WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Derek St. John says his right knee is in good enough shape to capture a Big Ten title.
It’s his teeth that Iowa wrestling fans had better start worrying about.
St. John, who lost most of his sophomore season to a knee injury that knocked him from second in the national rankings to a No. 6 seed in his conference tournament, gritted out a pair of overtime victories Saturday that kept the third-ranked Hawkeyes near the front of the pack at the Big Ten Championships.
“You get in tough situations,” St. John said, “and you’ve got to grit your teeth to get through it.”
The Hawkeyes spent a portion of the tournament’s opening day winning by the skin of their teeth inside Mackey Arena. Iowa won 13 consecutive matches on the championship side of the bracket, including six by a collective nine points.
Top-ranked Minnesota finished the day in the lead with 117 points. The Hawkeyes, with a tournament-best six finalists, are 4.5 behind in second and defending champion Penn State is six back.
“Lots of wins,” Iowa coach Tom Brands said. “Not all of them, though. That’s a big match at ’74. That’s what sticks in my mind.”
Iowa’s winning streak ended when Minnesota freshman Logan Storley reversed Ethen Lofthouse with five seconds remaining and then scored a takedown in overtime to win a 4-2 decision in the semis at 174. Storley’s win resulted in a 14-point swing in the team standings.
The Hawkeyes won both of their head-to-head matches in the semis against Penn State. Freshman Bobby Telford, the No. 6 seed at heavyweight, scored two reversals on his way to a 5-0 win against second-seeded Cameron Wade.
St. John fought off a shot in the closing seconds of regulation and then scored midway through overtime to win a 3-1 decision at 157 against second-seeded Dylan Alton.
Late in the match, Alton seemed to show more signs of fatigue than St. John, who wrestled just once from Dec. 8 until Feb. 5.
“It’s probably mostly being stingy and not wanting to give up anything,” said St. John, who rallied from an early four-point deficit to beat No. 3 seed James Green of Nebraska in the quarterfinals. “That gets guys tired. Being unbelievably stingy and tough in those situations goes a long way.”
Junior Matt McDonough reached the Big Ten finals for the third straight year with a 4-3 win against Illinois’ Jesse Delgado, one of the four wrestlers to beat the Iowa 125-pounder in 98 career matches.
The defending Big Ten champion will also be joined in the finals by teammates Tony Ramos, Montell Marion and Mike Evans.
Evans rolled into the 165-pound finals with a 17-2 technical fall against third-seeded Robert Kokesh of Nebraska.
Ramos posted his fifth straight win — a 6-1 decision — against B.J. Futrell of Illinois at 133 and Marion followed it up with a 3-1 overtime win at 141 against Ohio State’s Hunter Stieber.
It was retribution for Ramos and Marion, who came seconds from the Big Ten finals last year and watched as Penn State won the team title by a point over the Hawkeyes in the closest race in tournament history.
“Tom talks to you all the time about it — if you get booted out of the NCAA tournament you’ve got to wait 365 days,” said Ramos, who lost in last year’s Big Ten semifinals in a tiebreaker to Wisconsin’s Tyler Graff. “I got booted out, I sat all summer long and every match I lost ate at me.”
Marion will try to do something no wrestler in Iowa history has done — defeat Michigan’s Kellen Russell. Three Hawkeyes are winless in six tries against Russell. They’re hardly alone, though. The top-seeded Michigan senior is bidding for his fourth Big Ten title.
“I wish I could give you an answer for why he’s slipped through my fingers twice,” said Marion, who lost to Russell in the ultimate tiebreaker in last year’s NCAA semifinals. “It’s on me. It’s not him, it’s me. I had him dead to rights twice and that’s irrelevant at this point. It’s time to put a stamp on it at the end of the match.”