2002 Hawkeye Wrestling Preview

Expectations for the 2002-03 Iowa Wrestling season went up somewhat after the team handled the top-ranked and two-time NCAA defending champion Minnesota Gophers on Friday night, 24-11. The meet in St. Paul was not an official Big Ten meet, but it served notice to the rest of the Big Ten and the NCAA that the dynasty in Iowa City is not dead. Despite the rankings, third-ranked Iowa won the meet in convincing fashion even though they won only one match that would be considered an upset.

Two-time all-American Damion Hahn was out of the lineup for the Gophers at 184 due to injury, but other than that, both teams were at full strength. The loss snapped a Minnesota 33-dual meet win streak.

As usual over the last several years, Iowa, Minnesota, and Oklahoma State are the top three ranked programs in the country again this season. Minnesota is favored to win the team title, but much of the preseason hype is based on what the program has done the last two seasons. On paper, both Minnesota and Iowa return seven wrestlers that were NCAA qualifiers and Minnesota returns one more all-American than the Hawks (five to four).

However, unlike the last several three years when Minnesota had more depth of quality in their lineup and in their practice room than Iowa, the Hawks seem to have an edge this season. That edge in depth was very apparent on Friday as one of the two weakest spots in the Iowa lineup (197) produced a quality win. Ryan Fulsaas appeared to be much improved from the last two years, yet he has had to struggle to keep his 197 position in the lineup since both Paul Bradley and Trey Clark strongly challenged him for the starting spot in the preseason. Even with the win, Fulsaas may need to continue to look over his shoulder, as Bradley should do well as an unattached wrestler in open competition this season.

Minnesota Head Coach J Robinson and his Gophers were quoted as talking about the Friday loss to Iowa being a wakeup call to work harder. They downplayed the meet, but they must be stunned by the loss and understand the ramifications. Early season dual losses do not mean the end of the world, but Iowa was the underdog team that could have lost the meet and still would have been fine if they beat the Gophers later in the dual meet season. Minnesota was the two-time champs with the big win streak. They had a mental edge on Iowa, but now it may be severely lessened. Minnesota is still the team to beat since they are the defending champs, but their home loss to the Hawks has to be sending shock waves throughout the wrestling world. They didn't just get beat, but they were handled by the 20-time NCAA champions who have won nine of the last twelve NCCA Tourneys.

"I think it's a statement," said junior 133-pounder Cliff Moore. "We've been hurting against Minnesota the last two years. I think it's going to scar them a little bit. They keep saying that Iowa's not number one anymore, but we still could be."

Many people in the wrestling community agreed with J Robinson a few years ago when he predicted that Iowa Wrestling would be an average power after Dan Gable's recruits had all used up their eligibility. The prevailing opinion was that Iowa would no longer be able to recruit and have the depth of talent and work ethic that they once had. This is the first season that Head Coach Jim Zalesky is coaching a lineup of wrestlers that all were recruited by him as a head coach.

Last season's fourth place finish was the lowest Iowa finish since 1989, and the second lowest in the last 25 years. Although it was one of the low points in the recent history of Iowa Wrestling, there is a precedence that a poor Iowa Wrestling season will lead to a very good one. In 1989, the Hawkeyes finished sixth in the nation and had no NCAA winners. That season, Joe Melchiore finished second, Tom Brands and Mark Reiland finished fourth, and Steve Martin finished seventh. However, the 1990 season was one of the most dominant in recent history as Tom Brands and Reiland both won titles, and six others made the finals in one of the highest scoring NCAA team performances in school history. Not only did the young team from 1989 turn into an outstanding one in 1990, but it was young enough that it was the nucleus for starting another long run of titles. Iowa went on to win nine titles in eleven years and finished second the other two seasons.

Can this team duplicate the success of the 1990 edition? Probably not, but the team is also capable of two or three champions and perhaps seven all-Americans. Steve Mocco (Hwt.) and Luke Eustice (125) made the finals last season, and Cliff Moore (133) and Jessman Smith (197) have a fighting chance at winning a title. This is not the most talented team in Iowa history, but there is a lot of experience on the roster and much more depth than the last two years. With more young talent in the Iowa Room, this season could be a turning point in the wrestling program. If they can wrestle up to their own expectations, this season might lead to another run of NCAA titles.

"I like the way we prepared," said Coach Zalesky after the Minnesota meet. "We worked hard this spring and fall. We aren't the most talented team, but we'll fight hard. It (this meet) was a good way to see where we are at. It's early in the season and there is a lot of wrestling left."

A look at the weights:

125 – Junior Luke Eustice returns from a 2nd place NCAA finish and a 24-10 record last season. He is currently ranked first at his weight after his late season finish last year. Luke looked like a title contender once again on Friday after winning 13-3 over Minnesota's Bob Lowe.

Sophomore Matt Shankey is a quality backup who was 11-5 in an unattached role at 133. True freshman Jeff Pfaffinger from Blue Earth, MN is red shirting this season and was a four-time state champion.

133 – Junior Cliff Moore was 30-10 and an all-American last season. After missing time early in the season recovering from knee surgery, he won the Midlands title and rolled through several rated wrestlers. However, losses to Ryan Lewis of Minnesota and Kevin Black of Wisconsin started a downward trend in the latter part of the year. Cliff had the biggest win of the Minnesota meet on Friday as he beat the second-ranked Lewis, 11-8. Two reversals, one late in second period and another to start the third, put Moore back in the match. A double-leg takedown with a three-point near-fall midway through the third period sealed the match. The second period of the match was outstanding; Moore and the energy of the period wore Lewis down. By the end of the match, Lewis was being called for stalling lying sprawled out. Cliff is ranked fifth right now, but showed that he might be moving up.

Redshirt freshman Trent Goodale of Osage and Shankey are the backups at the weight, and Goodale was 9-5 last season in an unattached role. True freshman Todd Meneely is a four-time state champion from Nebraska who is redshirting. He may wrestle 133 or 141.

141 - Senior Luke Moffitt was in and out of the Iowa lineup last season, but he put together a great Big Ten Tournament. He won a Big Ten title, but just missed being an all-American. Luke was 29-8 last season, and led the team in pins with 19. He is currently ranked eighth this season nationally, and beat Tommy Owen in the Minnesota dual, 4-1. Luke likes to scramble and pin, but he needs to be more consistent on his feet and from the bottom position this year. He doesn't always take advantage of easy chances to score, but instead goes after a big move. That mentality pays off sometimes, but also leads to scoring droughts. He is a senior, so look for more consistency and better dual meet performances from him this year.

149 – Redshirt freshman Ty Eustice did not perform well in his first varsity match, losing 16-4 to defending national champion Jared Lawrence of Minnesota. Lawrence gave him a rude introduction to college dual wrestling, but practicing against guys like Coach Bill Zadick, Coach Zalesky, and Coach Tom Brands will continue to give him as good of competition as there is out there. Coach Zalesky commented this summer on how he liked Ty's competitiveness and ability, so he should do fine even if he takes some lumps. Eustice finished 18-3 in an unattached role last season.

Sophomore Cory Connell was 12-19 last season and is the backup at the weight. Most of his losses last season were in varsity competition filling in at 165. He was aggressive, but gave up too much weight to his opponents. Eustice handled Connell in the wrestle-offs, 7-2 and 7-3.

157 – Senior Matt Anderson was 32-13 last season, and just missed all-American status. He performed well at times last year, but always seemed to be on the outer edge of the top wrestlers. He also just missed making all-American as a freshman at 165. He is currently ranked sixth, but was beaten by defending national champion Luke Becker of Minnesota, 12-2. In many ways, the match was not much different from Matt's losses to Becker last season. Matt is currently ranked sixth.

165 - Junior Jason D'Agata surprisingly won the wrestle-offs over freshmen Cole Pape, Blake Anderson, and Mark Mueller of Postville. D'Agata was 4-6 last season, and 1-2 in the Iowa lineup. Mueller will probably redshirt this season, but Pape is the backup who many envisioned as good enough to win the starting position. Cole was 16-9 in an unattached role as a redshirt last year.

D'Agata was 27-19 while attending Upper Iowa in 2000, and placed fifth in the Florida state tournament in his junior and senior years of high school. He lacks skill and technique, but Jason is a brawler. He became a crowd favorite at Carver-Hawkeye last season even though he struggled because he competed hard with a bulldog mentality and effort. He lost 8-3 to Jacob Volkmann on Friday, and wasn't able to finish his takedown attempts. Jason fights well, but is he capable of fighting all season to keep his spot and to keep the 165-spot from being known as the weakest link in the lineup?

174 - Junior Tyler Nixt was 33-10 and finished just short of all-American status. He is the top ranked Big Ten wrestler and is ranked second and third nationally. He was one of the most improved wrestlers on the team last season. Nixt is famous for his flexibility with his knees and how he uses that flexibility to get out of tough situations. He defeated Josh McLay on Friday, 4-1.

Adam Fellers never won a state title in high school, but the redshirt freshman had a nice redshirt year last season, going 10-4. He lost to Nixt in the wrestle-offs, 9-4.

184 - Jessman Smith has had an up and down career at Iowa, but he broke through at the end of last season to finish third at the NCAA meet. He was 36-8 overall, and also finished third at the Big Ten meet. Jessman has had problems with guys like Damion Hahn of Minnesota in the past, but the NCAA tourney showed him that he is good enough to win the title. He got caught and pinned in the semifinal, but came back to win the third-place match.

Hahn hurt his knee and is not expected back until January, so Smith was able to handle a much-smaller Matt Nagel, 19-5. Jessman is a senior and is perhaps the main senior leader, so expect big things from him.

197 - This weight has always been pretty good for the Hawkeye program until Lee Fullhart graduated. Lee won a NCAA title and finished in the top four every year, but since he graduated in 1998, no Hawk has qualified at this weight. Junior Ryan Fulsaas was completely overwhelmed as a redshirt freshman in 2000, but last year both sophomore Trey Clark (three-time state champion from LaPorte City, Iowa) and Fulsaas frustrated coaches with their inconsistency. Both were around .500, but neither performed well in the big meets. To improve the competition and as an insurance policy for the often-injured Fulsaas, the coaches moved redshirt freshman Paul Bradley up from 184. Bradley was 14-3 at 184 during his redshirt season.

Bradley is a hard nose competitor who is still young, but moving up has helped the weight. Clark has fallen to third-string after the wrestle-offs, and still has to improve on his feet. Trey has the legs to dominate on top or in scramble situations, but he seems to lack confidence. Fulsaas is the one that won the wrestle-offs, and unlike previous years, Ryan also is competing and performing in tough situations against other teams. He won a tough match against Jacob Lininger on Friday, and had to come back to win, 7-4.

Lininger won 33 matches last season, so he was a quality opponent. However, the biggest plus with Ryan's performance was that it came in a tight match in a road environment against a big team. Fulsaas beat quality guys last season, but it only happened when everything went his way. Over the last two seasons, it seemed that if anything went wrong in a match, Ryan would let down and lose. Not only did Ryan look bigger than Lininger, but he was stronger and more active.

Hwt. - Sophomore Steve Mocco still did not draw raves with his offensive leg attacks, but he physically was a mismatch against two-time NCAA qualifier Garrett Lowney. Lowney is ranked third in the nation, but the second-ranked Mocco must have outweighed Lowney by forty or fifty pounds. He won a 12-3 major decision over Lowney, and treated him like a rag doll. Coach Zalesky talked in the summer about how hard Mocco was working and how much bigger and stronger he was, and it showed. He must weigh at least twenty pounds more than last year, and his frame is much bigger than last year.

Steve had a pretty good season last year as he was 37-3 and was second in the NCAA. He is super quick for his size and does a great job of countering and leg sweeping once he gets people off balance. Getting Lowney off-balance the other night was even easier than last year since Steve has so much extra power this year. No one could legally ride him last season, so it may be almost impossible this year. If Steve improves his offensive arsenal, he may become the scariest heavyweight the NCAA has seen in years.

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