Spencer Lee continues to lead Iowa's rise back to wrestling dominance with his individual dominance

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Spencer Lee

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Hardly, is it a coincidence that the Iowa wrestling team’s long-awaited return to dominance is happening with Spencer Lee leading the way.

The Pennsylvania native has helped to reenergize the Iowa program, much like Tom and Terry Brands did when they became Hawkeyes under Dan Gable in the late 1980s.

Iowa had gone four years in a row from 1987-90 without winning a national title under Gable, including a disappointing sixth-place finish in 1989, and the program needed a boost.

But then the feisty and talented twins from Sheldon joined the Iowa program and helped restore dominance, winning five individual national titles between them, and helping to lead Iowa to the national team title during their junior and senior seasons in 1991 and 1992.

Lee has yet to match that impact from a team standpoint, but there are multiple signs that it could be close to happening, the latest being his, and Iowa’s dominance, at the 2020 Big Ten Championships at the Rutgers Activity Center in Piscataway, N.J.

Lee was among three Iowa wrestlers who won individual titles as the Hawkeyes cruised to the team championship, compiling 157.5 points.

It was Iowa’s 36th consecutive team title, but only its first outright conference title since 2010.

Lee improved to 18-0 on the season and now marches on to the NCAA Championships as the prohibitive favorite to make it a three-peat at his weight.

Iowa is also the prohibitive favorite to win its first national team title since 2010, and will enter the National Championships on March 19-21 in Minneapolis with Lee as the face of the program, and as arguably the most dominant wrestler at any weight.

“The Big Ten is the best conference and we’re improving every year,” Lee said, “Nationals is what matters, though. We’re focused on that.”

Tom Brands had the same message when asked by the Big Ten Network what he was most proud about his team’s performance.

“They know we’ve got work to do, how’s that? Brands said.

Lee won by a fall in the quarterfinals, by a technical fall in the semifinals and by major decision in the championship match on Sunday.

“This guy is the guy that really stirs the drink for the Hawkeyes,” said Jim Gibbons, the former Iowa State head coach and former national champion, who now works as a color analyst for the Big Ten Network.

Iowa’s other Big Ten titles came from senior Pat Lugo at 149 pounds, and from junior Alex Marinelli, who defended his conference title at 165 pounds against Penn State two-time national champion Vincenzo Joseph by a 3-2 margin.

Joseph had handed Marinelli his only loss during the regular season, a 7-5 decision on Jan. 31 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Senior Michael Kemerer also finished runner-up at 174 pounds on Sunday, losing 8-5 to Penn State’s Mark Hall in the title match, and reversing the outcome from the regular season when Kemerer defeated Hall 11-6 in a match that was key to Iowa’s 19-17 victory.

“I’ve been saying all year, it’s Kemerer, Marinelli and Lee, and we put Lugo in there, and we got six other guys that are going for championships, and they train the right way and live the right way and we love it,” Tom Brands said on the Big ten Network.

Nebraska finished second in the team standings with 132 points, followed Ohio State and Penn State with 112 and 107 points, respectively.

Penn State has won eight of the last nine national titles under legendary head coach Cael Sanderson, but the Nittany Lions don’t seem to have quite enough depth and firepower to match Iowa this season.

But that still has to be determined on the biggest stage.

Lee, not surprisingly, was named the Big Ten Wrestler of the Year, adding to his burgeoning legend, and to his incredible story.

Because imagine if the circumstances were reversed and Lee had grown up in Iowa, but then chose to wrestle for Penn State.

It took a lot of guts, moxie, and some might say nerve, for Lee to turn down a chance to wrestle for a dynasty in his home state so he could wrestler for that dynasty’s biggest rival halfway across the country.

Lee did what he felt was in his best interest, and so far, it’s hard to argue with the results.

Lee is halfway to becoming Iowa’s first four-time national champion at any weight, and he finally lifted the Big Ten weight off his back after having finished third and second at the conference meet as a freshman and sophomore, respectively.

Lee didn’t just win the Big Ten title at 125 pounds this weekend, he steamrolled his competition with a combination of talent, focus and a motor that doesn’t stop.

Lee told the media this past week that he gets nervous before every match regardless of the circumstances.

He gets nervous because he respects every opponent, and that is the first step in winning.

But imagine how his opponents must feel in the moments before a match.

Wrestlers are the ultimate competitors and are taught to fear nothing.

But they’re also human, so you have to wonder how confident Lee’s opponents are when they step on the mat to face him.

Away from the mat, Lee is polite and engaging, unless you ask him to make bold statements or predictions, or to look in the past.

Lee has a better chance of landing on Mars than on an opponent’s bulletin board because he is too smart to take the bait, but also because of his humility and his respect for the sport.

As great as Cael Sanderson has been for Penn State, and for the sport of wrestling overall, it makes sense why Lee chose to be a Hawkeye.

He competes at a smaller weight as did both Tom and Terry Brands during their illustrious careers.

Lee felt that Iowa was a better fit than Penn State, and much of it had to do with the influence of Tom and Terry Brands.

Iowa didn’t need to overhaul its culture, but it needed a spark from a transcendent performer in order to climb back to Penn State’s level, and beyond, and that describes Spencer Lee.

The fact that he is from Pennsylvania, as is Kemerer, just makes Iowa’s rise that much more intriguing.

Team standings

1. Iowa, 157.5

2. Nebraska, 132

3. Ohio State, 112

4. Penn State, 107

5. Purdue, 83.

6. Northwestern, 79.5

7. Michigan, 73.0

8. Minnesota, 63.4

9. Wisconsin, 62.5

10. Michigan State, 57

11. Illinois, 49

12. Rutgers, 25.5

13. Indiana, 14.5

14. Maryland 0.0