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By DARREN MILLER
IOWA CITY, Iowa — There are two things you can expect from a University of Iowa wrestling season: 1) the Hawkeyes will wrestle the best competition in the country, and 2) those opponents will come at Iowa with everything they have.
It is the same situation in 2016-17. If head coach Tom Brands doesn’t have a firm grip on where his team stands during the 2016 portion of his schedule, he certainly will from Jan. 15-27, 2017.
The Hawkeyes, ranked No. 3 in the USA Today/NWCA coaches poll released Wednesday, travel to No. 1 Oklahoma State on Jan. 15 and return home to face No. 2 Penn State on Jan. 20 and No. 4 Ohio State on Jan. 27. That means duals against three top-4 opponents in less than two weeks.
“Our focus is whatever match is coming up, that’s what we get ready for,” Brands said Wednesday at a media day news conference in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. “Iowa wrestling is always in a unique situation with our schedule because we wrestle the best every year and everybody gives us their best. You talk about what our schedule is going to look like, it’s going to be packed every year.”
Brands was less than a minute into his news conference when he displayed a white sticker that read, “Stay Clear While Machine is in Use.” Brands said it is attached to all of senior 125-pounder Thomas Gilman’s gear as a warning to opponents.
“Gilman is the leader of this team,” Brands said. “He does things right from a practice and lifestyle point of view, the way he competes and represents. The locker room is his.”
Gilman will put his two-year undefeated streak in Big Ten dual meets on the line (he is 22-1 all-time in conference duals). Last season he was 28-2 overall, placing third at the Big Ten Tournament and runner-up at the NCAA Championships.
The Hawkeyes return six national qualifiers and five All-Americans from a team that went 15-1 last season, 9-0 in the Big Ten. They were fifth at the NCAA Championships.
“Winning and dominating is simple to talk about,” Brands said. “But finding those ingredients in somebody every day is the challenge and that’s what everybody’s challenge is. We have the same challenges as everybody else. We’re moving forward every day and we’re addressing them, and it’s a matter of how much I can communicate and drive that home and how much these guys display it in their competitiveness.”
“Our focus is whatever match is coming up, that’s what we get ready for. Iowa wrestling is always in a unique situation with our schedule because we wrestle the best every year and everybody gives us their best. You talk about what our schedule is going to look like, it’s going to be packed every year.” — Tom Brands
Joining Gilman as returning Hawkeye All-Americans are senior Cory Clark (runner-up at 133 pounds), junior Brandon Sorensen (runner-up at 149), senior Alex Meyer (eighth at 174), and senior Sammy Brooks (eighth at 184). Heavyweight Sam Stoll is the other returning national qualifier. Stoll was 20-2 before injuring his knee in the NWCA All-Star Classic on Feb. 22 against North Carolina State. He was 2-4 over the final six postseason matches.
Roster spots in question for Iowa are 141, 157, 165, and 197. Brands wants to see Hawkeyes taking ownership of the weight classes, not someone content with “wearing the insignia as a member of the Iowa wrestling team or as a guy who broke the lineup.”
Contenders at 141 include senior Topher Carton (10-5) and redshirt freshman Vince Turk (18-4 unattached). Redshirt freshman Michael Kemerer (24-2 unattached) is at 157, sophomore Skyler St. John (4-2) and true freshman Alex Marinelli are at 165, and 197 is a battle between sophomore Mitch Bowman (10-5 at 184) and redshirt freshman Cash Wilcke (13-3 at 184). Redshirt freshman Steven Holloway 16-6 at 197) will open the season at 285 until Stoll competes.
Iowa begins the season Nov. 12 at the Luther Open; its first home event is the Iowa City Duals on Nov. 18.
“We need to grow up in some areas and those guys know who they are,” Brands said. “There is more help from the roster than in the past, at least the recent past where there’s accountability. That’s a good thing.”