IOWA CITY, Ia. — A white sheet of paper hangs on a pillar in the middle of Iowa’s wrestling room with a succinct message and an inventory of names.
Eighteen national champions are listed in reverse chronological order with one association: They all won NCAA titles for the Hawkeyes after losing at the Big Ten Championships.
Iowa coach Tom Brands — one of the names on the list — hasn’t been hammering home historical references during the week since the Hawkeyes came home without a conference champion. But Brands mentioned past examples of Iowa wrestlers who brushed off Big Ten defeats and climbed to the top of the medal stand at the NCAA Championships as one of them stood nearby.
“(The Big Ten meet) doesn’t really mean anything when your focus is on the NCAA Tournament and (winning) the NCAA championship because you still have that chance ahead of you,” said senior 125-pounder Matt McDonough, who won his first of two NCAA titles as a freshman after losing two weeks earlier in the Big Ten finals. “If you don’t get a Big Ten title, you’re maybe not (accomplishing all of your goals) for the season, but you’re still building toward that very last championship.”
It could take more of those turnaround stories for Iowa to put itself in title contention as a team at this week’s NCAA Championships at Wells Fargo Arena. Nine Hawkeyes qualified for the national tournament, and Iowa’s six wrestlers seeded in the top seven matches Oklahoma State for tops in the tournament.
Tony Ramos and Derek St. John earned No. 2 seeds at 133 and 157, respectively, while McDonough is third at 125 and Mike Evans is third at 174.
But the Hawkeyes aren’t headed to Des Moines to collect silver and bronze.
“I think we’re on the right track overall,” Brands said in response to a question about his team’s psyche after finishing behind Penn State and Minnesota in the Big Ten team race. “I can’t speak for them, but I know that what I see is good.”
McDonough is aiming to become the seventh three-time NCAA champion in Iowa history. In comparison to his first three seasons, this has been a turbulent year for the senior.
He entered the season with a 100-4 career record and registered team bonus points in 70 percent of those matches. That figure is down to 39 percent this season, and McDonough enters the NCAA Tournament with a 20-3 record.
“It’s the time to rise to the occasion,” he said. “It’s the time to be a Saturday nighter, time to go into that tournament without any bars held back and wrestle with nothing to lose.”
St. John, Iowa’s other returning NCAA finalist, won his first 22 matches this season. He enters this week’s NCAA Tournament with a 26-2 record after losing to Nebraska’s James Green in the Big Ten semifinals. The junior wrestled back to place third.
Brands said St. John can put himself in a better position this week by doing what he does best.
“I’m not sure we wrestled our best match (against Green),” Brands said. “Now you have a chance to wrestle how you know you can wrestle and how you give yourself the best chance to wrestle.
“Those two weeks (of waiting for the NCAA Championships after a loss at the Big Ten meet) are miserable. But when you train with purpose and you look the way he’s looked and you do the things that maybe put an edge on you, two weeks can also be very short if you train the right way in your head.”