No NCAA title? No problem. Why Iowa wrestling still feels historic

Last Thursday, Iowa wrestlers were in the middle of practice when they heard footsteps. Star 165-pounder Alex Marinelli looked up briefly and saw the last person he wanted to walk into the wrestling room that day: his wife, Moriah.

Moriah, Iowa’s director of wrestling operations, had a piece of paper in her hands. He couldn’t even make eye contact with her — Marinelli knew what it must say. “We’re not wrestling,” he said under his breath.

Hawkeyes wrestlers had come to practice that day knowing that the NBA had just suspended its season indefinitely, so there was an air of inevitability in the room as they tried to push each other in one of the last practices before NCAA championships. The paper in Moriah’s hands was an email from school officials saying NCAAs were off for the foreseeable future, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Iowa’s chance at running the table — unbeaten dual season, Big Ten champs and NCAA champs for the first time since 2010 — was gone. “They were going to win NCAAs and it was realistic they’d have had all 10 guys be All-Americans,” said Christian Pyles, managing editor of the sport’s preeminent source, “It was the kind of team and season we rarely see. Iowa wrestling was back and as good as ever.”

Coach Tom Brands read the note to the team and gave everybody the option of finishing practice or leaving. He encouraged everybody to take some time to mourn the loss, but also emphasized that once the wrestlers got their heads around the decision, it was time to move on. “Don’t give self-pity any credibility,” he said. “This is the right thing for society — it’s bigger than sporting events. You were robbed of history, but let’s be forward-looking and stay in the here and now.”

But the here and now hurt.

It hit Marinelli especially hard, for reasons that went way beyond wrestling. He and Moriah Stickley met as junior high kids in Ohio and fell for each other right away. Marinelli wrestled alongside her twin brother, Eli, at powerhouse program St. Paris Graham. Eli went off to wrestle at Wisconsin when high school was over. Moriah and Alex went to Iowa together, where she became the team manager before taking the director of ops job.

In July 2018, Alex asked the Stickley family to come to Iowa for a surprise engagement party because he wanted to propose to Moriah. But on the drive, Eli’s car veered off the road and rolled, killing him on impact. When Moriah’s parents called to tell her and Alex the news, Moriah was confused about why they were all driving to Iowa City. A teammate who was with them that day, 157-pounder Kaleb Young, said to Alex, “You have to tell her.”

So he did. “She was in so much pain that she just kept saying, ‘What?’ over and over again,” Marinelli said later. “Then we had to get in the car and go to the hospital.”

After the accident, Alex found Eli’s journals. “Every day with them is a good day,” he wrote about his sister and her boyfriend. And he talked about the value of visualizing goals, writing key words such as “Believe” and “NCAA champion” hundreds of times throughout. Alex was struck by how after many of his journal entries, Eli would sign his name, like it was an official, notarized promise to himself. After his death, Alex and Moriah, who got married last July, printed hats that say “Live passionately” and “bELIeve,” and went so far as to replicate Eli’s signature from the journal on the hat. Throughout the 2019-20 season, Marinelli would think about Eli and write “NCAA champion” on pieces of paper, too. “I adopted pretty much Eli’s entire mental game,” Marinelli said. (Alex and Eli’s story was captured earlier this year in a moving documentary from the Big Ten Network.)

This season was Marinelli’s chance to reverse a rough ending to last year. He went 23-0 in 2018-19 to earn the No. 1 seed at 165 pounds but stumbled at NCAAs to finish seventh. He’s been a key cog in Iowa’s resurgence this season. The Hawkeyes went from No. 2 at the beginning of the season behind Penn State, winners of eight of the previous nine NCAA championships, to a historic sweep of every major accomplishment possible in college wrestling.

The cancellation of NCAAs took away that last official chance for wrestling’s biggest blueblood program to show the world that it was again cement-solid after a decade of good-but-not-great finishes. Marinelli knew he needed to take time to grieve with Moriah — the goal of an NCAA title was theirs, not just his — but that would have to come later. “That moment hurt, but my teammates needed me,” he said. “So when Moriah came in with the paper, I tried to stay strong and console whoever needed it.”

Spencer Lee, probably the nation’s most dominant wrestler, dropped onto his butt and bowed his head as Brands made the announcement. The junior was in the middle of a Joe Burrow-type season, mauling everybody in front of him en route to a likely third national title, with a good shot of becoming only the fifth wrestler to ever go 4-for-4. He left the room to compose himself, then came back a few minutes later and kept practicing. “I was sad but it was time to start thinking, ‘What’s next?'” Lee said. “The only thing I can control is getting ready to win my next match, whenever that is.”

Pat Lugo, the only senior in the starting lineup, went right back to drilling for 10 minutes before he looked at his partner and said, “I can’t do this.” He went to the locker room and sat down by himself and thought, Am I done with wrestling?

Michael Kemerer stopped practicing but hung around and rallied some of his teammates to go to Young’s house — the team’s hub, good days or bad — later that night to eat, play Madden and start to move on. Kemerer and Young, both Pennsylvania recruits, are widely credited as the guys who helped transform the Iowa culture when they arrived. “It wasn’t a bad atmosphere when we got there,” Kemerer said. “The standard always was and always will be to win national titles. There just used to be a lot of guys talking more about the nightlife and the dating scene than winning titles.”

On that night, Lugo said he wanted to be by himself, but many others showed up at Young’s house and stayed all evening. They ate steak and chicken parm and made jokes about “pulling a UCF” and just declaring themselves national champs. But no one was serious. “It wasn’t a pity party and we’re not going to be having a pity party,” Kemerer said. “You can’t take away what we did this year. We accomplished everything we wanted to do and everything we could do.”

They all take their cues from Brands, a three-time NCAA champ at Iowa and 1996 Olympic gold medalist. Brands is not someone who spends a lot of time dwelling on what could have been. A few days ago, Brands was walking out of Carver-Hawkeye Arena, past all the wrestling championship banners, when he found himself deep in conversation … with himself.

“We’re not gonna get to hang another banner,” he said out loud. Nobody else was around because campus had been shut down. But then he grabbed ahold of himself.

“It’s way bigger than wrestling, Brands,” Brands said back to Brands. “Get your thumb out of your mouth.”

That’s Marinelli’s mentality, too. Even if he doesn’t get an added year from the NCAA — something all four wrestlers in this story support and would take — Marinelli still has one last shot at an NCAA championship next year. He went to Young’s house the night of the announcement and helped funnel the tone toward acceptance of this season and excitement about the next. To a man, Brands and each wrestler said they’d done everything they could do this season in dominant fashion, and they can live with having run the table and entering 2020-21 as the favorite to run it again. “We’re going to be really good,” Marinelli said. “And hungry. We need that completeness.”

He uses that word a lot. His story is “not complete yet.” Iowa’s story “hasn’t been completed.” “There is work to be completed still.”

He left Young’s house last Thursday at around 10 p.m. and knew what was coming. He still hadn’t put his head together with Moriah and really, truly grieved the loss with her. When he walked through the door, she immediately said, “I’m sorry. I love you, and you’ll be an NCAA champion someday.”

They both broke down then. They thought about Eli, and how Alex would have to keep writing “NCAA champion” on paper over and over again for another year. But both he and Moriah love visualization exercises as much as Eli used to, so now they began to dream about how they want next year to end.

It goes something like this: Marinelli wins the national title and jumps into the arms of his coaches. Then he will bound off the stage to do the mandatory ESPN interview that beams out on TV and the big screen in the arena. After that, he’ll gather with his teammates and read a speech that he wrote as a freshman and handed to Brands to keep in his office until he actually did it. He knows the speech is loaded with clichés, but he wants younger Iowa guys to hear about the importance of setting specific goals and writing them down, that hard work beats talent, and that you’ll learn more from losses than wins.

And finally he has a long hug with Moriah. He’s wearing his black “bELIeve” hat as they walk out of the arena later that night. Eli will be in his head when a kid asks for an autograph, and he will write “bELIeve. NCAA champion,” sign his name, and the day will feel complete.

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