Iowa Looks To Make Mark at Nationals

The Iowa Hawkeyes are the only squad to qualify all 10 wrestlers for the upcoming NCAA Div. I Championships in St. Louis, Mo. That doesn't mean the Hawks are the favorite heading into the action – far from it. But those numbers do give Iowa a good shot at a much better finish than last season's disappointing eighth-place finish and if things break Iowa's way, the Hawkeyes could very well be in the hunt for a top 3 trophy.

Let's go through the tournament weight-by-weight from a Hawkeye perspective.

At 125, Luke Eustice (23-2) has a solid draw as the No. 2 seed. Eustice faces Jose Leon (4-1) of Boston U. in a tough pigtail bout and would face Jesse Miramontes (25-13) of Cal St.-Fullerton in the first round, if victorious. The Hawkeye, a 2002 runner-up at 125, would go until the quarterfinals without meeting another seeded wrestler, who it just so happens could be Tom Noto (30-7) of Hofstra, who defeated Eustice in the Midlands finals in December. Eustice stubbed his toe with a loss to Tom Clum of Wisconsin in the Big 10 finals, but that may be a good eye opener for the Hawk before Nationals and it didn't cost him the second seed. After earning All-American honors as a sophomore, a hobbled Eustice failed to place last year. If he pushes his pace and wrestles the way he has for much of the season, the Hawkeye 125-pounder could make a second finals appearance to close out his career.

At 133, most Hawkeye fans are probably just happy to see Iowa represented at this weight class, after the defection of freshman Todd Meneely. Trent Goodale (8-16) hasn't had a stellar season, but came through with a seventh-place finish at the Big 10's to make it to the big dance. The Hawkeye even qualifying for the tournament was a surprise to some, and if he could pick up a win or two for Iowa, it would be big points many weren't counting on a few weeks ago. Goodale meets No. 8 seed Matt Sanchez (31-7) of Cal St.-Bakersfield in the opening round Thursday morning.

Senior Cliff Moore (26-2) of Iowa sits in the No. 5 seed slot at 141. Moore has the ability to beat anyone at this weight and appears to have a good draw to take him into the quarterfinals against No. 4 seed Jason Mester (27-2) of Central Michigan. If Moore, a three-time State champ at Dubuque Hempstead, reaches the semifinals like he did last season, top seed Scott Moore (46-0) of Virginia is the likely opponent. Iowa's Moore has the ability to win the whole thing this year, but Iowa needs a high All-American finish out of their senior at the very least.

Ty Eustice (23-8) makes the NCAA trip for the second time in as many seasons at 149. The ninth-seeded Hawkeye will face the winner of a pigtail match in the first round. If Eustice is ready out of the gates, he should be able to pick up a solid win against someone who has already had to go through a tough match earlier in the day. Eustice has the ability to go with just about anyone at this weight, but will he put enough offense together to get the job done? He has shown flashes of greatness on his feet at times, but not enough for Hawk fans. He still gets in too many matches where it comes down to a takedown at the end or goes into overtime. It burned him last year in the NCAA's and Iowa fans hope he has learned from past experience.

Like Eustice at 149, sophomore Joe Johnston at 157 searches for an All-American finish after qualifying and picking up some matches in last year's NCAA Tournament as a freshman. Johnston (21-9) starts off his tournament against No. 9 seed Matt Lebe (28-7) of West Virginia. The winner of that match will face either Nick Baima (23-13) of Northern Iowa or No. 8 seed B.J. Wright (18-9) of Nebraska. Whoever comes out of that foursome will likely run into top seed Alex Tirapelle (30-0) of Illinois, last year's NCAA runner-up. Three undefeated wrestlers and the defending NCAA champ, Ryan Bertin of Michigan, highlight a very tough weight class.

165 was a weight class like 133, where Iowa fans may just be happy to have a warm body in the bracket. This weight didn't have a decided starter until very late in the season. Cole Pape (10-8) has a favorable match-up in the first round against Michael Barikian (18-6) of Navy and could advance if he wrestles as well as he has at times this season. Pape wrestled very well at the Big 10's before defaulting in the medal round. If he is healthy, Pape could surprise a few people in St. Louis and pick up some wins and big points for Iowa.

Tyler Nixt (28-2) received the No. 2 seed at 174, despite his loss in the Big 10 finals to Ryan Lange of Purdue, who is seeded fourth. Nixt appears to have a clear path to the semifinals, starting with an opening round match against Ed Pawlak (36-7) of Buffalo. But Nixt has not performed well at the NCAA's the past two years. This is his final shot at a medal, so expect him to be ready to go. Nixt could have a very interesting semifinal match against either No. 3 seed Brad Dillon (28-1) of Lehigh or No. 6 seed Ben Askren (29-4) of Missouri, who gave top seed Chris Pendleton of Oklahoma State his only loss of the year in the Big 12 finals.

No. 12 seed Paul Bradley (21-9) at 184 has a pigtail match against Greg Gifford (23-10) of Fresno State to open his first NCAA tourney. If he gets past that match, the Hawkeye would face Alex Clemson (22-4) of Edinboro. Don't be surprised if Bradley gets two or three rounds into the championship side and earns All-American honors. The Hawkeye has a style that keeps him close with just about every opponent and his bruising style can wear down opponents in a tournament setting.

Ryan Fulsaas (21-8) is seeded 10th at 197 on the bottom half of the draw. The Hawkeye received the only first round bye at this weight and will wait to see if he faces No. 7 seed Chris Jones (29-4) of Drexel or Landon Seefeldt (30-14) of Cal St.-Fullerton in the second round. Fulsaas has shown flashes of All-American ability, but as Iowa fans know all too well, he could also leave the tournament early. This weight is not as loaded with talent as many of the others, so if Fulsaas can put a few good matches together, an All-American honor to end his career isn't out of the question.

We have our only first round head-to-head match between in-state wrestlers at heavyweight. No. 12 seed Scott Coleman (7-4) of Iowa State and freshman Ryan Fuller (16-18) of Iowa meet in an opening round bout. The pair didn't wrestle in the dual meet, so it will be a new experience for both. Whoever wins between these two will probably meet No. 5 seed Cole Konrad (33-8) of Minnesota, who has pinned Fuller twice this season.

In the best of worlds, Iowa would put Luke Eustice, Cliff Moore and Tyler Nixt in the finals and get All-American finishes from two or three other wrestlers. But this isn't a perfect world, so that is not likely. Two of Iowa's stars reaching the finals Saturday night could happen and a few others earning All-Americans honors is a realistic possibility. A top 3-team finish would not be good enough for many Iowa wrestling fans, but for this season, I think that would be a pretty good end to the year. Oklahoma State will have to have a terrible tournament not to repeat as team champs, but anything can happen once that first match gets underway.

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