Although the Gophers went into the season as the clear-cut favorites to win their second NCAA title, by late December after the Midlands tournament it seemed as if the inexperienced Hawks were closing the gap despite injuries to returning senior all-American Ben Shirk at 165, and enigmatic sophomore Ryan Fulsaas at 197.
However, the preseason polls that predicted Iowa to fall back a little in 2001 ended up being more accurate than most Hawk fans. The Iowa Grapplers finished with a dual record of 16-4, and were only 6-2 in the Big Ten after losses to Minnesota and Michigan. The Hawks did pass Michigan at the Big Ten Tournament to finish second behind the Gophers, but struggled in the NCAA tourney to finish a disappointing fourth. The NCAA finish was the lowest for Iowa Wrestling since 1989.
While the Hawks lacked proven experience at many weights after replacing Doug Schwab, Jody Strittmatter, Eric Juergens, T.J. Williams, and Gabe McMahon from the 2000-01 squad, they had the potential to win it all this last spring. However, instead of wrestling up to their seed at the NCAA meet or wrestling above their seed like sophomore Luke Eustice at 125, many of the Hawkeyes did not come through when it mattered most.
After winning 20 NCAA team titles since 1975, the Hawks have now gone two straight years without winning it all. In the late-80s, Dan Gable's Hawkeyes went four straight years without the title after winning nine in a row, so this has happened before in recent memory. Even though Iowa returns most of last year's lineup, many questions remain. Although the 2002-03 squad can build on last year's experience, they still need to train and find the collective dominance in their own individual performances so the team can reach expectations when it matters the most – the 2003 NCAA Tournament.
If Iowa is to reclaim the national title in 2003, the wrestlers already on the roster are going to be the key. The amount of success that the coaches had in recruiting this year may possibly show a little this season, but will most likely show itself in the next few years. The talent is already on the roster, but the overall toughness and confidence of the team has to improve. Having a year of experience will help many of the returning starters this season, but toughness and confidence do not automatically come with experience. Coach Zalesky has reasons to be optimistic about the team this season, but he feels that "talk is cheap compared to working hard and actually getting it done. Our goal is always going to be to win the national title. If we are going to get back to that level, we need guys to become better competitors in practice and in meets."
Here is a look at the weight classes for the 2002-03 season:
125 – Junior all-American Luke Eustice was only 24-10 even though he finished 2nd at the NCAA meet. However, Luke had a shoulder problem for most of the season that limited his practice time and his strength and physical ability in meets. Luke continued to improve as the year went on, and Coach Zalesky likes his competitiveness abilities heading into this season. Rivals Leroy Vega of Minnesota and Stephen Abas of Fresno State both graduated, so the tough 125-pound field may be a little more manageable this year.
Jeff Pfaffinger is a top recruit from Minnesota, who like Luke and Ty Eustice, is also from Blue Earth. He was named Minnesota's Mr. Wrestling, and should redshirt this year at 125. If all goes well and he learns from Eustice in the Iowa Room, Pfaffinger should be a dominant regular as a redshirt sophomore. "He wanted to wrestle against the best and in particular, work with Luke everyday in practice," said Coach Zalesky. "Luke should be cleared to wrestle in September after the shoulder surgery this spring, so the added competition will be good for both of them. It is usually pretty easy to find good competition at these lower weights every year."
133 – Junior all-American Cliff Moore had an up-and-down season that saw him finish 6th at the NCAA meet. After missing the first part of the season recovering from a knee injury, Moore made a large splash at the Midlands by beating four ranked wrestlers on his way to taking first. He went on to build a 20-2 record before a getting pounded 6-0 by Ryan Lewis of Minnesota in the supposed "Border Brawl I." That loss seemed to mark a turning point, which saw Cliff go 10-8 to finish the season.
Coach Zalesky said that his knee and nose problems seem to be behind him. "They (injuries) may have had something to do with Cliff's record down the stretch," said Zalesky, "but I think that he just didn't have the same confidence and focus. There are always technical things that guys can work on to get better, but focus and competitive ability also play a big role. Hopefully Cliff will get back on track this year."
141 – Senior Luke Moffitt had a roller coaster season that concluded with a 30-8 record and a conference championship. Although he failed to place at the NCAA Championships, Luke was 12-3 in his last 15 matches with eight pins and two major decisions. After starting the season 15-0, he fell out the starting lineup after losing five of seven matches in key dual meets. During the midseason struggles, Moffitt was dominated in the bottom position and continually gave up good positions. "I think Luke got caught in the headlights a little during the middle of the season last year," said Zalesky. "It is a big step up in competition from junior college and wrestling in open tournaments as a unattached wrestler to being in our starting lineup. Yes he struggled from the bottom position at times, but like most good wrestlers, he never spent much time in the bottom position before he got to this level. As the year went on, he did improve from that position, but I thought the big thing was that his overall positioning improved as he got used to what he could and couldn't do at this level. He still likes to take high risk moves too much." His high risk/high reward style is not like many of the other wrestlers, but Luke should find more consistency this year as he builds on the experience of last year. His 20 pins led the team last season.
Todd Meneely is a four-time state champion from Nebraska who will redshirt at either 133 or 141 this year. Intermat has him ranked as the top recruit at 130 pounds.
149 – Mike Zadick has used up his eligibility, and his 35-2 record will be missed. Although no one is going to step in and dominate the way that Zadick did throughout the regular season last year, there are some good wrestlers who have a chance to make some noise at this weight next year. "Ty Eustice, Cory Connell, and perhaps Joe Johnston will provide good competition to replace Zadick," commented Coach Zalesky. Connell would not be at the top of the list of most Hawk fans since he was 12-19 last season, but 11 of the sophomore's losses were from wrestling 165 to fill in for injured Ben Shirk. "Connell has a chance at 149 or 157, but he still needs to get better at controlling his opponent and on the bottom position," said Zalesky. "Many of his problems last season came from wrestling way over his weight, but he did not compete well either in many of those matches."
Eustice and Johnston redshirted last season as true freshmen. Johnston was 16-7 in open competition at 157, while Eustice was 18-3 at 149. While both are talented wrestlers, Eustice seems to have the inside track at the weight. Of his three losses, one was to a fellow Hawk who should have won the NCAA title (Zadick, at the Central Missouri State Open), one was a close loss to a talented Minnesota wrestler who eventually quit and transferred to Augsburg after the season (Marcus LeVesser), and the other was to a defending Division III champion from Luther College (Garrett Kurth). Not only did Eustice perform well in open competition, but Coach Zalesky felt he did a nice job in practice last year as well. "Ty and Luke are about as good of competitors as we have right now. No matter what it is or how they feel, they are competing to win. Combine that with the fact that in practice Ty was going against guys like Mike and Bill Zadick along with Coach Brands. That is pretty good competition for a wrestler to work with."
157 – This is a weight that would seem to be solid since senior Matt Anderson was 32-13 and placed third in the Big Ten Tournament, but Coach Zalesky thought it might be possible that Matt could move up to the opening at 165. Like Tyler Nixt and Luke Moffitt, Anderson was one win away from all-American status at the NCAA meet. He was also one win away from all-American status at 165 as a freshman, so Matt has the experience of success at 157 and 165 to help the team at either spot. Whichever weight he wrestles, the thing that may separate Anderson from the elite wrestlers in his class is his lack of aggressiveness late in tight matches. That tendency in close matches may have helped him beat Griff Powell of Illinois in the Big Ten tourney, but it certainly cost him in other matches like against Shane Roller of Oklahoma State in an Iowa home dual loss.
Connell and Johnston are also candidates for this spot, but the frontrunner may be redshirt freshman Cole Pape. Pape has the frame to eventually move up in weight to 165, but the coaches have been pleased with his progress at 157. Much like the Eustice boys, Coach Zalesky repeatedly brought up the word "competitor" when talking about Pape. Cole was 16-9 in open competition last year, and beat Johnston in an open match, 1-0.
165 – Anderson could move up to this weight, but it is likely that he might stay at 157. If Matt stays at 157, Pape and Johnston could move up to compete with junior Jason D'Agata, redshirt freshman Blake Anderson and true freshman Mark Mueller of Postville. Anderson was 4-4 in open matches during his redshirt year, while D'Agata was 4-6 in matches at 157 and 165. D'Agata was 1-2 in matches last year at 165 in the Iowa lineup. The former Upper Iowa transfer looked like a 157-pounder and showed limited skills, but he battled very hard in all of his matches in the lineup.
The coaches would probably want to redshirt Mueller for the future, but the dominant 171-pound two-time state champion might be the best wrestler at this weight if Matt Anderson stays at 157. Mueller has not spent much time in the bottom position and would have to adjust to the college level, but Coach Zalesky likes Mark's balance and offensive potential.
174 - Junior Tyler Nixt had a solid first campaign in the Iowa lineup as he was 33-11 and placed 2nd in the Big Ten Tournament. He did not place in the NCAA Tournament, but should be a consistent force in the lineup this season. His only three conference losses were to graduated senior Otto Olsen of Michigan, so Tyler could have a very good 2002-03 campaign.
Redshirt freshman Adam Fellers did not have the gaudy high school statistics that some other wrestlers in the Iowa Room put up, but he put together a solid redshirt season in open competition as he was 10-4.
184 - Much like Nixt, senior Jessman Smith had a quality season as he was 36-8 and finished 3rd in both the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments. Smith became more consistent and was in better condition at the end of matches in his junior year, but continued to struggle against Damion Hahn of Minnesota and Andy Hrovat of Michigan. Smith finally beat Hahn in the national duals after losing several close matches to him in the 2000-01 season, but Hahn won the more important rematch as the 13-2 major decision cemented the Minnesota team win over Iowa in the "Border Brawl I" dual meet.
Hrovat and Smith have taken turns winning in matchups over their careers, but Hrovat pounded Smith all three times they met last season. When Hahn and Hrovat both lost in the early rounds of the NCAA tourney, it looked as if the bracket had opened up for Smith to win a NCAA title. However, Jessman was pinned and had to settle for wrestling back to claim 3rd.
Going into his senior year, Coach Zalesky thinks Jessman has a lot of positives to draw upon from the 2001-02 season. "Although he was disappointed to get caught (in a pin move) and finish 3rd, he can go into this season knowing how close he was to winning an NCAA championship. Considering that he did not place at the previous two NCAA meets, he can take the positives out of that." It also will not hurt that seniors like Hrovat have graduated so that Smith becomes the veteran in a weight class that isn't as senior-laden as last season.
197 - For the third straight year, this might be the weakest position in the Iowa lineup. A wrestler at this weight has not qualified for nationals since 1999, and there is no clear-cut starter again this year. Sophomore Trey Clark won three state titles in high school, but the LaPorte City native has had a hard time getting his confidence back after getting pounded in the Iowa Room the last two years. He finished 12-14 and showed some promise last season, but didn't win a match at the Big Ten tourney. Worse still, one of his losses was to a Wisconsin wrestler that he beat during the dual season. Clark is very tall and long for a wrestler, but to this point, has not figured out how to use his height to his advantage. Although he is a decent rider because of his legs, he defense is wide open in part because of his height.
Ryan Fulsaas was also a champion high school wrestler, and the junior from Decorah has also struggled. After a miserable freshman year, Ryan made some progress last season before getting injured and missing the rest of the year. He was 7-5 before the injury, but had struggled against the better wrestlers in his class. Coach Zalesky feels that both Clark and Fulsaas have the ability to step forward, but also implied that 184-pound Paul Bradley might be given a chance to move up to this weight. During his redshirt season, the decorated South Tama product was 15-3.
Heavyweight - Besides Zadick getting beat in the NCAA third round, Steve Mocco's loss in the NCAA finals to Tommy Rowlands of Ohio State was the most frustrating for most Hawk fans. It was a fine season on paper for the true freshman as he was 39-3 with 2nd place finishes at both the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments. However, although Mocco wrestled like a bear for much of the season, his lack of an offensive attack in many matches was almost maddening for the Iowa coaches to watch. No one showed that they had the ability to consistently ride Mocco or score on him, yet Steve did not open up in many matches to take enough shots of his own.
After rolling to many pins and technical falls early in the season, Mocco barely beat some of his opponents in the second half of the season in several matches that neither man seemed to want to score. The lack of any sort of consistent leg attack from Steve was most noticeable, and it is something that Steve and the Iowa coaches are trying to change. Mocco was so much better than everyone in high school that he did not need a good leg attack, but the losses to Rowlands at both the Big Ten and NCAA tourney might be a positive if it can motivate Mocco to expand his arsenal and dominate over the next three years of his career.
Coach Zalesky thinks the fans will see a bigger and better Mocco in 2002-03. "He works so hard that he can just tear through guys and wear them out in practice. He is one of the main leaders among the big guys because of how hard he works and how big and imposing he is. His weight and strength are up, and he is very motivated. He just needs to continue to change some things technically. I think he will be fine."
The Hawkeyes once again will return to their quest of glory!