance to compete on the world stage? — This is unique because we just don't know until they go do it. I'd like to think they all have a shot to make some noise nationally and maybe even internationally.

Iowa girls are getting better, quickly. It won't be long until we see more All-Americans at the age-level national championships. Rachel Watters set the standard when it came to international experience, as she made five age-level world teams. She also won a Cadet women's freestyle national title and two more at the Junior level.

Felicity Taylor also won a Junior women's freestyle national title and was a two-time Cadet All-American and even made the U23 world team. Cassy Herkelman was a Cadet national champ. Megan Black won a Junior title.

Schmit is both a 16U and Junior women's freestyle All-American, one of just five in state history. She also made the semifinals at the Cadet world team trials last spring, losing to California star Katie Gomez, the eventual world champion.

The rate at which Iowa girls are improving tells me that we'll see a girls world-teamer sooner rather than later.

The growth of Iowa girls high school wrestling

A lion's share of the credit for the explosive growth of Iowa's girls wrestling participation goes to the Iowa Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association. Without its dedication and willingness to host a state tournament event and create opportunities for the girls, I'm not sure the numbers would've erupted like they did.

The IWCOA basically took a page out of every other state's playbook to help rev up Iowa's girls wrestling movement. The play was simple: Give the girls opportunities, give them something high to shoot for and then watch the magic happen.

Here are the state's overall participation numbers before the this movement began in earnest:

  • 2013-14 season: 36 girls registered in Trackwrestling

  • 2014-15 season: 41

  • 2015-16 season: 67

  • 2016-17 season: 93

  • 2017-18 season: 92

That 2017-18 season is when both Ogden and Independence created girls divisions at their tournaments. That's an important note here, because check out the numbers the next year:

  • 2018-19 season: 188 girls registered in Trackwrestling

And this was the year the IWCOA and Waverly-Shell Rock hosted the first girls state tournament event. Only 87 girls showed up, because of weather and other hurdles, and only 10 weights were contested.

But that 2018-19 season was the year it became clear that coaches, teams, everybody could open opportunities for the girls, and the girls were ready to walk through those doors and give this a shot.

Here's what happened over the next three years:

  • 2019-20 season: 554 girls registered in Trackwrestling, 350 at the state tournament

  • 2020-21 season: 683 girls registered in Trackwrestling, 457 at state

  • 2021-22 season: 1,023 girls registered in Trackwrestling, 695 at state

It's amazing what happens when you show a willingness to open the door and see what happens. There were a lot of other key details and behind-the-scenes work that went into this — facilitating schedules, pushing teams to recruit girls, on and on — but the opportunities became available, so the numbers popped.

People hold up signs spelling out "Sanctioned 2022" in the finals of the Iowa Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association (IWCOA) girls' state wrestling tournament, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022, at the Xtream Arena in Coralville, Iowa.
People hold up signs spelling out "Sanctioned 2022" in the finals of the Iowa Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association (IWCOA) girls' state wrestling tournament, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022, at the Xtream Arena in Coralville, Iowa.

Why the IGHSAU decided to sanction girls wrestling in Iowa

They basically wanted it to grow and become more sustainable.

Consider: The 2019 IWCOA girls state tournament only had 87 girls, and 30 of the 36 teams that showed up brought three girls or fewer. Waverly-Shell Rock and Denver both brought 11. Put another way, 25% of the girls that competed came from two teams.

The IGHSAU set benchmarks it felt would help create sustainability. It wanted roughly 15% of all Iowa high schools to commit to hosting and supporting a program, which translated to roughly 50 high schools. That number was reached in October, and when the union announced it on Saturday, it said 58 schools and counting had committed.

It wanted at least half of all Iowa schools to have at least one girl wrestler on the team. The 695 that competed at state came from 161 different schools. That's a shade under 50%, but when you branch out to the 1,023 that registered statewide, it crossed that 50% mark easy.

It wanted to see 200-plus girls compete at an in-season tournament. Anamosa hosted a girls tournament on Jan. 3 that included 229 girls. At least two other regular season tournaments hosted more than 100 girls at a single time.

Again, there are so many more behind-the-scenes details about how we got to each point, but the work of the IWCOA, the Iowa High School Athletic Association and so many others on the ground over the past few years led this movement to Saturday's announcement.

The IGHSAU didn't want to just green-light the sport and have the girls wrestle on a single mat in the corner, away from the crowd as a second thought. It wanted to make sure the girls got the proper attention they deserved, and now that the union sees the sport is not just sustainable but still growing, it wants to continue to elevate it.

There was a lot of heavy-lifting that built this thing into the still-growing monster it is today, but the gist was that it grew into a sustainable thing that could then be handed off to the IGHSAU. Union officials will continue to work with the IWCOA and others to keep it going, but now it's in their hands.

Jean Berger, executive director of the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union, announces the union has sanctioned girls wrestling before the finals during the third session of the Iowa Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association (IWCOA) girls' state wrestling tournament, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022, at the Xtream Arena in Coralville, Iowa.
Jean Berger, executive director of the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union, announces the union has sanctioned girls wrestling before the finals during the third session of the Iowa Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association (IWCOA) girls' state wrestling tournament, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022, at the Xtream Arena in Coralville, Iowa.

What will Iowa high school girls wrestling look like in the future?

It is my understanding that girls wrestling will operate as a single-class sport for at least one, maybe two, possibly three years while the numbers continue to grow.

The IGHSAU will sponsor girls wrestling under the guidelines set forth by the National Federation of State High School Associations. I know the IWCOA wanted to implement state-qualifying tournaments next, and I imagine the IGHSAU will include those early in the first talks once it creates a girls wrestling advisory committee.

That'll be an interesting discussion — about where to draw qualifying boundary lines and why; how many regional tournaments there will be, and how big they want the state brackets to be; how many girls per weight can each team enter; on and on.

It may be a few years, possibly more, before we see multiple classes, but I know one of the IGHSAU's goals is to continue to grow the overall participation numbers. If they continue to grow as fast as they have been, I could see two classifications relatively soon.

How the IGHSAU continues to grow the overall numbers, and how potential classifications and regional tournaments take shape, will be fun to watch unfold over the next few years. I think it would like to see some major growth in participation from the Des Moines-area schools. That might help with the formation of multiple classifications. Time will tell.

This week, I'm grateful for the sport of wrestling. It has opened opportunities and helped so many people, for various reasons, in various ways. The girls state championships was yet another reminder of how awesome this sport can be.

Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Breaking down No. 3 Iowa wrestling's dual against No. 1 Penn State

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