By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Alex Marinelli was just 12 years old the last time the Iowa wrestling team won a national title in a sport that it used to dominate for decades.
He is now a third-year sophomore and a rising star for the Hawkeyes at 165 pounds and will turn 21 during the upcoming season on Feb. 2.
Iowa still is one of the elite programs in the country, but Penn State now occupies the throne of dominance under head coach Cael Sanderson, and has for a while, winning seven of the last eight national team titles.
Marinelli wasn’t disrespecting Penn State when he said at Iowa’s annual media day event on Monday that he is sick of hearing about the Nittany Lions’ dominance in wrestling.
It was more a case of him issuing a challenge to himself, to his teammates and to his coaching staff.
There is only one way to silence the talk about Penn State’s dynasty and that is to end it ASAP.
“If we don’t win a national title I wouldn’t call it a successful season, I would call it a season that was repeated, and you don’t want to repeat third place,” Marinelli said in reference to Iowa’s third-place finish at the 2018 NCAA championships. “You don’t want to repeat second place.
“You want to be national champion. And we have so many years ahead of us that we can do that.” And we want to start it now.”
Penn State is showing no signs of slowing down under Sanderson, so it’s up to the Hawkeyes to narrow the gap, which stood at 44 ½ points when last season ended at the NCAA Championships.
Penn State racked up 141.5 points to withstand Ohio State, which finished second with 134.5 points followed by Iowa in a distant third place with 97 points.
Iowa returns a bulk of its roster and most of its top wrestlers from last season, including defending 125-pound national champion and Pennsylvania native Spencer Lee.
The Hawkeyes also will add some talented newcomers to the lineup, including 133-pounder Austin DeSanto, who was an NCAAA qualifier for Drexel last season, and 149-pounder Pat Lugo, who was redshirted last season after posting a combined record of 63-18 in two seasons at Edinboro.
Redshirt freshman Jacob Warner is also considered a rising star and a force to be reckoned with at 197 pounds.
Combine them with Lee and Marinelli, who finished sixth nationally at 165 pounds last season, and senior heavyweight Sam Stoll and 174-pound junior Michael Kemerer and there is a lot to like about this Iowa wrestling team.
But is there enough firepower to dethrone Penn State? Or at least to have narrowed the gap?
“The challenge is great,” said Iowa coach Tom Brands. “They try to win a national title by as large a margin as possible every year. We try to do the same. We've fell on the short end of that stick. We know we have work to do. We're doing it. It doesn't change how we go to work.”
Tom Brands knows what it takes to build a dynasty because he was part of one at Iowa, first as a competitor under Dan Gable and then as an assistant coach and now as the head coach.
The former three-time NCAA champion and 1996 Olympic gold medalist led Iowa to the national title in each of his first three seasons as head coach from 2007-10, but none since then.
“The challenge is great, and we're up for it,” Tom Brands said. “We're never not up for it. Just got to do a better job. Got to do a better job when it comes to being two, three or four. Two, three or four is easy. One, that's tough. Being one is tough.
“Here is the thing. If you want to be the champion, be the champion. That will narrow the gap in and of itself. So we want to be the champion, so let's just be the champion.”
Part of the challenge with being an Iowa wrestler is trying to live up the expectations that were so common during Gable’s legendary reign as head coach.
There is little to no margin for error due to the monster that Gable created by winning 15 NCAA titles and 21 consecutive Big Ten titles from 1976 to 1997.
Penn State is now showing signs of being this generation’s Iowa, while Sanderson, a former undefeated and four-time NCAA champion at Iowa State, and an Olympic gold medalist, is being described as the second-coming of Gable, who also wrestled for Iowa State and won an Olympic gold medal.
“I don’t really look at what the media and what everybody is saying, but you kind of hear it,” said Michael Kemerer, who placed fourth at 157 pounds at the 2018 NCAA Championships. “It’s hard to avoid it in today’s society. So yeah, I think it’s something that we’re sick of, but at the same time, you can be sick of it, but there’s another thing to do something about it.
“So that’s what we’re focused on right now, to win that national title at the end of the year, and it’s going to take doing the right things right now this time of year and the right things we’ve been doing this whole offseason. And when the time comes and it’s time to step put on the mat, we’ll be ready.”
It is especially hard for Kemerer to avoid the noise about Penn State because he grew up in Pennsylvania and knows many of the Penn State wrestlers.
Spencer Lee is also from Pennsylvania, and like Kemerer, knows many of the Penn State wrestlers personally.
Lee stopped short of saying the season would be a failure without winning a national team title, but he knows what’s at stake and what it'll take to end Penn State’s dominance.
“I’ll take all the motivation I can get,” Lee said when asked if Penn State’s dominance is motivation for him. “They’re guys that we obviously want to be beat and they’re great competitors and they’re all good dudes. I know a lot of them from Pennsylvania.
“So friends off the mat is kind of my motto and go as hard as you can on the mat.”
The thing with wrestling, unlike other team sports, is the best way to win a team title is to focus almost exclusively on yourself. Take care of your own business and the team title will take care of itself.
“Take care of your own business and go out there and put guys in the finals and win national titles,” Marinelli said. “And then we’ve got bonus points. We’ve got pinners on this team, so we can really narrow that gap.”
Marninelli has the kind of mindset and talent that Iowa needs in its quest to reclaim the wrestling throne because he refuses to lower the bar for Iowa wrestling.
And why should he?
Iowa has everything that it takes to be a wrestling power, from talent to facilities to a devoted fan base.
Penn State has all of those things, too, along with a fertile recruiting base.
It basically comes down to a former dynasty trying to topple a current one.
That’s a lot of pressure and responsibility, but you accept that as an Iowa wrestler.
What you don’t accept is finishing second to Penn State, or to any team for that matter, and you use that mindset to grind through the season.
Marinelli is tired of hearing what Iowa could be in wrestling because talk only goes so far.
It’s now time to replace words with action.