Iowa wrestling head coach Tom Brands famously said in an On The Mat episode last year, “Spencer Lee said it best, and still says it best, Penn State was the easy choice, Iowa was the right choice,” Bands said of Lee’s somewhat surprising college commitment to wrestle at Iowa, which Lee announced back in April in 2016. “I’m not saying that’s the case for everybody, but that’s how we started to recruit (Pennsylvania).”
Friday, the No. 1 Iowa Hawkeyes’ season-opening dual against Big Ten foe No. 6 Nebraska will take place at 9 p.m. in Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City. The meet can be seen on Big Ten Network.
Now three seasons into his college career, few would argue that attending Iowa wasn’t the right decision for the three-time PIAA State Champion and former Franklin Regional standout, who fished his prep career with a nearly perfect record of 144-1. Lee lost his final high school match in the state finals to Exeter’s Austin DeSanto, who now wrestles alongside Lee at Iowa.
Under the tutelage of Tom and Terry Brands, Lee is currently putting together put together one of the most prolific college wrestling careers the sport has ever seen.
In 2017, after removing his redshirt a month into his freshman season, Lee stormed to 22-2 record (going 8-0 in dual competition and 6-0 in Big Ten duals) en route to being crowned a NCAA champion, winning first career title at 125 pounds, which also earned him All-America honors. Similarly, he performed his best on the biggest stage, scoring team bonus points in four of his five NCAA matches, which earned the freshman phenom USA Wrestling’s Athlete of the Week distinction. By placing third at Big Ten Championships, he was given Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors, which complemented his multiple additional awards given on behalf of various wrestling media outlets.
As a sophomore, the wrestling world saw more of the same from the lightweight. On the way to achieving NCAA champion and All-America status at 125 pounds for the second consecutive season, Lee put together a 23-3 overall record, including a perfect 7-0 mark in Big Ten duals. He bested his Big Ten conference finish of third a year ago to finish second in 2019. And, yet again looked outstanding in the NCAA Championships, outscoring opponents 55-7 in five matches for the 125-pound title.
While Lee’s junior season didn’t end with a third NCAA title (the 2020 NCAA Championship were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic) it almost certainly would have. In 2020 Lee put together the most complete season of his collegiate career. His efforts were downright Herculean and Lee was simply unstoppable. And, statistically speaking, Lee’s numbers were jaw-dropping.
The following is based on Lee’s 15 regular season matches and does not include his three bouts at the conference tournament (data collected by Richard Mann, InterMat Senior Writer).
Points per minute
Lee ranked first in match points scored per minute among Big Ten starters. He scored 3.64 points per minute. No. 6 Devin Schroder (Purdue) was second in the category with only 1.72. The average among Big Ten starters was 1.15.
Points against per minute
Giving up 16 points over 15 matches, it’s obvious that Lee is elite defensively. Lee allowed five points in his season-opening match against Fabian Gutierrez (Chattanooga). Over the next 14 bouts, he allowed opponents to score just eight points total against him. Three of those points came in his major decision victory over No. 4 Nick Piccininni (Oklahoma State). In between the Gutirrez and Piccininni matches Lee pitched 10 shutouts – not allowing a single point to be tallied against him. This means that Lee has allowed his opponents to only score 0.26 points per minute. Comparatively, the average for a Big Ten starter was more than twice as high at 0.68.
Since Lee far outpaced the conference in terms of both points per minute (more three times the conference average) and points against per minute (more than two times the conference average), it’s a given that he also had the best point differential on the year (match points scored per minute minus points against per minute). His +3.38 differential was more than seven times the average for a Big Ten starter (+0.47).
Average match length (without forfeits)
Lee has scored eight technical falls and three falls on the year. Only his three matches against Gutierrez, Piccininni and No. 17 Jack Medley (Michigan) went the distance – a full seven minutes. His quickest victory of the year came when he scored a 52-second fall over Christian Moody (Oklahoma) at the Midlands Championships. As a result, the average match for Lee gone only went 3:33. The next shortest average match time among starters is 5:45 (Schroder) and the average for a Big Ten starter was 6:10.
Saved time (without forfeits)
Understandably, with 11 of his regular seasons matches ending early, without wrestling far into the final two periods, Lee has saved himself more than 48 minutes, roughly seven full matches worth of live action wrestling last season.
At the conference tournament last year, Lee finally became a 125-pound Big Ten champion. At Big Ten’s, he was a perfect 3-0. His victories included a first period fall, a 19-3 technical fall and a 16-2 major decision to claim his first Big Ten title.
While COVID-19 took away Lee’s chance for a third consecutive national championship, 2020 was his best year thus far. The Hawkeye finished the season 18-0 (with 17 bonus-point victories), outscoring those opponents 234-18 on the year, which helped Lee become an All-American, a Big Ten Champion, and the top seed at the 2020 NCAA Championships. His dominance allowed Lee to take home significant hardware and accolades off the mat, including the Hodge Trophy (wrestling’s Heisman Trophy); James E. Sullivan Award; NCAA Most Dominant Wrestler; and Big Ten Wrestler of the Year.
Midnight words of wisdom: "The greatest sports program I have ever seen in my 50 years of sports journalism, with two of my favorite people in the history of wrestling running the show, Tom and Terry Brands…" pic.twitter.com/J1gTenlkyF
— Iowa Hawkeye Wrestling (@Hawks_Wrestling) January 8, 2021
Having won both the AAU Sullivan and the Hodge Trophy Lee has placed himself in a league of his own. Lee is just the fifth wrestler in the history of the award to be recognized. He joins Bruce Baumgartner, Rulon Gardner, John Smith and Kyle Snyder as past amateur wrestling award winners. However, Lee is the only of those five fine wrestlers to also have a Hodge Trophy in his likely very large trophy case.
And still, Lee is hungry for more. It’s not lost on the reigning two-time national champion that he is the only wrestler to be awarded a Hodge Trophy without also winning the NCAA title that same year – an oddity that he hopes to rectify with a repeat performance this year in 2021.
Also in 2020, Lee competed (and succeeded) on the international circuit. He won the U.S. Senior Nationals to earn a spot at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials. At Senior Nationals, Lee was 5-0 and outscored opponents 52-8 during those contests.
As the data shows, Lee took the mantra, “work smarter, not harder” to heart last year. While COVID-19 brought his season to an end prematurely, Spencer Lee’s 2020 is sure to go down as one of greatest collegiate wrestlers ever.
In October 2020, the NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility to winter athletes due to the last season being cut short. In doing so, Lee has two years of eligibility remaining at Iowa. Thus, the rare feat of becoming just the fifth four-time NCAA champion the sport has ever seen remains possible. In fact, should Lee earn a third title this year, Lee will become just the 27th three-time NCAA champion. With a potential four-peat in his sights in 2022, he would be just the fifth collegiate wrestler to win four individual NCAA goal medals – and the first in the history of the Iowa program.
While having the opportunity to watch an elite, once-in-a-generation type of talent compete should be enough of a reason to tune in to watch the Hawkeyes on not only Friday against No. 6 Nebraska, but also the six other matches that will appear on the Big Ten Network this season, here are five more reasons to watch:
- Fellow Franklin Regional and WPIAL standout Michael Kemerer also competes for Iowa. The Hawkeye 174-pounder, currently the consensus No. 1 at the weight, is poised to make a run at a national title of his own.
- In addition to Lee and Kemerer, there are three other studs on the roster who hail from the Keystone State: Austin DeSanto (133); Max Murin (141); and Kaleb Young (157). Four of those five Pennsylvanians come from the Young Guns wrestling club in Murrysville, Pa. Young Guns is the premier youth wrestling club in the country, directed by Iowa wrestling alums Eric Juergens and Jody Strittmatter.
- Iowa has one of the most complete teams in college wrestling. There are has 11 ranked in the top eight of the national polls, more than any other team. Penn State and Michigan have six wrestlers ranked eighth or better. Iowa have 11 due to the fact that sophomores Abe Assad (InterMat) and Nelson Brands (Trackwrestling) are both ranked eighth at 184 pounds in a national poll. Assad was a second-team All-American last season and will likely get the nod to start at the weight.
- The Hawkeyes have three wrestlers ranked at the top of their respective weight class. Spencer Lee (125), Jaydin Eierman (141) and Michael Kemerer (174) all hold the No. 1. Ranking.
- The 2021 team race between with the Nittany Lions – who have won eight of the last nine team crowns – is expected to be closer than it has been in quite some time. With that, the reigning Big Ten Champion Hawks are expected to win their first team national title since 2010, and 24th in program history.
Here are six things to be on the lookout for Friday night:
- Watch for the Black and Gold to win and win big. Iowa leads the all-time series 33-10-1 and has won the last 11 meetings. The Hawkeyes are 15-3 all-time against the Huskers in Iowa City and won the most recent meeting in Iowa City, 26-6, in 2020. Tom Brnds is 11-0 all-time against Nebraska. Nebraska’s last win in the series was a 24-13 victory at the National Duals on Nov. 19, 2005. The Huskers’ last win in Iowa City was in 1937.
- Expect the streaks to stay alive. Iowa has won 13 straight overall, 16 straight at home and 18 consecutive Big Ten duals. The Hawkeyes’ 13-dual winning streak is the second longest active streak in the country behind North Carolina State (19). Iowa’s 16-dual winning streak at Carver-Hawkeye Arena is its longest since winning 16 straight from 2012-14. The last time Iowa won 17 straight at Carver was in the midst of a 38-dual winning streak from 2008-12. The Hawkeyes’ last loss at Carver-Hawkeye Arena was Jan. 27, 2018 (19-17 versus No. 7 Michigan). Iowa’s Big Ten winning streak is its longest since winning 24 straight from 2014-17.
- A talented duo of Iowa freshmen Bretli Reyna and Patrick Kennedy are listed in Iowa’s probable lineup. Should they get the start, they will be making their college debuts.
- Senior Jaydin Eierman will also make his much-anticipated Hawkeye debut. Eierman transferred to Iowa in 2020 from the University of Missouri, where he was a three-time All-American. Eierman placed fifth at the NCAA Championships as a freshman, fourth as a sophomore and third as a junior in 2019. He used an Olympic redshirt in 2019-20. Eierman has a career record of 89-11. He was the 2019 MAC Wrestler of the Year and 2017 MAC Freshman of the Year.
- There could be as many as four top-10 matchups. They would be at 141, 174, 184 and 197. At 141 pounds, Iowa’s top-ranked Jaydin Eierman could meet No. 7 Chad Red. It would be the first meeting between the two. At 174 pounds, Iowa’s top-ranked Michael Kemerer could meet No. 4 Mike Labriola. Kemerer defeated Labiola, 3-1, in their only previous meeting on Jan. 18, 2020, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. At 184 pounds, Iowa’s eighth-ranked Nelson Brands could meet No. 6 Taylor Venz. It would be the first career meeting between the two. Brands would be making his Big Ten dual debut.
At 197 pounds, Iowa’s third-ranked Jacob Warner could meet No. 2 Eric Shultz. Warner owns a 2-1 edge in the series, defeating Shultz 4-1 at a 2019 dual and 7-5 in sudden victory at the 2019 NCAA Championships. Shultz won the last meeting, 3-1, in a 2020 dual at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
- Expect Lee to dominate. The senior is 18-0 all-time at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. In Lee’s 18 home wins, he has four pins, eight technical falls and three major decisions. Five of the wins are against top 10 opponents.
After Friday night, the Hawkeyes will be back in action Friday, Jan. 22 when they travel to Minneapolis to face the Golden Gophers (0-1, 0-1 Big Ten). While a time for the match has yet to be set, the dual will air on Big Ten Network.