IOWA CITY, Ia. — Forget about Penn State for a minute.
The first order of business for Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands is fending off Matt McDonough’s mother.
Anybody who thinks for a second that the Hawkeyes are aiming for silver this season hasn’t had to deal with the ultimate enforcer of program objectives.
“Are you going to tell Sandy McDonough we’re not going to contend against Penn State because they’ve got 40 points on us?” Brands said. “She’d slap me upside the head with something hard.”
Brands and the second-ranked Hawkeyes made it clear Wednesday during Iowa’s annual media day that they aren’t dropping their sights and they aren’t waiting for the Nittany Lions to come back within reach.
Penn State returns the core of a championship team that finished 35.5 points ahead of third-place Iowa in March, leaving the Hawkeyes with a couple options in their quest to regain a handle on college wrestling’s gold trophy — increase their scoring production or hope the Nittany Lions fall back to the pack.
“They’re not coming back to the pack,” Brands said. “That’s not happening. And even if they do come back to the pack, we need to make them come back to the pack.”
The Hawkeyes and a handful of other programs start the season bunched together behind the No.1 Nittany Lions in the rankings.
The early signs for Iowa are positive. Brands said training and leadership signals coming from his team in recent weeks are indicators Iowa is pointed upward. And contrary to popular belief, he said the Hawkeyes “aren’t angry and dysfunctional” after finishing third at the NCAA Championships.
“When you don’t get what you want, you don’t sit and pout about it,” said McDonough, a two-time NCAA champion at 125 pounds. “That’s true for a takedown in the wrestling room as much as it’s true for an NCAA title in March. The second it’s over, you take your medicine, you understand you weren’t where you wanted to be in the end and you figure out how to correct it.”
It was easy for the Hawkeyes to diagnose the issues.
Iowa failed to qualify for the NCAA Championships at 149 and 197 pounds and fell short of its seeding at 165, 174 and 184.
“You look at the points we left off the scoreboard … and there are the points you’re looking for right there,” Brands said.
Six all-Americans return for the Hawkeyes, led by McDonough, a senior aiming to join six wrestlers in Iowa history with three national titles. The top-ranked 125-pounder enters the season with a 100-4 career record that includes 73 bonus-point victories.
There’s big-point potential in the lineup behind him with juniors Tony Ramos (No. 3 at 133) Derek St. John (No. 1 at 157), as well. St. John is healthy again and no longer held back physically after reaching the NCAA finals during an injury-abbreviated sophomore season.
“You make it work,” St. John said. “If not, you might as well not walk out there or stay home.”
Iowa’s team title hopes might hinge on its ability to put more wrestlers next to McDonough, Ramos and St.John on the top steps of the all-America podium. Brands said it’s also imperative for Iowa to score points at all 10 weight classes in March.
The Hawkeyes enter the season with scoring holes to cement at 141, 149 and 197 and a reshuffled set of upper-weights. They’re searching for a replacement at 141 for graduated two-time NCAA finalist Montell Marion. They’re hoping a better grasp on weight control will lead to improved results for sophomore Michael Kelly at 149. They’re optimistic about the future of true freshman Nathan Burak, a possible solution to team’s troubles at 197.
The lineup isn’t written in permanent ink yet, but Brands said two all-Americans are switching places in the order with Grant Gambrall cutting down to 174 and Ethen Lofthouse moving up to 184.
The Hawkeyes hope it all turns into a title formula.
“That’s the goal, that’s what we want,” Ramos said. “It’s not like we took 25th or 26th (last season). We’re there, we’re right at the top and we know we’re only a couple moves or a couple matches from being on top.
“Yeah, we took third. Some people might be happy about it, but not us. We want more than that.”
MEET THE IOWA WRESTLERS
125 pounds — Matt McDonough, Sr.: The three-time state champion from Linn-Mar is aiming to win his third title in college. If he does, he’ll become the seventh three-time NCAA champ in Iowa history.
133 — Tony Ramos, Jr.: Compiled a 33-4 record as a sophomore and finished third at the NCAA Championships. Collected bonus points in 20 matches.
141 — Mark Ballweg, Sr.: Posted a 15-3 record two years ago at 141 pounds in a part-time role as a starter.
Or: Josh Dziewa, So.: Junior National champion was part of Iowa’s top-ranked recruiting class in 2010. Compiled a 13-3 record as a freshman.
149 — Michael Kelly, So.: Placed fifth at the Midlands Championships, but finished 15-14 overall and missed the NCAA Championships.
157 — Derek St. John, Jr.: Two-time all-American recovered from an early-season knee injury last year in time for the postseason and then claimed the Big Ten title and reached the NCAA finals.
165 — Mike Evans, So.: Compiled a 26-8 record and reached the Big Ten finals as a freshman, but his season ended abruptly with two losses in three matches at the NCAA Championships.
Or: Nick Moore, So.: Four-time Iowa state high school champion finished 12-7 last season while splitting time at 157 and 165.
174 — Grant Gambrall, Sr.: Placed third at the NCAA Championships as a sophomore at 184, but a concussion limited his mat time last year and he finished 12-12 splitting time between 184 and 197.
184 — Ethen Lofthouse, Jr.: Placed seventh at the NCAA Championships as a sophomore and compiled a 28-9 record, but finished 6-6 in matches that were either decided by a takedown or less or in overtime.
197 — Nathan Burak, Fr.: Spent last year at the Olympic Training Center. Could become the first true freshman to crack the lineup at Iowa under Tom Brands.
Or: Tomas Lira, Jr.: Part-time starter for the Hawkeyes last year when he finished 11-10 overall.
Hwt. — Bobby Telford, So.: Compiled a resume that included a 29-9 record, Big Ten finals appearance and all-America honors during his freshman season.
A LOOK AT THE HAWKEYES
LAST SEASON: The Hawkeyes had a season that would’ve been considered a smashing success for most programs. They matched the longest unbeaten streak in college wrestling history when they extended their streak without a dual defeat to 84. They advanced six wrestlers to the Big Ten finals and finished third at the NCAA Championships. But Iowa is out to win everything, and the Hawkeyes lost four duals during the last six weeks of the regular season and finished behind Penn State and Minnesota at the Big Ten and NCAA meets.
STRENGTHS: The return of stars like Matt McDonough, Tony Ramos and Derek St.John and three other all-Americans is a good starting point for a team with national championship intentions. McDonough has 100 career wins and 73 have brought bonus points to the Hawkeyes. Ramos solved everybody in his path at 133 last year except national champion Logan Stieber of Ohio State. St.John overcame an early-season knee injury to reach the NCAA finals. Bobby Telford, Ethen Lofthouse, Mike Evans and others have the upside to supplement Iowa’s team scoring potential.
CONCERNS: The Hawkeyes finished 35.5 points behind NCAA champion Penn State last year, and they can’t bank on the Nittany Lions coming back to the pack with the core of a championship team returning. Instead, Iowa will need to figure out a way to make up the ground between third and first. Solidifying all 10 weights is one way the Hawkeyes can increase their scoring potential. They failed to qualify for the NCAA Championships last year at 149 and 197. The graduation of two-time NCAA finalist Montell Marion leaves a hole at 141. The Hawkeyes have options at those weights, but none has a lengthy college resume of consistent, high-level performance.
November — 16: at Tennessee-Chattanooga, vs. Cumberland (Tenn.), vs. Virginia; 24: vs. Cornell College, vs. Iowa Central, vs. SIU-Edwardsville.
December — 1: vs. Iowa State; 6: vs. Lehigh; 16: vs. Hofstra and Bucknell in the Grapple at the Garden; 17: at Buffalo.
January — 4: vs. Ohio State; 6: vs. Purdue; 13: at Oklahoma State; 18: at Michigan; 20: at Michigan State; 26: at Minnesota.
February — 1: vs. Penn State; 8: at Illinois; 10: vs. Nebraska; 16: vs. Edinboro; 23: at NWCA National Duals.
March — 9-10: at Big Ten Championships in Champaign, Ill.; 21-23: at NCAA Championships in Des Moines.