By CHRIS BREWER
HOFFMAN ESTATES, Illinois — When you have 22 wrestlers in the field, as Iowa does at the 2018 Midlands Championships, you are going to have variety.
Young guys. Old guys. Starters and aspiring starters. They are all here, vying for a title at one the country’s top midseason tournaments.
“This is more than just about finding out who is going to be the No. 1 guy in our lineup,” said Iowa head coach Tom Brands. “This is about young guys competing at a higher level and proving yourself again. Spencer Lee was a national champion last year but he wasn’t a Midlands Champion, so he better be on the horse. We’re excited about it and we have to be ready for it.”
Midlands was Lee’s last hurrah as a redshirt last season. He won three matches by pin, technical fall, and technical fall, before losing in the semifinals. He said he learned from the experience, and one week later he was in the starting lineup.
“This is one of the toughest tournaments in college wrestling,” Lee said. “You have to wrestle hard every second of every match. In the match I lost (last year) I let him control the tempo. He ended up striking me for one. I learned to wrestle the entire match. That’s the big one I took away from last year.”
Iowa has two redshirts in the field this weekend. Nelson Brands is competing at 165 pounds, and Tony Cassioppi is wrestling at 285. Both are true freshmen. Both are undefeated with three tournament titles. Brands is 13-0, Cassioppi is 11-0. They swept their respective brackets at the Grand View Open, Lindenwood Open, and UNI Open.
But this weekend’s field will be different than most.
“The good thing about the Midlands is the competition is at the level where they have to get ready to go at another level,” said Brands.
It has been 17 years since a Hawkeye won a Midlands title as a true freshman. Steve Mocco won the 285-pound title in 2001. Neither Brands or Cassioppi are listed among the top contenders at their weights, but nothing on papers matters much when wrestlers are asked to clear the mat.
“This is going to be the biggest tournament I’ve had yet,” said Cassioppi. “I’m ready to go out there and see what I can do. Wrestle my hardest and hopefully win the tournament.”
Alex Marinelli placed fourth as a true freshman in 2017. Twelve months later, he won the title and was named Champion of Championships.
“It’s a two-day tournament. It’s going to teach (the young guys) how to keep their weight in check and feel their body the way that they need to,” Marinelli said. “Step on the mat every time like it’s the finals, like it’s the biggest match of your career because it’s the next one. It will teach them discipline. It’s a very big tournament and there is a lot of pressure.”
Up and down the lineup, Brands will see this weekend who embraces that pressure and is ready to apply the experience to January, February, and March.
“We want to be able to move forward the way we need to move forward,” Brands said. “Once we hit the Midlands, then it’s Big Ten dual season and nose to the grindstone all the way through. Three months goes quick.”