There were moments throughout his first four months on the Iowa campus when Cory Clark could feel himself becoming a high-level college wrestler.
When he could finally escape with regularity against two-time NCAA champion Matt McDonough, it told Clark he could probably get away from anybody. When he could score against Tony Ramos, it was an indication he was developing on his feet against one of college wrestling’s top takedown specialists.
The four-time state champion from Southeast Polk might not be winning the workouts yet against his ballyhooed teammates, but he’s making progress during his first season with the Hawkeyes.
“It’s an everyday scrap from start to finish,” said Clark, who is redshirting this season. “I feel like I’ve made a lot of jumps from wrestling these high-class guys and not taking a backseat to them but actually putting myself to the test and seeing what I can do.”
Clark takes a 9-0 record into this weekend’s Midlands Championships in Evanston, Ill., where he was pre-seeded No. 1 at 125 pounds, ahead of three all-Americans. He was the first true freshman in six years to earn a top spot on the tournament’s list of Top Contenders. Clark dropped to No. 3 when official seeds were released Friday night.
Iowa opted to send just four redshirting freshmen to Midlands because the Hawkeyes face No. 4 Ohio State in a conference dual on Friday.
“The goal is the same as always — to go out and win the tournament,” Clark said. “It’ll be interesting with a lot of high-ranked guys to see how I match up with them.”
It’s a weekend of opportunity for Clark and a collection of others from across the state at the most-storied holiday tournament in the country.
It’s a chance for Iowa State’s Kyven Gadson to regain some of the confidence he lost during the past year while recovering from shoulder surgery. The undefeated Cyclone sophomore is seeded No. 10 at 197, a weight that features 2011 NCAA champion Dustin Kilgore of Kent State and Pitt’s second-ranked Matt Wilps.
“It’s eye-opening,” said Gadson, one of three seeded Cyclones. “It shows me where I’m at for where I need to be in March. I’m excited for the opportunity.
“I still feel like I’m getting back into the flow of things after the year off. I think this will be a good tournament to get my confidence back where I would like it to be.”
It’s an opportunity for Northern Iowa’s Ryan Loder to break into an elite class of 184-pounders. Loder made his first big move in the rankings two years ago at Midlands when he placed fifth. He’s seemingly been bouncing between sixth and 10th in the national rankings ever since.
“He’s on the brink and he’s close, but it’s time to make another move and go from eight or nine in the country to in the top two or three in the country,” Northern Iowa coach Doug Schwab said. “He’s got an opportunity. There’s four or five guys ranked ahead of him in this tournament. … It’s really time for him to have a great tournament and beat some of those top-notch guys.”
It’s also a rare shot for Grand View’s Eric Thompson to showcase his skills against higher-level competition. The defending NAIA champion, seeded ninth at heavyweight, is the only wrestler from his division to earn a Midlands pre-seed.
“I don’t think (the other wrestlers in the bracket are) head and shoulders above me,” said Thompson, who is 4-0 during the past two seasons against Division I opponents. “I can compete with the best of them. I have the skills to do it, I’ve trained hard enough to do it, and I think it’s a lot about mindset.”
For Clark, it’s a chance to gauge his development in a bracket that features three of the top six wrestlers in the 125-pound rankings. He aced his first big test in college competition on Dec.8 with a 6-1 victory against then-No.2 Jesse Delgado of Illinois in the finals of the UNI Open.
The lessons, however, continue inside the Iowa practice room.
“Clark takes his licks, but there’s never a time where he’s broke to the point he doesn’t try,” said former Iowa star Daniel Dennis, the Midlands No. 2 seed at 133. “He’s already a really good wrestler, but I think that’s something that’s going to help him build into a great wrestler.”
Dennis said others on the Iowa roster could learn from the freshman’s resolve and willingness to wade into the deep end of a room flooded with talented lightweights.
“I like putting myself to the test with McDonough because, in my eyes, he’s the toughest 125-pounder in the country,” Clark said of the top-ranked senior. “If I can compete with him, I can compete with anybody. I’m not saying I can compete with him yet, but I’m getting there.”
WHERE: Evanston, Ill.
WHEN: 9:30 a.m. Saturday and noon Sunday. Finals 7 p.m. Sunday.
TV: Big Ten Network, 7 p.m. Sunday