PHILADELPHIA — The program standards wouldn’t allow the Iowa wrestlers to pat themselves on the back for something other than a title.
But perhaps the Hawkeyes will give themselves some credit when they step back and reflect on a season that concluded Saturday night with a trophy that wasn’t gold.
No, they didn’t walk away from the NCAA Championships with a fourth consecutive national title. But they didn’t fall flat on their face, either, like some forecasted.
Penn State supplanted Iowa at the top of the college wrestling mountain Saturday when it claimed the school’s first national title in 58 years at the Wells Fargo Center, scoring 107.5 points to finish 14 ahead of Cornell. The Hawkeyes finished third with 86.5.
It wasn’t a title. But it wasn’t a faceplant, either.
“I’m not going to sit here and be happy with third,” Iowa coach Tom Brands said. “(But) I’m not going to sit here and be disappointed with third.”
Iowa started the season with eight new starters. The Hawkeyes were ranked 11th in the preseason by one publication and later dropped to 17th in the same rankings. They didn’t look like a team capable of claiming an NCAA trophy of any type in late December when they finished fourth at the Midlands Championships, losing eight consecutive matches at one point in the tournament.
“From December to now, there’s been a lot of improvement on the mat,” said sophomore Grant Gambrall, who placed third at 184 pounds. “But I think that was more just the practice room coming to fruition.”
Iowa’s continual progress manifested itself during the second half of the season. The Hawkeyes went undefeated in duals. They crashed the Penn State party Jan. 30, beating the Nittany Lions on the road in front of a sellout crowd. They ran the table in the Big Ten for the fourth consecutive year.
Although many followers of the sport considered Iowa a team better equipped for duals, the Hawkeyes finished one point behind Penn State in the conference tournament and momentarily held the lead at the national tournament during Friday night’s semifinals.
Ultimately, though, Iowa’s title hopes shattered with a 7-8 record in matches decided by two points or less.
“I think we proved a lot to a lot of people around the country, but we still didn’t get what we wanted,” Gambrall said. “(We have to) believe in the process, believe that we’re going to keep getting better all the time and stay tough from now until the beginning of next season, keeping our minds on St. Louis 2012, Midlands 2011 and things like that. If we stay focused all summer long, I think we’ll be in great shape.”
The Hawkeyes have a lot coming back — eight starters, four All-Americans and two-time NCAA finalist Matt McDonough return — but so does Penn State. The only Nittany Lion who graduates is 125-pounder Brad Pataky, who accounted for one point.
Iowa must replace a pair of seniors who combined to score 15 team points at the NCAA Championships. The Hawkeyes have a few options to fill the vacancy left by Aaron Janssen at 165. Freshman Derek St. John, who placed fourth at 157, has the frame to bulk up a weight. Redshirts Michael Kelly and Nick Moore combined for a 44-8 record and six open tournament titles this season, splitting time at 157 and 165.
George Mason transfer Cayle Byers is expected to be Luke Lofthouse’s successor at 197.
Iowa looks like a 2012 title contender, but the Hawkeyes know better than to put stock into projected lineups, rankings and points on paper. They crumpled the paper formulas with their late charge in 2011.
Brands said it’s critical for the Hawkeyes to continue making progress through the offseason.
“You look at a year ago and you look at some guys who were pretty much a shoo-in to win it; a guy like (Mack) Lewnes, etc., etc., etc.,” Brands said, referring to the Cornell senior who entered the season ranked No. 1 and finished fourth. “But just because there’s graduation, that doesn’t mean you move up in the pecking order. That mentality is not prevalent in our room, and that’s a good thing. We have a good mentality with what the next step is.”