Iowa State's NCAA champion David Carr (photo courtesy of Mark Lundy; LutteLens.com)
Almost five years ago, to the day, Iowa State hired Kevin Dresser in hopes that he could bring the storied Cyclone wrestling team back to perennial national contender status. At the time, Dresser had taken Virginia Tech from a program that only claimed five individual All-Americans, prior to his arrival, to a squad that finished fourth in the nation a year earlier, ahead of luminaries like Iowa. The finish was no Cinderella story either; Dresser's Virginia Tech teams tallied top-ten finishes at the previous three NCAA Tournaments, as well.
But resurrecting the Iowa State program was a completely different animal. It's one thing to build at a school with little history and initial expectations. It's another to do so when you receive a large contract to coach in a wrestling-mad state that doesn't tolerate above-average performances.
"Pressure is a privilege" is a quote that Dresser uses frequently and anyone around him for an extended period of time has probably heard. In addition to any self-induced pressure to win, Dresser and Iowa State also have to contend with an Iowa team that dominates the headlines and the recruiting landscape. Look no further than the 2021 fall recruiting period to see how much of a stranglehold the Hawkeyes have in-state. Already boasting a talented future lineup, Iowa managed to get commitments from five top-200 seniors and three top-100 juniorsâ€¦..all are in-state products. That doesn't even include top prospects from Pennsylvania prep power, Wyoming Seminary, as Iowa has one blue-chipper from the next two graduating classes aboard.
If that isn't enough, Iowa has legendary Olympic gold medalist Tom Brands at the helm, the same coach that Dresser antagonized while at Virginia Tech. Dresser's current staff includes a pair of national champions for Brands' in Brent Metcalf and Derek St. John.
For the factors above, and more, it's easy to see that Dresser had the cards stacked against him in trying to revive this Cyclone program. Wednesday night, the nation got to see the Cyclones and Dresser's handiwork up close as Iowa State edged #10 Missouri to finish the regular season with a 15-1 dual record and a perfect mark in the Big 12. Iowa State will finish the dual season, at minimum, ranked fifth in the country, a height that the Cyclones hadn't seen since the 2009-10 season.
Though we celebrate Iowa State today, the turnaround didn't happen overnight. The head coaching position was available because previous head coach, Kevin Jackson, was let go amidst a 1-12 campaign that saw only three ISU wrestlers end up qualifying for nationals. Year one under Dresser didn't go much better as Jarrett Degen, the only wrestler to follow him from Virginia Tech, qualified yet fell a match shy of the podium. The team went 7-10. Perhaps the biggest score from year one was signing blue-chip recruit, David Carr, son of Cyclone legend Nate Carr.
Just a year later, nine Cyclones qualified for the Big Dance. Degen and Missouri transfer Willie Miklus broke into the top-eight. The Iowa State staff resisted the urge to throw Carr into the fire and redshirted him during the 2019-20 campaign. As a result, Chase Straw got the nod at 157 lbs and ended up winning the first Big 12 title under the new regime.
Once again, nine Iowa State wrestlers qualified for nationals in 2020; however, they and 321 other wrestlers were unable to make the trip to Minneapolis due to the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic. Three ISU wrestlers were seeded in the top eight and therefore named NWCA First-Team All-Americans (Ian Parker, Degen, Carr).
Last year was a breakthrough for Iowa State as David Carr went undefeated and claimed the national title at 157 lbs. In doing so, Carr became the Cyclones first individual champion since Kyven Gadson in 2015 and Dresser's first as a head coach. Carr's finish, along with heavyweight Gannon Gremmel making the podium, helped lead Iowa State to a tie for 13th place at the 2021 NCAA Championships.
Despite Carr's finish and return at 157 lbs, national expectations for the Cyclones weren't extremely high this year. Degen was the only other returning All-American and he missed large chunks of the last two years due to injuries. Even with six returning qualifiers and the addition of another in Buffalo-transfer, Sam Schuyler, it didn't look like the Cyclones had the firepower to contend with the top dogs in the Big 12 (Missouri and Oklahoma State), much less nationally.
As recently as December, most observers pegged this Iowa State squad as good, but not great. The Cyclones suffered a 23-11 loss to the hated Hawkeyes and it looked like more of the same in Ames. What we didn't know at the time was that Iowa State wouldn't lose another dual during the 2021-22 season.
The first hint that things may have changed was a January 14th mauling of a Wyoming team that appeared to be solid in dual competition. Iowa State took eight of ten bouts in a 32-6 romp of the Cowboys. It was more of the same against North Dakota State and Oklahoma, both of who have spent time in the national rankings this year, and neither amassed more than nine points. Two days after their win over the Sooners, Dresser's team shocked Oklahoma State, 20-12. Kysen Terukina and Marcus Coleman picked up key wins at 125 and 184 lbs, respectively.
Both Terukina and Coleman have been instrumental in the rise of the Cyclones. Terukina has won 17 of 20 matches and has been a mainstay in the top-20. Last year, Terukina was the lowest-seeded 125 lber at nationals. Coleman seems to have found a home after bouncing between 174-197 during previous years. Like Terukina, Coleman only has three losses on the year and is a bonafide podium threat.
After the OSU win, Iowa State put up lopsided victories over West Virginia and Air Force, before gutting out a tough win against in-state rival Northern Iowa, 16-15.
That set the stage for Wednesday night's dual at #10 Missouri, a team that Iowa State had never beaten under Dresser. Like the UNI bout, the dual came down to the big men and the Cyclones upperweights came through. Friday, it was Schuyler who was clutch for ISU; Wednesday night, it was Yonger Bastida.
The 197 lber Bastida put up a major decision against UNI that accounted for the extra point in a dual that was tied five matches apiece. Last night, Bastida rallied to knock off sixth-ranked Rocky Elam. Bastida's pace forced two late stalling calls, which sent the bout into sudden victory. Quickly, Bastida was able to get in on a low leg attack and takedown the normally stingy Elam, for an 8-6 win. His victory ensured that Missouri would need to post a major decision just to have a chance. That wasn't the case as the Tigers Zach Elam defeated Schuyler, 2-0.
The Missouri win gives Dresser's team an 8-0 conference record for the year and extends their winning streak to 13 matches.
Next on the docket for the Cyclones is their "Last Chance Open," on Sunday, before the Big 12 Championships two weeks from now. Iowa State currently has all ten of its starters ranked in InterMat's national rankings.
In Detroit, at the NCAA Championships, Iowa State will attempt to break into the top-ten for the first time under Dresser and the first time in over a decade (2009-10), which seems like an eternity for a school with eight NCAA team titles in their trophy case and five NCAA trophy finishes between 2000-10.