If he had lost, we may have never known what an accomplishment that Iowa senior Spencer Lee achieved Saturday at the 2021 NCAA Division I national championships in St. Louis.
But, of course, he won. Lee won his third national title at 125 pounds, extended his individual winning streak to 35 matches and did it with a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee.
The Hawkeyes won their first national championship since 2011 and the 24th in the program’s illustrious history. Penn State, which had won the last four NCAA tournaments, had four national champions and finished second behind Iowa, 129½ to 113 points.
Nine men won national championships for the first time including Stanford sophomore Shane Griffith, whose victory at 165 pounds signaled the end of the Cardinal program after 116 years. Wrestling is one of 11 sports that the school said they would be eliminating last July.
Supporters of the program said they have raised $12.5 million, which is enough to endow the program they said. All of the Cardinal wrestlers, including Griffin in the national finals, wore black singlets with no school logos on them in protest of the school’s decision. The Stanford coaching staff dressed in black, too.
With a 6-2 victory over Pittsburgh’s Jake Wentzel, Griffin, who was the No. 8 seed, became just the second national champion in the program’s history.
“(The decision to end the program) played a good role throughout the season. We all goals before the season but this (decision) filled the tank just trying to prove them wrong,” Griffin said.
Griffin (11-1, 35-1 career) beat top-seeded Alex Marinelli of Iowa in the quarterfinals in overtime, 3-1 and got a takedown and near fall with about a minute remaining in his championship match to beat Wentzel.
Griffin was named the tournament’s most outstanding wrestler.
Penn State went 4-for-4 in the finals but didn’t have enough help from the rest of their lineup to beat Iowa.
“Obviously, we needed a little more of a team effort,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said. “You have to more points and score. You can tell how good Iowa is. They competed well and won a lot of matches. We’re just grateful to be here. It’s been a crazy year for everyone.”
The Nittany Lions saw junior Roman Bravo-Young (133), senior Nick Lee (141), freshman Carter Starocci (174) and sophomore Aaron Brooks (184) bring home individual titles.
Bravo-Young beat to-seeded Daton Fix of Oklahoma State in overtime with a quick takedown. Bravo-Young led 2-0 in the third period before being hit with a pair of stalling calls in the final 40 seconds to force OT.
Lee also won in overtime with a 4-2 win over top-seeded Jaydin Eierman of Iowa. Early in OT, it was Lee with a high shot for the takedown tying up Eierman’s arms and tripping him to the mat for the win.
Starocci won in overtime with a win over top-seeded Michael Kemerer of Iowa, 3-1. Similar to Bravo-Young and Lee, it was Starocci with the good shot early in overtime, taking control of Kemerer at the waist and picking him off the mat for the match-winning takedown.
Brooks didn’t have to go to overtime to beat No. 2 Trent Hidlay of North Carolina State but it went right to the end. Trailing by one, Hidlay escaped early in the third period to tie the match at 2-2. Hidlay was penalized for stalling with 48 seconds left and came close to a takedown in the final 20 seconds but Brooks was able to successfully defend.
And then there was Spencer Lee, Iowa’s two-time defending NCAA champion at 125. He won it in 2018 and 2019. He tore an ACL in his knee in the finals in the 2019 NCAA tournament and kept it to himself.
Immediately after beating Arizona State’s Brandon Courtney in the championship match, 7-0, Lee told ESPN that he had torn his ACL eight days ago. He didn’t really want to reveal this saying, “Excuses are for wusses.”
But he admitted, “It was a tough tournament for me. I could barely wrestle. I could barely shoot. I can’t spawl.”
A few minutes later, Lee was having second thoughts about revealing his injury.
“I’m kinda upset I told the world,” he said. But one of the reasons was to illuminate the work and sacrifice that all wrestlers, including his teammates, endure to compete.
Lee looked pretty good for an athlete with a torn ACL. He won five matches, three by major decision and one by tech fall. He gave up eight points in the tournament and none in the semifinals or finals.
“It was hard,” he admitted. “I didn’t know if I could wrestle. We talked about medical forfeits a few times. But I said, I am going to lose, I will lose my way. And if I had lost, I probably wouldn’t have said anything.
“You have to win no matter what is wrong with you and no matter what is going on. That is what defines a champion,” he said.
Lee said he hopes to attend the U.S. Olympic Trials in Texas in two weeks but it taking it day-to-day.
“There are a lot of ways to win wrestling matches. (Spencer Lee) has some fresh injuries. But there is the toughness factor. When it is time to show up, he is for real,” Iowa coach Tom Brand said.
Iowa went 1-for-3 in the finals but won the tournament with seven All-Americans and five victories from the three wrestlers that did not place.
“It’s been 11 years since a real important trophy has been in Iowa City,” Brand said. “It’s a night to enjoy. Our fan base has craved this and this wasn’t automatic. It was earned.”
— NCAA Wrestling (@ncaawrestling) March 21, 2021
MORE NOTES: North Carolina State’s Jakob Camacho (Danbury) lost his first match of the tournament to finalist Brandon Courtney of Arizona State, 4-2 in the quarterfinals. … Cheshire’s Nick Grosso, officiating in his third NCAA Division I tournament, was the lead official in the 174 pound final when Penn State’s Carter Starocci beat top-seeded Michael Kemerer of Iowa, 3-1 in overtime. … Jesse Dellavecchia (157) was Rider’s first-ever finalist. Dellavecchia wrestled for Binghamton in 2016 and left the school after that season. Once he was ready to return, he contacted several schools but only Rider offered him a scholarship. The rest said he could be a walk-on. In the last three years, he is 67-10 with 11 straight wins this season before losing to Iowa State’s David Carr in the final at 157, 4-0.
2021 NCAA Division I championships
At St. Louis
Top 10 team results: 1. Iowa 129, 2. Penn State 113½, 3. Oklahoma State 99½, 4. Arizona State 74, 5. Michigan 69, 6. North Carolina State 68, 7. Minnesota and Missouri 64, 9. Ohio State 46½, 10. Northwestern 45
Final: Spencer Lee (Iowa) dec. Brandon Courtney (Arizona State), 7-0
3. Patrick McKee (Minnesota) dec. Drew Hildebrandt (Central Michigan) 5-3
5. Taylor LaMont (Utah Valley) dec. Sam Latona (Virginia Tech) 4-1
7. Killian Cardinale (West Virginia) dec. Eric Barnett (Wisconsin) 12-7
Final: Roman Bravo-Young (Penn State) dec. Daton Fix (Oklahoma State) 4-2, OT
3. Austin DeSanto (Iowa) dec. Korbin Myers (Virginia Tech) 10-6
5. Lucas Byrd (Illinois) pin Michael McGee (Arizona State) 6:17
7. Chris Cannon (Northwestern) dec. Louie Hayes (Virginia) 11-3
Final: Nick Lee (Penn State) dec. Jaydin Eierman (Iowa) 4-2 OT
3. Tariq Wilson (NC State) dec. Sebastian Rivera (Rutgers) 15-5
5. Dylan Duncan (Illinois) dec. Chad Red (Nebraska) 3-0
7. Zachary Sherman (North Carolina) dec. Clay Carlson (South Dakota State) 11-4
Final: Austin O`Connor (North Carolina) dec. Sammy Sasso (Ohio State) 3-2
3. Yahya Thomas (Northwestern) dec. Boo Lewallen (Oklahoma State) 5-3
5. Brock Mauller (Missouri) dec. Kyle Parco (Fresno State) 8-5
7. Jaden Abas (Stanford) dec. Jonathan Millner (Appalachian State) 5-3
Final: David Carr (Iowa State) dec. Jesse Dellavecchia (Rider) 4-0
3. Ryan Deakin (Northwestern) dec. Jacori Teemer (Arizona State) 1-0
5. Hayden Hidlay (NC State) dec. Brayton Lee (Minnesota) 11-2
7. Kaleb Young (Iowa) dec. Wyatt Sheets (Oklahoma State) 3-2
Final: Shane Griffith (Stanford) dec. Jake Wentzel (Pittsburgh) 6-2
3. Keegan O`Toole (Missouri) dec. Travis Wittlake (Oklahoma State) 4-3
5. Ethan Smith (Ohio State) dec. Zach Hartman (Bucknell) 7-5. OT
7. Cameron Amine (Michigan) forfeit over Anthony Valencia (Arizona State)
Final: Carter Starocci (Penn State) dec. Michael Kemerer (Iowa) 3-1 OT
3. Mikey Labriola (Nebraska) dec. Bernie Truax (Cal Poly) 8-3
5. Logan Massa (Michigan) medical forfeit Demetrius Romero (Utah Valley)
7. Daniel Bullard (NC State) medical forfeit Jackson Turley (Rutgers)
Final: Aaron Brooks (Penn State) dec. Trent Hidlay (NC State), 3-2
3. Parker Keckeisen (Northern Iowa) dec. John Poznanski (Rutgers) 5-4
5. Dakota Geer (Oklahoma State) dec. Brit Wilson (Northern Illinois) 6-0
7. Hunter Bolen (Virginia Tech) dec. Lou Deprez (Binghamton) 6-3
Final: A.J. Ferrari (Oklahoma State) dec. Nico Bonaccorsi (Pittsburgh), 4-2
3. Myles Amine (Michigan) dec. Jacob Warner (Iowa) 5-3
5. Rocky Elam (Missouri) dec. Jake Woodley (Oklahoma) 9-3
7. Michael Beard (Penn State) dec. Stephen Buchanan (Wyoming) 10-8 OT
Final: Gable Stevenson (Minnesota) dec. Mason Parris (Michigan), 8-4
3. Tony Cassioppi (Iowa) dec. Cohlton Schultz (Arizona State) 5-0
5. Gannon Gremmel (Iowa State) dec. Trent Hillger (Wisconsin) 4-0
7. Greg Kerkvliet (Penn State) dec. Tate Orndorff (Ohio State) 13-1