Friday, September 15, 2023

JT#1's Top (Individual) Moments in Hawkeye Wrestling History.

 I was talking to a long time Iowa Hawkeye fan the other night & we were having a blast sharing some of our favorite moments of black & gold wrestling. It was simply off the top of our heads, but it made me wonder, what truly are my favorite moments of Hawkeye wrestling?

I grew up in the small community of Sigourney, about an hour away from Iowa City.  I was first introduced to Hawkeye wrestling in early 1992, when my Dad took me to my first collegiate wrestling dual. If memory serves me correct, I want to say it was against Oklahoma State.  

I guess what makes me different from a lot of other Hawkeye fans is that I'm an all around college wrestling fan. I follow EVERYthing in college wrestling, or at least I try to.  I follow NJCAA, NAIA, NCAA DIII, NCAA DII & NCAA DI.  I'm slowly getting into Women's wrestling & if there were any damn coverage for it, I'd be following CCCAA too! I guess the same goes for U-Sports out of Canada. Bottom line, I love college wrestling.  It all started with the Iowa Hawkeyes. 

No doubt about it, I'm an anomaly.  I'm sure my favorite moments in Hawkeye wrestling history are probably much different than your's.  Probably much different than are most people's.  I'm sure, "Why didn't you include * *?" will go through your head many times as you read this.  The reason I didn't include it? Because these are MY favorite Hawkeye moments. 

I want to also note that I decided to write this from an individual standpoint. There have been many great moments in Hawkeye wrestling from a team perspective.  Perhaps none greater than the 1997 NCAA DI tournament when the Hawks came together to win the national title in Gable's final moment as head coach.  I don't know if anything will ever top that magical moment & I feel so privileged that I was there to see it happen.  This post will be about individual moments though. 

There is no order to these either. I thought about trying to rank them but they're all special to me in their own ways. 

So without further ado....

Alex Grunder Gives NCAA DI Champ Hell On The Mat

It may seem odd to you that I would include a time when a Hawkeye wrestler lost in such an article, but you have to understand the context of the situation. Dustin Schlatter of Minnesota was an NCAA DI champion. Alex Grunder was while a great wrestler in his own right that was an Iowa high school state champion & a two time Iowa high school state finalist, a wrestler who spent most of his collegiate career as a reserve. By all means, on paper, this should have been a match that Dustin Schlatter won easily. After all it was an NCAA DI champion taking on a guy who never made the national tournament. Grunder showed no fear in this match. He gave Schlatter no respect. He went out on the mat & fought.  It was such an exciting match. One of those matches where everyone in Carver-Hawkeye was glued to the action, on the edge of their seats.  Grunder went toe to toe with Schlatter.  To me, that's what Iowa wrestling is all about. It's about stepping out on to the mat and going to war.  He did come out on the losing end, I think the final score was 9-8 if I remember correctly, but the point is, he gave Schlatter all he could handle.  He gave him absolute Hell, Hawkeye Hell on the mat. 

Jesse Whitmer Wins the 1997 NCAA 125 lbs Title 

This is not only one of my favorite moments in Hawkeye history, this is one of my favorite moments in the sport of wrestling period.  Talk about a rewarding moment. A guy spends his career as a backup as a freshman, sophomore & junior. He finally gets a shot as a senior. Not only that, but the way it all went down was Hollywood. Whitmer had a disappointing BIG 10's where he finished 4th. Then at the NCAA tournament he avenged some of those losses & won the NCAA title. When the buzzer sounded and Whitmer turned around & pointed at Gable, thanking him. That moment still gives me goose bumps & sends a chill of absolute inspiration down my spine. I've been watching wrestling for nearly 32 years. That exact moment is one of my favorites. 

The Last Minute Replacement Wins The BIG 10 Title 

I attended a University of Iowa wrestling camp in Mason City the summer before 7th grade. My favorite of the Iowa Hawkeye wrestlers that I got to interact with was Jamie Heidt. I remember really wanting to see him do well the following season & how upset I was that he didn't win the wrestle-off with Kasey Gillis. Then Gillis got hurt & Heidt stepped in.  I was hoping that he'd wrestle well enough at the BIG 10's to qualify for the NCAA's. He did more than that. He came out of absolute nowhere & shocked the wrestling world by winning the BIG 10 title.  It wasn't quite as good of a ride at the NCAA's, but he still earned an 8th place All American honor. Not near as glorified or celebrated as Whitmer, it's still a story of inspiration. About never giving up on yourself & believing in yourself till the very end. He literally got his opportunity at the very tail end of his career & he made the most of it. 

Unseeded Gives #1 All He Can Handle

My Dad and I were up in Iowa City shopping one day. I don't remember what was going on at Carver Hawkeye arena but there was something he was wanting to see.  So we went over there while we were walking around, we ran into Tony Ersland. We told him we were Iowa wrestling fans. He asked if we wanted to see the facilities. We told him sure & he took us all through everything. It was my first time seeing the practice room. Seeing Dan Gable's office. Seeing the weight room. Here was a guy who probably had other things to do, & he took the hour or so that it took to talk to us & show us around.  I would have been 10 or 11 at the time.  I thought it was so cool. 

You see this is the kind of stuff that made someone one of my favorite wrestlers. Don't get me wrong, I think it's great to see the Joe Williams & the Mark Ironsides completely dominate their way to NCAA DI titles, but when I came to watch Iowa wrestling, it was guys like Tony Ersland that I wanted to see do well. 

He was unseeded at the NCAA tournament. I so badly wanted him to be an All American.  When he lost his match in the bloodround, I cried. I guess that's the response an 11 year old has watching someone he looks up to come short of his goal.  Today I have new perspective on it.   Much like the Alex Grunder situation I talked about earlier, it was about the Hawkeye fight.  The going out on the mat, not caring about who you opponent was or what he was ranked & giving it absolute Hell. 

Tony Ersland was unseeded & the guy he had to wrestle for an All American award was Mark Smith of Oklahoma State, the #1 seed. Ersland gave him everything he could handle.  Match came down to overtime & after a hard fight, Smith got the deciding takedown.  He damn near upset the #1 seed & that's how I see it. 

"Lucky Luedke" Silences His Critics

Let's face it. There be not a fanbase in collegiate wrestling that is more loyal & more passionate than Iowa Hawkeye fans. They are absolutely dedicated to their men of the mat. It's also an undeniable, undisputable fact that these fans have standards and expectations. When these expectations are not met, Hawkeye fans can be downright harsh & criminally critical. When these standards are not adhered to, the black & gold faithful can be ruthlessly unforgiving. As a result of this, I have found myself at odds with other Hawkeye wrestling fans many times.  One of those times was in reference to Eric Luedke. 

I don't know what it was about Luedke that seemed to bother a portion of the Hawkeye fans so much.  All I know is that they'd moan and groan about his style.  Not be happy with his style. It really got on my nerves & I got into a back and forth with a section of fans at the NCAA tournament Luedke's junior season. 

He had taken 8th place, which in my opinion still one heck of an accomplishment. Their opinion was so what. As far as they were concerned he had a lucky draw & had an easy road to be an All American. I fired back that this was NCAA Division I wrestling & that they didn't have a clue as to how difficult it was to earn a top eight finish in the nation.  This group let me know that Luedke would be losing his spot the next season, because Chad Beatty was gonna come in, whip his ass & take the wrestling world by storm. 

When the next season rolled around, Chad Beatty didn't take anything from anyone. Nothing against Beatty at all, but the 174 lbs'er on the varsity squad was still Luedke. Not only that, but with his critics still doubting him & complaining about him, he shut their mouths as he finished 3rd at the NCAA tournament, giving Iowa their second highest place-winner after NCAA champ Mark Perry. 

First Time NCAA Qualifier
First Time NCAA All American
First time NCAA Finalist

In the same spirit as Eric Luedke, but at much more intense level, it seems no matter where you were at, people were always complaining about Ryan Fulsass & how they wished Iowa could find someone else for 197 lbs. I can't tell you the number of times during his senior season I heard people griping about him in the stands of Carver Hawkeye. "I'll be so glad when he's not here next year."  "God I hope whoever we have coming in is better than him."  It boils my blood just thinking about it.  I remember specifically the dual against Ohio State.  Fulsass got caught in one of J.D. Bergman's notorious throws & pinned.  Some guy sitting directly behind me yelled loud enough for everyone to hear him, "JHC!! Can't we get someone worth a s@&* in there?"  

Come time for the BIG 10's they were sure of one thing.  "We know we can't count on Fulsass for nothing!" 

I can't tell you how much it pleased me to see Fulsass make the BIG 10 finals. To see him avenge his loss against Bergman & bring home BIG 10 silver. I'll admit, I thought that was as good as it was gonna get. I was very happy for Fulsass, but even I doubted what he was capable of at the NCAA championships. 

I remember when he won his first two matches & found himself in the quarterfinals discussing with my Dad how cool it was that here was a guy making his first NCAA tournament as a senior & the worst he was gonna do was finish one match shy of All American.  We talked of how exciting it would be if he were to win his next match & make the top 6. 

When he won his quarterfinal over Hofstra's Chris Skretkowicz, I felt like jumping up in the air & screaming at some of his naysayers right then and right there, but I didn't.  I figured let the shock of Fulsass earning All American honors do the work for me. 

When he beat Sean Stender of Northern Iowa in the semi-finals to make the NCAA DI finals, I couldn't resist. 

"Who's an NCAA finalist! Who's an NCAA Finalist! Who!?! Ryan 'get someone else in their' Fulsass!! Whoo!" I'm in touch with my insanity & at appropriate times, I don't mind displaying it.  The race for a top four team trophy was tight that season & no doubt about it Ryan Fulsass' miracle performance helped Iowa to earn a 2nd place trophy.  Without his valuable team points, Iowa would have ended up tying Iowa State for 6th place instead. I made sure to make his naysayers well aware of this. 

I got to congratulate him later on that night on his performance. 

Finally...FINALLY...An All American 

I hope with my last two entries that I'm not coming off as if I believe all Hawkeye fans are bitter, cruel & mean spirited towards wrestlers who aren't meeting their goals. It's simply that their was a section of these types of fans & their is still a section of these types of fans. Maybe it's the same with Oklahoma State & Penn State too? Some of the other powerhouse wrestling programs. I don't know.  It does seem to me though that this particular group of black & gold faithful was a lot bigger during the Zalesky years.  I guess it stems from being spoiled during the Gable era & not knowing how to respond to other school's putting in the time, effort, work & money to build dynasties of their own.  I really don't know for sure.  What I do know is that the group of sincere, genuine & "we have your back, we believe in you" types has grown, while the "We won't accept anything other the first" group has shrunk.  I'd like to see it non-existent but getting into a fight defending Kaleb Young two seasons ago, that nearly got physical is enough to tell me the group will never cease to exist. 

What I do know is that I saw a lot of Hawkeye fans do the same thing I did when it came to Max Murin. They all got behind the kid & it broke their hearts as it broke mine each time he came up short of earning an All American honor.  R12 three seasons in a row. It just tore you apart inside to watch him walk off the mat losing a match that you know meant the world to him. 

When he went into his senior season, I knocked on every piece of wood I could find. I so badly wanted to see him earn All American honors.   Giving eventual four time NCAA DI champ Yianni Diakomihalis an 8-7 match in the quarters was exhilarating.  Yet it also meant that for the fourth time in a row, he was going to be in the blood round.  When you're as passionate about wrestling as I am & you follow these guys as closely as I do, you can't help but be overcome with anxiety.  My hands shook, my feet tapped & I had a hard time breathing.  7 minutes isn't that long of a time, but as the late Gordon Lightfoot said, "The minutes turn to hours."  Of course Murin had to keep it close & about give me stroke, but when it was all said & done, he won a 3-2 match.  

Do I think he could have done even better? Yes I do, but nevertheless seeing him finally win that R12 match was exceptionally rewarding. 

Cash'in It In At the Midlands

If I haven't had my Iowa Hawkeye fan card revoked yet because of other things I've said, I might just do that now. I'm very self aware that I have different opinions, different perspectives & different attitudes about things than do most other Iowa wrestling fans.  I'm the anomaly. I'm the black sheep. Hell my website is named after an Oklahoma State Cowboy.  Trust me, I'm not oblivious to how I am viewed by some, I'm very self aware. 

I don't think the NCAA DI championships are the end all of collegiate wrestling.  Matter of fact, let me say the very words that could get me burned at he stake alive. I hate the mentality of, "It's all that matters."  I hate it so much & hate how their is so little value put into other accomplishments. 

Alex Marinelli was a four time BIG 10 champion.  A FOUR TIME BIG 10 CHAMPION!! In case you didn't know this, the BIG 10 is the toughest conference tournament in all of collegiate wrestling.  The BIG 10 tournament has been around for nearly 125 years & there less than 20 four timers.  Think about that for a second.  If that isn't enough, how about this.... there are 33 NCAA champions, who competed in the BIG 10 & never won a BIG 10 title. 

On top of it, Marinelli was a three time NCAA DI All American with finishes of 6th, 7th & 5th.  Did I wanna see him win an NCAA title? You bet your donkey I did, but I don't wanna hear how his career was disappointing. I don't have time for that hogwash. He had a great career, he accomplished many things & despite not having an NCAA DI medal cloaked in gold, he's still a great Hawkeye. 

I think the same thing about Cash Wilcke & I put value in his final Midlands performance. It was a bit depressing to see him, after two R12 finishes at the NCAA's, lose out on the varsity position in his final season as a Hawkeye. However, he made the most of his final Midlands tournament.  A 3rd place finish. I may be very alone on this but I think there's more to be celebrated than just the NCAA's.  It's a freaking long, grueling season. 6 months worth of wrestling.   Taking 3rd at a tournament like the Midlands is an awesome thing. 

Let me say why else I find Wilcke's third place finish at the Midlands to be special. It's because it reminds me that as much as I dislike the small portion of Hawkeye fans who always seem to be so bitter, I love the positive fans who show love to all of the Hawkeye wrestlers, even the ones that aren't the varsity starters.  It reminds me of guys like Jeren Glosser.  A guy who never did end up competing at a BIG 10 tournament, but nevertheless was a contributing member to the team. He was very valued & I know for a fact he cherishes his time as a Hawkeye.  To me that team aspect, that comradery, that family atmosphere...that is what it's all about. 

Wes Hand Shows Up To Wrestle

I can't say I remember anyone being negative about Wes Hand, but I do remember a lot of people giving up on him way too early. Saying things like, "He never did turn out like I thought he would" & other dismissive quotes, acting like his career was an already said & done thing, long before he graduated.  After being an All American his sophomore year, he did not have a good junior season at all.  Brock Lesnar humiliated him on the mat a couple of times & barely making the national tournament he was knocked out fairly early.

To see him come back with an absolute vengeance his senior season was very gratifying. It was like you knew it was the same wrestler from the season before, but it felt like you were watching someone new.  As if aliens had come down from outer space & they had given Hand super powers.  He just beat the crap out of everyone that season. 

We weren't at the dual in Minneapolis when Hand wrestled Lesnar for the first time that season, but friends from our wrestling club were. I can remember Larry Kerr (Jake Kerr's father) calling my Dad on the phone & telling him about the dual. 

"Oh Randy, it was beautiful," Larry said. "Lesnar shot in & Wes threw him straight to his back."   

Hand won that match 5-3 if memory serves me correct. 

Then he completely dominated at the Midlands, winning a title there & he took it to Iowa State's Trent Hynek in an 8-3 decision.  Season ended for Hand both a BIG 10 runner-up & an NCAA runner-up.  It was awesome seeing him wrestle so well & have so much success. 

Ramos Gets His Gold 

I have nothing against Logan Stieber of Ohio State. I'm a fan of his. However, there is no question about it. His finals match against Tony Ramos in 2013 had some horrific officiating. How in the Hell points weren't awarded to Ramos in a couple of different situations, I have no idea. Match stands as it is, but I still feel that had it been better officiated, Ramos would have won that match.   When he did get that takedown in overtime the next season, it was a very satisfying moment to me as a wrestling fan.  Tony to me was what I feel a wrestler should be. Hard nosed, tough wrestling. Downright mean on the mat, but never anything dirty or illegal. An absolute gentleman & class act off the mat. I was very happy to see him win the NCAA title. 

Just Shy of Gold On The Mat, but Absolute Gold Off The Mat

Another class act on the Hawkeye team was Dan Dennis.  Let's be honest here. Iowa isn't always known for good sportsmanship. It's not something many fans seem to care a lot about, but I do care a lot about it. It's something I value. I don't know if collegiate wrestlers are aware of how popular and well know they are sometimes. Especially Hawkeye wrestlers. These guys are like rock stars to so many little kids. I know they were to me when I was little. They're looked up to & they're heroes. Kids emulate them and wanna be them.  I love going to dual meets & seeing kids get so excited to shake hands with the wrestlers & get autographs. Reminds me of when I was a kid. 7 years old at a dual meet & my Dad let go down to meet the Bands & the Steiners.  I guess that's why I value class & sportsmanship as much as I do & I can think of few who displayed it better than Dan Dennis. 

I remember his junior season, he spoke at the end of the year. He was very respectful of his opponents & even said some good things about them. He kept it clear that he was going to win an NCAA title the next season, and he was gonna beat everyone, but he didn't feel a need to smack talk anyone either. 

He did exactly what he said he was going to do up until the very end. I try not to let losses bother me anymore & see wrestling for what it is, but the tears just came anyway when Dennis lost his NCAA finals match at the last second. It still makes me emotional just thinking about it now. How I'd love to give him back those last few seconds. Give him an opportunity to change things.  I can't do that though. What happened, happened. 

When he later composed himself & found Jayson Ness & shook his hand congratulating him on his title, that was a moment that really moved me as a wrestling fan. That's what I hope a lot of young Hawkeye fans witnessed. That's what I'll always remember about Dan Dennis. He may have been NCAA DI silver, but for that alone, he's Gold to me. 

The Redemption of Jay Borschel

I am a sucker for stories of reclamation. Few are better than that of Jay Borschel.  3rd in the NCAA DI nation as a sophomore, he missed out on AA #2 his junior season when he got caught on his back & pinned in the blood round by Cornell's Stephen Ancerverage. It was a tough loss, but I knew much in the same fashion that Ray Brinzer had years prior, Borschel would bounce back.  Boy oh Boy did he ever! He came back with a vengeance the next season.  Displayed the Hawkeye superior conditioning with one of the most spectacular comebacks to win his semi-final 10-9. Then he won the NCAA title with a win over a wrestler from Cornell. I don't know if it gets more vindicated than that. 

Tyler Nixt Earns All American Honors 

Another of my favorite Hawkeyes.  I always enjoyed watching Tyler Nixt compete and I always felt that he had the ability each season, but he'd always come up a little short.  Over his three seasons as a varsity starter, my Dad & I got to know his mom & Dad fairly well. We'd tell them, cause we both believed it, that we thought Tyler was good enough to be an NCAA champion. I can remember specifically talking to Fred (Tyler's Dad) about Tyler's match against Terry Parham of Air Force at the 2002 NCAA championships. How it could have gone either way, and it went Parham's way. 

After a disappointing showing at the NCAA's his junior season, I spoke briefly with Jessman Smith about what was holding Tyler back. Tyler had shown that he could go with anyone, including Chris Pendleton of Oklahoma State.

"He better fu...freaking make All American!"  I can still picture Smith in the Cedar Rapids Jefferson practice room saying this to me. I was on board with him.  I knew that if he'd just open up & wrestler, he'd show the nation just how good he really was. 

To see him finally let loose and just wrestle like he was capable of wrestling was rewarding. I wish he would have wrestled against Ben Askren of Missouri in the semi-finals, like he did for the remainder of the tournament.  He was so smooth, solid & aggressive when he went out & defeated Eric Hauan of Northern Iowa 6-1 & then Brad Dillon of Lehigh 9-3 to capture NCAA bronze. I think had he wrestled with the same mentality & approach against Askren, he could have won that match.  Nonetheless seeing a guy you always knew could end his season as one of the top wrestlers in his weight, was still very gratifying. 


I think I'll end it here.  Are there more moments in Hawkeye wrestling history that I could name? Of course there are! These are my favorites though.  Hope you enjoyed the read. 

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