Matt McDonough is the template for Iowa wrestling.
He’s the template because of the example he set for the Hawkeyes last season. When Iowa coach Tom Brands spoke of McDonough last year, he talked in glowing terms about the freshman’s commitment, training habits, toughness and competitive drive.
McDonough is the template for the Hawkeyes because he’s a returning NCAA champion in a program that settles for no less. Because he was 37-1 at 125 pounds last season and most times dominant. He scored bonus points for Iowa in 28 matches.
“The guy does it right,” Brands said Thursday at the team’s media day gathering. “The example is there. The idea is to get our guys that maybe aren’t about that example to embrace the fact that here’s a good example. We’re not asking you to emulate him or be a robot like him, but we’re asking you to step up and at least work at it like he works at it.”
But McDonough also is the template for the Hawkeyes this season because, as a team, Iowa represents what McDonough was a year ago — young, largely unknown, unproven and not supposed to be a major factor in the NCAA title chase.
Yes, the Hawkeyes, winners of three straight national titles and 61 consecutive dual meets, are ranked No. 11 by one service. Their opinion on that: Who cares? That same publication and a few others didn’t even have McDonough rated in the top 20 at the start of last season.
“Rankings, people talking, it’s all what other people think, but they don’t know,” McDonough said. “They don’t know what you go through every day, what you do to your body, the ways you put it through hardship and battle. (Rankings are) irrelevant.
“It really comes down to when there’s that one light and the wrestling mat and it’s you and the other guy and who wants it more? It doesn’t affect me. If anything, it’s kind of funny. You win a national title, you lose some guys and you’re instantly out of the hunt. But what people don’t know is how hungry every other guy in here was watching a senior ahead of them go and fight for a national title.”
Make no mistake, the Hawkeyes have a ton to replace. That much was palpable Thursday when a predominantly new and younger collection of faces crowded into team photographs and stood in the media day glare for the first time.
There’s McDonough at 125 and nine weights still to be determined after the departure of one of the biggest and most decorated senior classes in program history. The nine main cogs in the group combined for 681 victories and captured 15 All-America plaques. Brent Metcalf won a pair of national titles and all but three of his 111 career matches at 149 pounds, and Jay Borschel went undefeated last season on his way to claiming the NCAA crown at 174.
Yes, there’s a ton to replace. The Hawkeyes scored 134.5 points in March at the NCAA Championships. McDonough accounted for a team-high 24.5 and Jake Kerr scored 2.5. The rest of Iowa’s points were scored by wrestlers who are no longer with the program.
McDonough is the consensus preseason No. 1 at 125 and Iowa’s lone wrestler rated in the top eight — one reason W.I.N. has the Hawkeyes ranked 11th as a team.
“It was almost kind of laughable,” freshman 174-pounder Ethen Lofthouse said. “At the same time, you use it for motivation and take it as they’re disrespecting us and they don’t think we have as much horsepower as we do.”
For perspective, it’s been 38 years since Iowa finished lower than eighth.
“Everybody scoffs at (the No. 11 ranking), like the fans,” Brands said. “You get a lot of e-mails, but it’s a number that doesn’t mean anything to me. First of all, I don’t pay any attention to it.”
Secondly, Brands said he’s most concerned about making sure the Hawkeyes are taking incremental steps in their development.
“(The ranking) might be an indicator of what you have coming back as far as firepower, and they’re ranking some of our young guys like 15th and 18th, but you’re not going to get points for 15th or 18th,” he said. “You’re not even going to get recognition for that. It’s more about getting better every day and focusing on the things that these guys can control, and that’s their toughness factor.”
Brands knows the talent is there. His roster includes 10 wrestlers who won national titles at the Junior or Cadet level and 16 multiple-time state high school champs. His last three recruiting hauls were ranked fifth, fifth and first in the country by InterMat.
Brands has seen moments when that talent has manifested itself on the college mat. For example, he watched Derek St. John throttle the eventual Big Ten runner-up on his way to a 26-4 redshirt season at 157. He watched Lofthouse bring home three consecutive open tournament titles on his way to a 30-win redshirt year. He watched Blake Rasing put the eventual heavyweight NCAA champ on the ropes.
“(Rasing) saw how close he was to being at that level,” McDonough said. “Even the guys who never touched the lineup — Ethen Lofthouse, Derek St. John, the guys who redshirted — it’s the same thing. They wrestled guys day in and day out who compete at the highest level and they battled with them tooth and nail. I think that’s where you get that inner drive, because you know you’re right there.”
What Brands doesn’t yet know is whether the Hawkeyes possess the grit to put tough matches away late, the fortitude to come from behind in the third period, the mental strength to block out fatigue in overtime and emerge victorious.
“That’s the unknown,” Brands said. “I’ve spoke all over the state in the last couple weeks and the best thing I can tell them to describe where we’re at is we’re making progress as a team. There are things that are happening that are positive. But it’s going to come down to that toughness in these individual instances where it’s a defining moment in a match or a season or a career and how are you going to handle it? We know these guys can wrestle.”
They knew the same thing about McDonough last November when he was the unknown and unproven rookie in a senior-laden lineup. They knew about his commitment, training habits and competitive drive.
The Hawkeyes didn’t know that one year later he’d be the template for where they are as a team and where they want to go.
“You see what McDonough did, and anybody can make a big change throughout the year,” freshman 149-pounder Dylan Carew said. “It’s cool to see a young guy do that. It shows you that you can do it as a young guy. He showed everybody the right way to do things, and it’s an easier thing to follow now.”