IOWA CITY, Ia. — The competitive season started a few weeks ago for the Iowa wrestling team in an off-campus apartment on the southwest side of Iowa City.
That’s where junior Matt McDonough opened his doors this summer for freshman Mike Evans and wrestling matters ranging from pounds to pins developed into a duel.
“I love it and I hope he does too,” McDonough, the consensus top-ranked 125-pounder in the country, said Wednesday at Iowa’s media day. “That’s what really makes a person great as a wrestler but a team great — people competing and not just amongst themselves but competing to be the best.”
The living arrangement is symbolic for the Hawkeyes. It’s a fusion between the proven veterans and a class of rookies hailed as the nation’s top recruiting class in 2010.
Iowa returns starters at eight weights and four all-Americans from the team that went undefeated in duals and finished third at the NCAA Championships in March.
The Hawkeyes are ranked No. 1 by InterMat based on tournament strength. Other wrestling publications list defending national champion Penn State as the team to beat, and all seem in accord that Oklahoma State and Minnesota aren’t far behind.
On paper, it’s the closest four teams have been at the starting gate in recent history, and an impact freshman or two could determine which team leaves St. Louis in March with the gold trophy.
McDonough, an NCAA champion as a freshman in 2010 and runner-up last year at 125, is 64-3 as a Hawkeye. Grant Gambrall (184) placed third last season and Montell Marion (141) and Derek St. John (157) both finished fourth at the NCAA Championships. Sophomore Tony Ramos (133) fell one victory short of reaching the medal stand last year, but he starts the season ranked second by InterMat.
“It’s going to hinge on guys who are veterans now,” Iowa coach Tom Brands said. “It’s time to grow up. It’s time to take ownership of the program to where you’re not just 10 percent of that equation.”
Brands said Iowa’s wrestle-offs, which conclude Saturday, will provide clarity to his team’s lineup. Although incumbents return at every weight except 165 and 197, there are few lead-pipe cinches for starting spots.
Evans and a couple other classmates are contenders to snag starting positions. Jake Ballweg went 19-2 in open tournaments and could push sophomore Dylan Carew for the 149-pound job and Michael Kelly could eventually become an option at the weight.
“We’ve got some firepower,” said Evans, who will contend with another freshman, four-time state champ Nick Moore, at 165. “We’ve got some guys who want the spot.”
Senior Blake Rasing won the Big Ten heavyweight title last season, but he’ll have to hold off freshman Bobby Telford just to win a starting job. Telford followed up a 22-4 redshirt season by winning a freestyle title at the Fila Junior Nationals and posting a 3-1 record at the Fila Junior World Cup in Germany.
“He’s an ornery heavyweight,” Marion, a Des Moines native, said. “He’s got a lot of passion and fire in his eyes, and I don’t think he wants to take a backseat, I don’t think he wants to wait until next year for Rasing to graduate.”
Evans was the nation’s top-ranked 189-pounder as a senior at New Jersey power Blair Academy. He went 22-2 with 12 pins last year in open competition at 174 and made the commitment during the offseason to cut down to 165.
“There was no discussion about what weight class he was going,” Brands said. “He didn’t come in and say, ‘Coach, can I talk to you?’ He just did it. That’s what we like. That’s called ownership.”
Evans said his living situation helps. Brands calls McDonough “the most dedicated fella I’ve coached in a long, long time” and Evans said the junior’s mentality is rubbing off on him.
“His lifestyle is molding me to be like his lifestyle,” Evans said. “I’m trying new things and working to make my lifestyle the best I can.”
McDonough admitted Evans has an edge on him right now when they compare who is closer to their respective weight classes.
“But once the season comes, weight’s not a factor,” McDonough said.
“It’s about who did more ropes on a Sunday, who got more pins, who scored more points in a tournament.”
Meet the Hawkeyes
125 — Matt McDonough, Jr.: NCAA champ in 2010, runner-up in ’11 owns a 64-3 career record.
133 — Tony Ramos, So.: Ranked No. 2 nationally after reaching the round of 12 at the NCAA Championships as a freshman.
141 — Montell Marion, Jr.: Two-time all-American placed fourth at 141 during abbreviated junior season.
149 — Dylan Carew, So.: Two-time state champ from Iowa City West missed most of last season after undergoing surgery on both knees.
or Jake Ballweg, Fr.: Three-time state champion from Waverly-Shell Rock compiled a 19-2 record last year as a freshman.
157 — Derek St. John, So.: Enters the season ranked second after placing fourth as a freshman at 157.
165 — Mike Evans, Fr.: Prized recruit finished 22-2 with 12 pins in open competition last year at 174.
or Nick Moore, Fr.: Four-time state champ from Iowa City West went 19-4 in open tournaments last year as a freshman.
174 — Ethen Lofthouse, So.: Compiled a 20-10 record as a freshman and placed third at the Big Ten Championships.
184 — Grant Gambrall, Jr.: Placed third at the NCAA Championships as a sophomore.
197 — Tomas Lira, So.: Two-time state runner-up from West Liberty finished 13-7 last season.
or Vinnie Wagner, Sr.: Compiled a 17-3 record in open tournaments last season at 184.
Hwt. — Blake Rasing, Sr.: Big Ten champion finished 18-7 as a junior.
or Bobby Telford, Fr.: Former blue-chip recruit finished 22-4 with 13 pins in open tournaments as a redshirt.
Inside Trip on Iowa wrestling
Last season: Iowa’s three-year run of national titles came to an end when the Hawkeyes, with eight new starters, finished third at the NCAA Championships. Despite the graduation losses from the powerful 2010 team, Iowa went 15-0-1 in duals and extended its unbeaten streak to 77 — the second-longest string in college wrestling history.
Strengths: Eight starters and four all-Americans return, led by McDonough, whose 64-3 career record includes 50 bonus-point wins. Throw in a group of freshmen that was considered the nation’s top recruiting class in 2010 and it’s a squad that’s loaded with talent. The Hawkeyes are deep, particularly at 133, 141 and heavyweight, where former top recruits are challenging incumbents for starting spots.
Concerns: While Iowa has a stable of talented wrestlers at several weights, the Hawkeyes are thin at a couple others.
November: 19: at Lindenwood University Open; 25: vs. Baker, Cornell College, Iowa Central at Iowa City Duals.
December: 2: Illinois; 4: at Iowa State; 8: Northern Iowa; 29-30: Midlands Championships in Evanston, Ill.
January: 6: at Indiana; 7: Oklahoma State; 13: at Nebraska; 15: Northwestern; 20: at Ohio State; 22: at Penn State; 29: at Minnesota.
February: 5: Wisconsin; 12: National Duals Midwest Regional in Ames; 19: National Duals Championships.
March 3-4: Big Ten Championships in West Lafayette, Ind.; 15-17: NCAA Championships in St. Louis.