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Are Iowa’s Days Atop the NCAA Standings Numbered?

Image courtesy of University of Iowa Sports Information from the 2021 NCAA Division I Championships.

The Iowa Hawkeyes have looked like the best team in Division I wrestling for the last two seasons. But how long can that last, with Cael Sanderson and Penn State nipping at the heels of the Brands brothers?

In 2020, the Hawks took home their first Big Ten title since 2015 and looked poised to bring home their first NCAA national championship since 2010. But those plans were derailed when NCAAs was canceled just days before the big dance due to COVID-19. 

This year, in 2021, Tom Brands and his squad picked up right where they left off. The Hawks were co-Big Ten Champions with Penn State, and the Hawkeyes brought the 2021 national title back to Iowa City. The Hawks’ 129 team points were 15.5 points ahead of those same Nittany Lions (113.5 points) in the team race in St. Louis. With that, Iowa won its 24th NCAA team title, the fourth under head coach Tom Brands.

The path to No. 24 was led by 2021 Hodge Trophy winner Spencer Lee, who also won the 125-pound NCAA Championship Saturday night at Enterprise Center in St. Louis, becoming the seventh three-time national champion in program history. 

While this occasion should have resulted in nothing but smiles for newly-minted team champs, that wasn’t the case. The aftereffects of Iowa’s first national title in 11 seasons felt more ominous than jovial. 

The feat was marred by a slew of other issues, including Iowa crowning just one individual champ while PSU crowned four, two of which earned titles over Hawkeye grapplers. Then, the team victory was dulled a bit by presumably significant injuries to Alex Marinelli and Spencer Lee. Plus, more Austin DeSanto antics off the mat didn’t bring a smile to anyone’s face in Iowa City. 

For Penn State, though, while the second-place showing wasn’t what the squad had in mind, the Lions stole Iowa’s thunder. With such a young lineup, one with five freshmen starters, taking second overall and crowning four individual champions was a momentous achievement. 

Although Iowa will return 100% of its veteran-laden 2021 starting lineup, crazy as it is to say, Penn State might be the favorite to bring home a title in 2022. 

In addition to Penn State’s strong showing in the NCAA finals, the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club shined at the 2021 Olympic Trials as well. 

At the 2021 Trials, it felt like a Penn State wrestling reunion. There were 15 total Penn Staters (past and present) vying to earn Olympic Team and World Team spots. 

In the end, four resident athletes with the NLWC qualified for the Tokyo Olympics later this summer, and former all-time great David Taylor became the newest member of Penn State wrestling’s ever-growing Olympian club. 

Of the 15 Penn State and/or the NLWC-affiliated athletes competing at the 2021 Team Trials, five competed for titles in the Trial finals, all of whom had already clinched spots on the U.S. National Team. Four of the NLWCs finalists became 2020 Olympians with wins, while the fifth (Bo Nickal) lost to an NLWC teammate, first-time Olympian David Taylor, in the finals at 86 kg.

What makes Cael and his athletes’ success all the more noteworthy is that he is achieving these things with athletes who are new to Happy Valley. Thomas Gilman, Kyle Snyder, and Helen Maroulis all hailed from other storied training centers originally. Gilman joined from Iowa. Synder came from Ohio State. Maroulis transferred in just three months ago, in January, from Sunkist Kids in Arizona. Taylor was the lone Olympian to be “homegrown,” originating from NLWC. 

While the trio of “outsiders” now turned NLWC residents all have different stories and paths to NLWC, the three are uniquely similar in their unrelenting praise for NLWC and its coaches. 

Take a listen to the post-Trials interviews from Gilman, Snyder, and Maroulis. All three Olympians ooze praise for what the NLWC has done for them on and off the mat. 

In roughly a two-week span, Penn State/NLWC crowned four Olympians and four 2021 NCAA gold medalists, two of which reversed their results from the 2021 Big Ten finals just two weeks before nationals. 

These eight remarkable achievements are the truest testament to the strength of the Penn State program and its entire coaching staff, NLWC included. Lately, this staff has helped its athletes win on the biggest stage better than any other team or training center. 

This year the Nittany Lions may not have won the NCAA team title. Similarly, Penn State may not have had the most complete college wrestling team. However, Penn State and its RTC have dominated at the biggest collegiate and international wrestling events of the year.

In doing so, Penn State left little about who has the best coaching staff in the sport. That’s not to say other programs and their respective coaching staff are not fantastic, too, but PSU is just getting the best results.

Iowa, and its Hawkeye Wrestling Club, had one athlete at the 2021 Olympic Trials, men’s freestyler Sammy Brooks (86 kg). Presently, the Hawks may be on top of the NCAA wrestling mountain, but another reign of dominance for Cael and Co. could be on the horizon. In fact, Penn State’s “Decade of Dominance: Volume Two” may even begin in 2022. 

Currently, the Iowa starting ten are aging while Penn State ten are a youthful bunch. Most importantly, Penn State is producing at levels that are too compelling for high school recruits and elite Senior-level competitors to ignore. 

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