Wrestling Mailbag: More on Spencer Lee, NCAA wrestling championships outlook, Drake Ayala and more

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·17 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

So Spencer Lee is done for the season. Sad face. He released a statement Saturday, which I think was also a thorough explanation of his thought-process about why he chose to do what he did with regards to the health his knees.

Here's his statement again, in full:

A lot of people, myself included, were curious why Spencer didn’t get surgery right away after he decided not to compete at the U.S. Olympic Trials last spring. His statement answers that question.

He tore his right ACL in the 2019 NCAA final, chose not to get surgery and to instead rehab and wrestle through it. The result was a U.S. Senior men's freestyle national title and a Hodge Trophy season in '19-20 with the Hawkeyes.

So, naturally, after he tears his other ACL, he does the same thing ahead of the 2021 NCAA Championships, goes on to win his third national title and outscored his five opponents 59-8. That's twice he's opted for rehab over surgery and it worked. He had no reason to think it wouldn't work again.

That ultimately led to the decision to go all-in on that extensive rehab again over the last nine months to strengthen and stabilize his knees. He said so himself in his statement: "It also influenced my decision to forego surgery and choose rehabilitation after injuring my other knee in the 2021 Big Ten Championship finals."

More: 'Excuses are for wusses': Iowa's Spencer Lee wins his third consecutive national title on torn ACL

Well, he tried it, wrestling at the Journeymen event in Florida, and, to be honest, he looked good. He beat Central Michigan’s Brock Bergelin, 17-0; Lehigh’s Jaret Lane, 8-0; and N.C. State’s Jakob Camacho, 6-1. Iowa won all three duals. He maybe wasn't as dominant, but after watching him, I admit, I was convinced he could still do it.

Ultimately, he decided against continuing. He’ll have surgery this Friday and then apply for a medical hardship waiver — or a medical redshirt, as we commonly refer to it — and he should be a lock to get it and will return for the '22-23 season.

Now, then. Onto the Wrestling Mailbag, which basically answers many questions about Iowa's life without Spencer for the rest of the season. Additionally, my New Year's resolution this year is to practice gratitude more regularly, and I’m holding myself accountable by sharing one thing I’m thankful for at the end of my mailbag every week.

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.

► WRESTLING COVERAGE FROM THE DES MOINES REGISTER

How does losing Spencer Lee impact Iowa at the NCAA Championships?

The short answer is that Iowa is going to need everybody to step up to repeat as NCAA champions.

The longer answer? Put on your math hats for a minute and let's break it down.

Spencer has averaged roughly 25 team points at the last three NCAA Championships. He scored 27 in 2018, 24.5 in 2019, and 24.5 in 2021. Here’s how that would’ve immediately impacted Iowa:

  • In 2018, Iowa scored 97 team points to take third. Without Spencer, they drop to 70, which would’ve been fifth.

  • In 2019, Iowa scored 76 for fourth. Without Spencer, that’s 51.5, a tie for eighth.

  • In 2021, Iowa scored 129 and won the team title. Without Spencer, they score just 104.5 and take second behind Penn State (who scored 113.5).

It’s not as cut-and-dry as that, but that gives you a visual of what the Hawkeyes need to replace if they want to repeat as NCAA team champions.

I’m not sure that Drake Ayala or Jesse Ybarra or anybody can just hop in and put up 20 team points. That’s not fair to them. But there is a reasonable path to Iowa making up Spencer’s 25 team points. I think it’ll take anywhere from 120-140 to win it this year.

Let’s further explore the 2021 team scores for a moment, but that also includes seven combined points from Max Murin (2 at 149), Alex Marinelli (4 at 165) and Nelson Brands (1 at 184).

Last week: Wrestling Mailbag: The Hawkeye Open, NCAA title odds, Yonger Bastida, Spencer Lee, Nate Jesuroga, and more

In Marinelli’s other two trips to the NCAA Championships, in 2018 and 2019, he scored 13 and 7.5 points, respectively, in All-American finishes. Best guess, you can probably pencil him in for anywhere from 8-15 points.

Barring something unforeseen, Abe Assad looks like the guy at 184 this year, and in his limited time on the mat, he’s showed the ability to score bonus points against guys he should score bonus points against. It’s hard to say where he’s at in the pecking order of things, but he probably needs to score somewhere in the ballpark of 8-10, at least.

Murin is quite simple. If he won his quarterfinal match (and he almost did), that puts him in the top-six, which is automatically six team points. If he wins his bloodround match (and he almost did), that puts him on the podium, which is at least three team points with potential for more. Murin needs to win those matches this time around.

Then, of course, there’s the case of whoever goes at 125. This is the hard one to project, because these guys only have so many matches against top competition. We’ll use Ayala since he just competed at the Southern Scuffle. Anywhere from the bloodround to fourth-place seems reasonable — which could be between 2-15 points.

If we assume the rest of Iowa’s team holds serve — Austin DeSanto scored 19.5; Jaydin Eierman scored 21.5; Kaleb Young scored 8.5; Michael Kemerer scored 20; Jacob Warner scored 12.5; Tony Cassioppi scored 16.5 — then there’s a path here for Iowa to get to the 130-140 range … if everybody comes through.

Again: It’s going to take everybody.

Iowa's Spencer Lee is a three-time NCAA champion. He will miss the remainder of the '21-22 season.
Iowa's Spencer Lee is a three-time NCAA champion. He will miss the remainder of the '21-22 season.

Expect a fantastic team race at the 2022 NCAA Wrestling Championships

I think we’re looking at a pretty spectacular three-team race, between Iowa, Penn State and Michigan, with a bunch of other teams just outside the top three that will make a huge impact on how the big dance gets decided in Detroit.

We already looked at Iowa, but Penn State and Michigan both offer interesting team dynamics.

Let’s start with the Nittany Lions. Here’s who they could roll out come March:

  • 125: Drew Hildebrandt

  • 133: Roman Bravo-Young

  • 141: Nick Lee

  • 149: Beau Bartlett

  • 157: Tony Negron/Terrell Barraclough

  • 165: Creighton Edsell

  • 174: Carter Starocci

  • 184: Aaron Brooks

  • 197: Max Dean

  • 285: Greg Kerkvliet

That’s four returning NCAA champs, in RBY, Nick Lee, C-Star and AB, plus All-Americans in Hildebrandt, Dean and Kerkvliet, and then Beau Bartlett continues to be intriguing at 149 pounds. He doesn’t look like a major point-scorer, but the dude is winning some tough matches. That’s important.

Penn State scored 113.5 points last year, thanks largely to the four national titles. Hildebrandt took fourth last year for Central Michigan and scored 12.5 team points. Kerkvliet looks healthier and will probably score more than the 11 he scored last year. Dean is a past NCAA finalist (shoutout Drew Foster!) and scored 17 for Cornell in 2019.

These things aren’t as easy as plug-and-play — especially at 197, because Michael Beard scored 9.5 points as an All-American for Penn State last year — but it’s not hard to see Penn State somewhere in the 130-140 range, too.

And now Michigan:

  • 125: Nick Suriano

  • 133: Dylan Ragusin

  • 141: Stevan Micic

  • 149: Kanen Storr

  • 157: Will Lewan

  • 165: Cam Amine

  • 174: Logan Massa

  • 184: Myles Amine

  • 197: Pat Brucki

  • 285: Mason Parris

That’s seven total All-Americans in the lineup, including three previous NCAA finalists (Suriano, Micic, Parris), plus three others who have finished as high as fourth (Massa, Myles, Brucki), and another All-American in Cam Amine. This is a dangerous Wolverine squad.

Again, the math here is interesting.

Michigan scored just 69 points at the 2021 NCAA Championships, but that’s without Micic, who’s averaged about 16 team points per national tournament; Suriano, a two-time NCAA finalist; and Brucki, who scored 12.5 points for Princeton in 2019; and with Myles at 197 (he’ll likely score more at 184 than the 14.5 points he scored last year).

So it’s not hard to see Michigan hitting close to 120-130 as well — again, assuming all else holds.

Penn State wrestler Roman Bravo-Young, pictured here working a camp at Ankeny High School in May 2021, is a returning NCAA champion at 133 pounds.
Penn State wrestler Roman Bravo-Young, pictured here working a camp at Ankeny High School in May 2021, is a returning NCAA champion at 133 pounds.

Those might be the top three teams, at least on paper, but there are countless others who will have an impact on this year’s team race.

There’s Arizona State, which took fourth last year. There’s N.C. State, who took sixth, just one point behind Michigan. There’s Missouri and Minnesota and Ohio State and Virginia Tech and Oklahoma State. There’s Cornell, too, who didn’t wrestle at all last year because of the Ivy League’s strict COVID-19 protocols.

Here’s one example: How much does the return of Princeton’s Pat Glory and Cornell’s Vito Arujau impact how Suriano, Hildebrandt and Ayala and Arizona State's Brandon Courtney, a returning NCAA finalist, finish at 125 pounds?

Here’s another: Virginia Tech’s Mekhi Lewis, a 2019 NCAA champ, and N.C. State’s Hayden Hidlay, a past NCAA finalist, are both now at 174 pounds. How will their performances impact Kemerer, Starocci and Massa?

And another: With Myles Amine down at 184, what will that podium look like, with Brooks, Assad, N.C. State’s Trent Hidlay, Northern Iowa’s Parker Keckeisen, and so many others at that weight?

And one more: Brucki is back at 197, but so are the two returning finalists in Oklahoma State’s A.J. Ferrari and Pittsburgh’s Nino Bonaccorsi, plus Warner and Oklahoma’s Jake Woodley and Missouri’s Rocky Elam and this weight could finish any number of different ways.

We can do this all day, with virtually every weight, but the reality is that anything can happen during those three days in March. This could be one of the better team races we’ve seen in some time. It’s exciting to think about the possibilities.

Oklahoma State's AJ Ferrari is a defending NCAA champion.
Oklahoma State's AJ Ferrari is a defending NCAA champion.

Will Drake Ayala come out of redshirt for Iowa wrestling?

Odds are pretty decent, I would think, but let’s understand that Ybarra is also in this picture.

There’s a reason Ybarra got the green light over Aaron Cashman. He joined Iowa as a Cadet freestyle national champ, a winner at FloWrestling’s Who’s Number One, and a finalist at the Cadet freestyle world team trials. He’s 5-1 this season, and while he hasn’t maybe been as dominant or exciting as Ayala, the staff loves his potential.

It wouldn’t shock me to see Ybarra wrestle against Minnesota on Friday (7 p.m. in Iowa City), as maybe one final opportunity to prove that he can be the guy for Iowa moving forward. If he doesn’t get the job done, or at least show he can score some major points come March, then Ayala might go Sunday against Purdue.

That’s at least one thought. Another is to just send Ayala out against both because of his performance at the Southern Scuffle. That means he’d potentially get another crack at Minnesota’s Pat McKee, ranked No. 9, on Friday and then possibly Purdue’s Devin Schroder, ranked No. 7, on Sunday afternoon. Baptism by fire.

I am of the belief that, based on what we’ve seen so far, Ayala is likely Iowa’s best option at 125 pounds the rest of the year, and the upcoming Big Ten gauntlet will prepare him for the postseason. Here’s who Iowa has in January and February:

  • Jan. 7: No. 10 Minnesota (McKee)

  • Jan. 9: No. 25 Purdue (Schroder)

  • Jan. 14: at No. 12 Northwestern (No. 18 Michael DeAugustino)

  • Jan. 16: at No. 20 Illinois (No. 29 Justin Cardani

  • Jan. 21: at No. 9 Ohio State (No. 16 Malik Heinselman)

  • Jan. 28: No. 2 Penn State (Hildebrandt)

  • Feb. 5: No. 19 Wisconsin (No. 6 Eric Barnett)

  • Feb. 12: vs. No. 5 Oklahoma State (No. 11 Trevor Mastrogiovanni)

  • Feb. 20: at No. 7 Nebraska (No. 24 Liam Cronin)

Whether it’s Ayala or Ybarra, that’s a gnarly slate. Such is life in the Big Ten, but we’ll also have a pretty good idea of where they stand heading into the postseason.

Drake Ayala, a true freshman for the Iowa wrestling program, took third at the 2022 Southern Scuffle last weekend in Tennessee.
Drake Ayala, a true freshman for the Iowa wrestling program, took third at the 2022 Southern Scuffle last weekend in Tennessee.

Iowa wrestling's 2022-23 lineup

Let’s take a quick stab at it:

  • 125: Spencer Lee

  • 133: Cullan Schriever

  • 141: Wyatt Henson/Leif Schroeder

  • 149: Max Murin/Cobe Siebrecht/Bretli Reyna/Caleb Rathjen

  • 157: ?

  • 165: Patrick Kennedy

  • 174: Nelson Brands

  • 184: Abe Assad

  • 197: Jacob Warner

  • 285: Tony Cassioppi

Most of it looks pretty set. There’s a small logjam at 149. Maybe one of those guys will grow into 157, since that appears to be the one question mark right now. That could also be a weight class that Iowa could potentially target through the transfer portal.

But Spencer’s return is huge. This isn’t a new idea, not exactly, but definitely an intriguing one: Spencer’s return in ’22-23 means Iowa probably stays somewhat in contention for the team title next season.

The Hawkeyes would have bonafide point-scorers at 125, 165, 174, 184, 197 and 285. Schriever will be a drop-off from DeSanto, but he’s a promising prospect that will be a factor as he continues to develop. Iowa will also need guys at 141, 149 and 157 to step up to make this thing truly hum.

It’s too early to do a full team-race projection for 2023 (at least I’m not crazy enough to do one right now), but Penn State, for example, will likely lose both Nick Lee and RBY after this season — Lee because his eligibility will expire; RBY because he said earlier this season that this will be his last college season (though he’ll have one year left).

Everybody will lose pieces from this year’s teams. Michigan won’t have Micic, Myles or Massa after this season, for example. We’ll look more at 2023 once we finished 2022.

In any case, Iowa’s ’22-23 lineup has some strong potential, anchored obviously by Lee’s return. How that team finishes hinges largely on the development of the young guys.

Enough about next year. Stay focused on this year, you guys.

Abe Assad rejoined Iowa's starting lineup on Monday at the Journeymen Collegiate Wrestling Dual. Assad went 2-0 at 184 pounds.
Abe Assad rejoined Iowa's starting lineup on Monday at the Journeymen Collegiate Wrestling Dual. Assad went 2-0 at 184 pounds.

When will Michael Kemerer wrestle?

My gut tells me we’ll see him soon. We almost have to see him soon.

He weighed in both in Ames, when Iowa beat Iowa State, and in Florida, where the Hawkeyes won three duals at the Journeymen Collegiate Wrestling Duals. But time is of the essence for Kemerer, and here’s why.

Iowa has just nine duals left on the calendar. There might be a few open tournaments available here and there, but the number nine is the important point here. In order to earn an NCAA allocation for the Big Ten Conference, a wrestler needs a least eight Division I matches.

Allocations are divvied up based on three factors: winning percentage against Division I opponents, NCAA RPI and coaches ranking. You need at least five matches to be considered for the coaches ranking, eight to have a calculated winning percentage, and 15 for a calculated RPI. You need two of these three to earn an allocation.

Which is to say, you need eight Division I matches to hit that threshold. Again, Iowa has nine duals left.

I was a little surprised we didn’t see Kemerer wrestle a few matches at the Southern Scuffle — not unlike what Spencer did at the Midlands a few years ago. Wrestle a few matches, secure some Division I wins, then leave after you feel good about it.

That would’ve given Iowa some flexibility about choosing his spots during these final nine duals. Not doing that backed Kemerer into a corner. Again, there could be a few open tournaments he could hit between now and March. Maybe he could Last Chance Open this thing in order to hit those requirements (I'm kidding).

I’ve believed since Kemerer decided to come back that we wouldn’t see him until January. It’s January now. I’d like to think we’ll see him this weekend, against either Minnesota or Purdue.

As with anything, you guys will know when I do.

Iowa 174-pound wrestler Michael Kemerer poses for a photo during Hawkeyes men's wrestling media day, Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.
Iowa 174-pound wrestler Michael Kemerer poses for a photo during Hawkeyes men's wrestling media day, Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

Looking at 2022 Iowa high school wrestling

There are a lot, because I’m a nerd and follow these things incredibly close, but here are a few quick thoughts off the top of my head:

  • The IWCOA girls’ state championships are just a few weeks away!

  • Can anybody close the gap on Waverly-Shell Rock and Southeast Polk in Class 3A?

  • Robert Avila Jr.’s path to a fourth state title is going to be the toughest it’s ever been for him during his high school career.

  • Him, Crestwood’s Carter Fousek and New London’s Marcel Lopez are all wrestling for a fourth state title, and three guys winning it in the same year would be the most ever in a single season in state history.

  • I think we need to reassess what it means to win four state titles because a lot of kids have done it recently.

  • Regardless of the team race, the Class 3A state tournament is shaping up to be an absolute banger.

  • West Delaware and Osage seem to be the class of Class 2A, but I still wonder if there are teams that could emerge and catch them.

  • The Class 1A team race might be just as fun as 3A, with many more teams: Don Bosco, Lisbon, Underwood and West Sioux.

  • There’s a lot of heavyweight depth in the state this season, or at least it seems that way.

  • I think there’s a story to be written on Don Bosco’s Tenold twins, since they’re also being recruiting by some Division I programs. Underrated talents who I think can really flourish on the next level.

There’s more here too that I’ll share as January unfolds. Buckle up (and subscribe!) because it’s going to be a fun ride.

This week, I’m grateful for my family, who I got to see in full a few times during the holiday season. I’m one of four kids, and we’re all spread out, so all of us being in the same room together is rare. It happened a few different times over the last two weeks, and that always makes me (and my parents) very happy.

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: Wrestling Mailbag: Spencer Lee and Iowa's 2022 NCAA wrestling outlook