IOWA CITY – Topher Carton remembers the conversation well.
It was exactly what he wanted to hear.
Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands was recruiting Carton, then a senior at Davenport Assumption, to join the Hawkeye program.
The only thing Brands promised during a home visit was a lot of hard work and a chance to make a difference in one of the nation’s elite college wrestling programs.
“He didn’t sugarcoat anything. I’d have to earn whatever I would ultimately get,’’ Carton said. “Some guys, they want to be told they’ll be the guy, they’ll move into the lineup right away, all that stuff. I could have gone to places like that, but I wouldn’t be the wrestler I know I can be.’’
The journey has been lengthy, and on occasions it has been frustrating, but earning a spot in the Hawkeye lineup at 141 pounds as a senior has made it all worthwhile for Carton.
“There is still more work to do, and that’s where my focus is. Iowa hasn’t had an all-American at 141 since Montell Marion in 2012. He was my host on my recruiting visit here. We’re overdue,’’ Carton said.
The first step in the last leg of the journey begins Saturday when the Hawkeyes begin competition at the Big Ten Championships hosted by Indiana.
The meet is a qualifier for the NCAA Championships which begin March 16 in St. Louis and ultimately, that is where Carton expects to be.
He expects to earn his way there, something he has gotten used to since his arrival at Iowa following high school career which saw him combine for a 175-2 record and earn state championships in both Illinois and Iowa while splitting time between the programs at Rock Island Alleman and Assumption.
“You walk into the wrestling room here and everybody in the room has the same type of record and has had the same type of successes in high school,’’ Carton said. “It’s back to square one, having to earn everything all over again.’’
Carton felt he was prepared for that, but there have been moments.
“You wonder if it’s ever going to happen. It was frustrating at times, but you keep working to push yourself forward,’’ Carton said. “I never lost faith in my abilities to make it happen.’’
Carton appreciated the blunt honesty of his coaches as well.
“Coach Brands has always told me what I needed to hear, not necessarily what I wanted to hear,’’ Carton said. “He’s a little like my father that way and honestly, I think that has been for the best. It’s given me a chance to do what I’ve been able to do this season.’’
Carton takes a 21-6 record into the Big Ten tourney and nine of his last 14 matches this season have been against wrestlers ranked in the top 20 in the nation.
He’s won four of those matches against rated competition, earning his first win against a top-10 opponent in his most recent rated challenge against Nebraska’s Colton McCrystal two weeks ago.
All six of his losses this season have been to ranked opponents, including three one-point decisions.
Carton’s record also includes five pins, one technical fall and five major decisions.
“It’s been great enjoying the experiences that I’ve been able to have this season,’’ Carton said. “Being out there in front of the crowd in Carver, hearing them, feeling the energy they bring, that’s something I’ll never forget.’’
He doesn’t forget the lessons learned which created the opportunity he now enjoys.
“We needed someone to step up at ’41 this year and what I’ve learned here over time, it all helped position me to earn that chance this season,’’ Carton said.
“I have the skill and conditioning I need to be successful. I’m putting it all to use now and as we move into March, it is more important than ever to put it all to use.’’
Carton expects the next few weeks to be the culmination of what he’s learned along the way, crediting the work of coaches Pete Bush at Assumption and John Wetherell at Alleman as well as what he has picked up from former Hawkeye national champion Eric Juergens, currently the coach at Augustana College.
“Their help and support, and the support of people back in the Quad-Cities, it has made a difference,’’ Carton said. “They created the foundation that I’m working to build on.’’
It has all been part of the process, something that continues as Carton prepares for his final weeks in a Hawkeye singlet.
“There are a lot of good things going on for him, but we’re still building,’’ Brands said. “He’s definitely making progress, but I’ll say this – join the crowd. Everybody’s wrestling ranked opponents. Everybody has to be ready.’’
The journey has helped Carton understand that.
“I don’t take anything for granted,’’ Carton said. “At this level, you can’t. You have to be ready for every second of every match.’’
In the postseason, that is even more the reality of it all than ever.
“There aren’t situations where you’re going to have a round or two to catch your breath,’’ Brands said. “You have to be ready to go. Seeing the performance (against McCrystal) is big for him, and it’s big for us to see that progress.’’
The growth for Carton will be in how successful he is in developing the ability to score over seven minutes.
“That’s the direction we have to keep going,’’ Brands said. “He’s tough, but be consistent going in that direction.’’
That’s the goal.
That’s what Carton expects of himself during the final leg of his journey at Iowa.
“I need to do more. I need to widen the gap when I get a lead. One more takedown, you never know what that will do to somebody psychologically,’’ Carton said.
“From here on out, third-period takedowns are the difference. They let you advance. They let you get on the podium and be where you want to be.’’