CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Tony Ramos has broken down brainwashing to such a science that Iowa’s 133-pounder believes he sharpens his skills during his sleep.
Between that nocturnal faith and his habit of lifting weights with teammates up to twice his size, the second-ranked junior has won every match this season and figured out a way to make himself feel bigger in his wrestling boots.
“If you don’t believe in yourself deeply and truly to yourself, how are you going to do it?” Ramos said Saturday night after beating Wisconsin’s Tyler Graff 3-1 in the Big Ten semifinals. “There are a lot of guys who say they believe it, but do they really? Do a lot of guys really think (Ohio State defending NCAA champion) Logan Stieber can be beat? Probably not. But I do. I’m planning to go out and make it happen tomorrow.”
The Hawkeyes need a whole lot more of the skills and conviction Ramos possesses to handle the heavy lifting it will take to get back in contention for a title at the Big Ten Championships.
An unbeaten quarterfinal round pushed Iowa to a 17-point lead Saturday afternoon at Assembly Hall. A 4-5 performance in the semifinals knocked the Hawkeyes back to third place in the team race.
Two-time defending champion Penn State seized the lead midway through the semifinals and finished the day with 123 points to hold a 10.5-point lead over second-place Minnesota. Iowa is 14 behind the Nittany Lions. The top three teams all have four wrestlers competing in today’s championship matches.
“We’ve got to be ready for battle, and it only gets tougher if you’re not going to wrestle,” Iowa coach Tom Brands said. “If you wrestle, then it can get easier with effort. It’s never easy, but you can sure make it easier on yourself with good effort.”
Matt McDonough reached the conference finals for the fourth time before Ramos, Mark Ballweg and Mike Evans joined the senior 125-pounder. But Iowa dropped five of its last six semifinal matches, including a pair of one-point defeats and another in overtime.
The Hawkeyes had won 14 consecutive matches in the championship side of the bracket until Nebraska’s fourth-seeded James Green knocked off No. 1 Derek St. John 5-4 at 157.
The flurry of defeats at the end of the night put Iowa in a position where it has little margin for error and a series of championship opponents who are known for exploiting missteps.
McDonough caught Michigan’s Sean Boyle in scramble for a first-period fall — his first pin since Dec. 6 — to set up a championship showdown against Illinois’ Jesse Delgado, the only wrestler who has beaten the two-time NCAA champion twice during his career.
Delgado handed McDonough a 9-4 loss in February.
“If you lose a match like that, you want it back,” McDonough said. “Really, every single match I’ve lost in my career I want back, but you can’t get them back. The only thing you can do is go out there and rectify it by upping the intensity the next time and changing the outcome for the better.”
Ballweg kept a late-season slide from spilling into the postseason by winning all three of his bouts Saturday to reach the finals at 141. The senior capped the day with a 3-1 overtime win against Minnesota’s No. 2-seeded Nick Dardanes.
Ballweg credited a few days off, an extra measure of motivation and a series of adjustments for his two-week turnaround after losing by major decision against Dardanes at the National Duals.
“He’s a really aggressive guy, he’s a good competitor and I was ready this time,” said Ballweg, who will wrestle top-seeded Hunter Stieber of Ohio State in the finals. “Last time I wrestled him, I was flat-footed and I was getting double-legged all over the place.”
Ramos had to wait two years for payback against his semifinal opponent. Graff outlasted Ramos in a tiebreaker two years ago in the Big Ten semifinals.
“If I win that match two years ago, we were Big Ten champs,” he said. “We lost by one point. It was something I wasn’t going to let happen again.”