IOWA CITY — One final step is all that remains for two Iowa seniors and a junior who begin competition in the NCAA Wrestling Championships in St. Louis this morning.
The Hawkeyes’ Thomas Gilman, Cory Clark and Brandon Sorensen all finished in second place a year ago in the NCAA finals, leaving all three looking to take that one last step up to the top of the awards podium this week.
“They’re all capable. We have a lot of guys who are capable,’’ Iowa coach Tom Brands said. “It’s a matter of getting the job done and I believe in those guys. They’ve all had different seasons, but they have a chance to do big things.’’
Gilman enters competition as the top seed at 125 pounds, the only unbeaten wrestler in the weight class. At 27-0, Gilman has dominated this season, earning bonus points in 23 matches including leading Iowa with seven technical falls and 10 pins.
Clark has dealt with a shoulder injury throughout much of the current season, limiting him to a 15-3 record so far at 133 pounds. Seeded fourth, he is a three-time all-American and has earned runner-up honors at 133 the past two seasons.
At 149, Sorensen has a 26-4 record and leads Iowa with 11 major decisions this season after finishing second in the weight class last season. Three of his losses this season have been against wrestlers ranked in the top five in the country, leading the two-time all-American to a fifth seed for this year’s NCAA meet.
“I’m ready to take whatever comes my way,’’ Gilman said. “It doesn’t matter who I’m out there against. Put a guy on the mat, I’ll wrestle him. That’s always been the way I feel about it. I’m ready to compete whenever the whistle blows. That’s who I am.’’
Gilman has a career record of 33-2 against wrestlers in this year’s NCAA field and he takes the mat at the Scottrade Center five victories away from becoming the 16th Hawkeye to finish the season with a perfect record.
He arrived at Iowa in 2012 as part of a top-ranked recruiting class which included Clark, Sammy Brooks and Alex Meyer, all seeded among the Hawkeyes’ nine entries in this year’s NCAA meet.
To Gilman, the NCAA meet is simply another chance to compete.
“I’m as confident as I can be going into this week,’’ Gilman said. “I’ve trained for this my entire life, not this year, not this week, but my entire life. I've trained for this since I was five years old.’’
And, it remains just one step toward his ultimate objective.
“Winning in the NCAA meet as a senior is a good goal, but it’s only a part of it. I feel like I’ve got a long career ahead. I look around our room and there are World champs, Olympic champs, those are the ultimate challenges that I look forward to. Those are the guys I look up to and aspire to be.’’
Brands likes the focus he has seen from Gilman throughout his senior season.
“Very driven, very workmanlike in the way he goes about things,’’ Brands said. “That approach has served him well. That won’t change now.’’
Clark sat out more than a month of the season to deal with his shoulder injury and continues to wrestle with it heavily wrapped.
Brands said a smart approach to his recovery has positioned Clark to compete at a high level this week.
“We held him out a couple of times. He didn’t want to sit, but it was the way it needed to be managed,’’ Brands said. “The shoulder isn’t an issue now. He’s at a point where he should be ready to go every match.’’
Clark finds himself in the same half of the bracket as top-seeded Nathan Tomasello of Ohio State, a 5-4 winner over the Iowa senior on a last-second escape in the championship match at the Big Ten finals.
“If we were to meet up again, great, I’d look forward to that but right now my work is to get to that point,’’ Clark said about a potential semifinal rematch. “I’m just anxious to get going and see what I can do. I’m excited to compete in this tournament.’’
Sorensen, who wrestled three of the top four seeds in the weight class in three consecutive matches in January, shares that attitude.
He defeated fourth-seeded Micah Jordan of Ohio State 2-0 after losing one-point decisions in matches decided in the second tiebreaker to both second-seeded Anthony Collica of Oklahoma State and Zain Retherford of Penn State.
“There’s a lot to learn from those matches,’’ Sorensen said. “Any experience like that is beneficial and you know going in that you’re going to see great competition in a great atmosphere. I need to be ready to go.’’
Brands said the regular-season losses have left Sorensen with “some work to do’’ if he hopes to contend this week.
“He’s like all our guys, needs to bring his best,’’ Brands said. “This is when you want to put it all out there.’’