Nov. 5, 2014
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- 24 Hawkeyes to Watch
Editor’s note: 24 Hawkeyes to Watch is a feature released Monday, Aug. 4, highlighting one athlete from each of the 24 intercollegiate sports offered by the University of Iowa. More than 700 talented student-athletes are currently busy preparing for the 2014-15 athletics year at the UI. Hawkeyesports.com will introduce you to 24 Hawkeyes who, for one reason or another, are poised to play a prominent role in the intercollegiate athletics program at the UI in the coming year.
By DARREN MILLER
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Nathan Burak’s wrestling career at the University of Iowa can be summed up by his performance at the 2014 NCAA Championships: successful with a dose of what if.
There were two straight wins to open the national tournament, including a heart-stopping, last-second 4-3 decision against No. 6 Richard Perry of Bloomsburg. Then there was a loss to Chris Penny of Virginia Tech, a competitor Burak defeated three months earlier at Midlands. After downing Mario Gonzalez of Illinois to secure All-America status, Burak dropped his final two bouts for eighth place.
“He is going to have to be consistent. There has to be seven minutes of hard wrestling where it’s not a situation where he can relax or it can be close and he is going to come out in the end,” UI head coach Tom Brands said. “It doesn’t have to be close with him.”
Burak took a nontraditional route to mats inside the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex. He trained for a year at the U.S. Olympic Complex in Colorado Springs, Colorado, after a successful career at nearby Coronado High School. While at the training center, Burak met Terry Brands, who would later become associate head coach for the Hawkeyes.
“I liked (Terry) a lot and I assumed his twin brother was like him,” Burak said.
Not so, according to Tom Brands, who says, “Terry and Tom are different.”
Personalities of the coaching staff aside, the Hawkeyes had an immediate opening for a 197-pounder, and Burak was the man. He went 20-17 as a freshman in 2012-13, placing fourth in the Big Ten Conference and qualifying for the NCAA Championships. Last season Burak was 19-8 with a fifth-place showing at Big Tens before earning his first All-America award.
“We have to remember that we wrestled him as a true freshman,” Brands said. “Guys can get ready, but we like to have them in our room a year. We put him into the lineup after being in our room for four months. The biggest thing that he has learned is he can be comfortable around the coach — me. In the last 18 months he has become more comfortable and that’s a good thing.”
Burak’s father, Steve, was a wrestler; his brother, Gabe, competed at Northern Colorado and another brother, Micah, competed at Penn. Despite that history, Nathan wanted to be a gymnast…until his physique stretched to 6-foot-1, 197 pounds.
“The big thing is keeping constant pressure on my opponents by attacking more. I need to attack and not wait to see what they will do. I need to set the pace of the match right away. The coaches talk about score first, score fast, and keep scoring. I can’t focus on being tired, I need to focus on making the other guy tired and score points.”
UI 197-pound wrestler
“I figured I would get bigger and I might be a little too big for gymnastics,” Burak said. “I started liking wrestling more and it worked out well from there. You start winning and you start liking it more.”
Micah, a three-time NCAA qualifier who placed seventh in 2012, was 94-28 for his career; Gabe, an NCAA qualifier in 2011, was 86-33.
“Having two brothers who were good at it helped a lot,” Burak said. “They are older than me so they’re going to make me better by drilling and helping with my technique.”
Both Brands and Burak seek a leap in production during his third year with the Hawkeye program.
“We’re looking for a little bit higher up on that podium,” Brands said. “Like seven spots.”
Burak knows what he has to do to get past Missouri’s J’den Cox, Kyven Gadson of Iowa State, and Conner Hartmann of Duke, as well as conference foes Scott Schiller (Minnesota), Morgan McIntosh (Penn State), and Kyle Snyder (Ohio State).
“The big thing is keeping constant pressure on my opponents by attacking more,” Burak said. “I need to attack and not wait to see what they will do. I need to set the pace of the match right away. The coaches talk about score first, score fast, and keep scoring. I can’t focus on being tired, I need to focus on making the other guy tired and score points.”
All of that is possible, Brands says, because Burak has qualities most big men do not. He can scramble and move, he has good offense, and his flexibility is a plus during flurries.
“Then you combine the basics that he is getting better every day,” Brands said. “He has come a long way; if he blends it together, you have a super competitor.”
For Burak, there has been good and bad, high and low.
“When he is consistent at a high level for a seven-minute match, he is doggone tough,” Brands said.
If consistency and comfort go hand-in-hand, it could be a banner season for Burak. The days of being apprehensive around Brands have passed.
“When I talk, it’s very forward. The intentions are soft but it doesn’t sound very soft and I think he had to learn that,” Brands said.
This is how the head coach knows Burak is more relaxed:
“He came up to me before practice the other day and asked if I heard the joke about the pepperoni pizza,” Brands said. “Then he said, `Never mind, it’s cheesy.’ Then he asked if I heard the one about the pencil? Never mind, there is no point to it. That goes on all day long.”
The often laid-back Burak said he needs to understand when it’s time to explode and be fiery…like those in the UI coaching chairs.
And when Burak consistently applies pressure, the results will be no joke.