NCAA Wrestling Championships: Iowa’s second-place finish more bitter than sweet

Iowa finished with 84 team points and six All-Americans, but it was not enough to down Ohio State, which claimed its first team national title in program history.

ST. LOUIS — Pain looks like brand-new T-shirts and hats and ginormous smiles. It’s watching from the corner of the Scottrade Center as the team destined to win in the future takes a step forward a year early. It’s a party on the stage with the golden NCAA trophy and only those clad in Scarlet and Gray are invited — and, yes, selfies with the hardware are allowed.

Tom Brands looked on as his former teammate and longtime friend Tom Ryan celebrated with the rest of his Ohio State wrestling team, the team-title winners of the NCAA Wrestling Championships. The Buckeyes wrapped up first place earlier on Saturday morning. When the totals were completed at night, they scored 102 team points — 18 better than second-place Iowa.

“They did a lot of work to anchor it,” Brands said. “We were within striking distance, and when you’re in that situation, you have to win matches — really, in any situation, you have to win matches. We just kind of stalled there a little bit.”

March 21 turned out to be more bitter than sweet for the Black and Gold. A season filled to the brim with championship expectations ended at about 12:44 p.m. CDT, when Ohio State’s Kenny Courts’ 4-3 win over Hayden Zillmer earned him fifth place at 184 pounds and clinched a share of the NCAA title for his team. Shortly thereafter, Nathan Burak’s 6-5 win over Michigan’s Max Huntley for seventh at 197 gave the Buckeyes the title outright.

“I’m proud,” said Ryan, who was also named the NCAA Coach of the Year. “Nineteen-twenty-one was the first year Ohio State started wrestling. Nineteen-twenty-one. How many years ago was that — 94 years since the beginning of this program, and we finally win our first championship.”

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Those words only add to the Hawkeyes’ pain, especially for a program that’s now gone five years since its last NCAA team title, the second-longest drought since Iowa won its first team title in 1975. Still, there were positives, even if Brands and Company do not wish to view them that way.

Six Hawkeyes earned All-American status, the most of any team at this year’s national tournament. For the 26th-year in a row, at least one Iowa wrestler competed in Saturday night’s finals. Seniors Mike Evans (174) and Bobby Telford (heavywight) both capped their Black and Gold careers as three-time All-Americans with their respective sixth- and fifth-place finishes.

And yet, the team felt empty. Looked empty. They sat and watched as Ohio State partied on the stage immediately after 141-pounder Logan Stieber made history by winning his fourth individual NCAA title. Stieber is just the fourth wrestler to do so. He was pulled from the party temporarily so he could take his spot on top of the podium during the 141-pound award ceremony, then jumped right back into the Scarlet and Gray mob.

“They did more work than us,” Brands said. “As far as maybe some regret when you look back on it, for sure. It’s not as if we let it slip away; we just didn’t do enough. We didn’t score enough match points. We didn’t score enough team points. It’s that simple.”

There was still hope at the end of the night, though, to ease the pain. Cory Clark made it to the 133-pound finals against Oklahoma’s Cody Brewer. Iowa could have still left here with an individual NCAA champion. Brewer had other plans, rolling to an 11-8 victory buoyed by 5 takedowns in the first two periods.

“I don’t even really know what to say,” Clark said. “… I felt ready to go, but he got to my legs, and I didn’t capitalize, and he kept getting to my legs. Once he gets there once, I just have to realize that he’s coming, and I’ve got to be way more ready to go than I was.”

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In the end, Iowa did have to leave its spot in the tunnel and walk up on stage to accept its silver NCAA trophy. They posed for pictures. They did not smile. They did not wait. They knelt down for a moment, then rose again and left the stage.

As they walked back underneath the Scottrade Center, Dan Gable greeted them in the tunnel. He shook each wrestler’s hand and patted him on the back. Once everybody came through, he turned and watched the last of them disappear to find their stuff, head to the bus, and go back home disappointed for the fifth year in a row.

Pain can be a lot of things, and is often considered weakness leaving the body. But in this case, perhaps it’s holding a chunk of silver hardware and wanting absolutely nothing to do with it.

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