IOWA CITY — It’s been a different season for Spencer Lee, but the endgame remains unchanged.
The Iowa wrestler is looking to accomplish something at the NCAA Championships beginning today that no Hawkeye has done in more than a decade — win consecutive national titles.
Lee overcame some in-season setbacks a year ago to win the 125-pound NCAA crown, and as he prepares to face Northern Illinois’ Bryce West — a former Solon prep with a 15-14 record — in today’s 11 a.m. opening round, he’s dealing with more of the same.
"It’s been kind of a crazy year with more losses than I’ve ever had, but I feel good about where I am right now," Lee said. "I’m in an almost identical spot to where I was a year ago. It’s time to go to work."
Lee finished his 22-2 freshman season with a 5-1 victory over Nick Suriano of Rutgers in the 2018 finals.
He’ll take the mat today at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh with an 18-3 record, a mark that includes a pair of losses to top-seeded Sebastian Rivera of Northwestern, the last by a 6-4 decision in sudden victory in the Big Ten Championships finals.
"I’ve been in this situation before. I’ve dealt with a little adversity during the season and then came back to accomplish what I’ve been working all season to do," Lee said. "That gives me confidence going in that I can do what I need to do."
That starts with delivering on a desire to dictate the pace of the match.
"The other guy will try not to let that happen, but that’s something we’ve been focusing on and something I need to be able to control," Lee said. "I know what I have to do."
Iowa coach Tom Brands said Lee’s ability to cope with whatever comes his way during a match makes a difference.
He points to Lee’s last world championship victory as an example.
"He overcame an 8-3 deficit and criteria and all that stuff to win the match. That says something about where Spencer Lee is coming from," Brands said. "You’ve got to have your wits about you to accomplish that, and he’s a cool customer through and through."
This is the type of situation when that mindset works for Lee.
"It’s not always going to be easy," he said. "It never is, never has been, but you have to believe in your abilities and be ready to go when you step onto the mat."
Lee has recorded 16 bonus-point victories for the Hawkeyes this season, including seven pins, six technical falls and three major decisions.
He enters the NCAA Championships with a 22-4 record against the tourney field in his weight class.
If Lee is able to return to the top of the podium in Saturday’s 6 p.m. championship session, he will become the first Hawkeye to win back-to-back national titles since Mark Perry won at 165 in 2007 and 2008.
Brands sees the challenge that Lee faces this season to be unchanged from the one he encountered a year ago prior to his first NCAA tourney.
"There’s a different perspective the second time around, but the challenge that is out there, it’s the same," Brands said. "He’s a defending national champion, and the path that’s out there is the same path he’s traveled before. He has to get ready to wrestle a tournament at the highest level."
Lee believes he's equipped to accomplish that.
He said preparations have been good since his last match nearly two weeks ago in the Big Ten finals.
Physically and mentally, Lee said he is ready for what lies ahead.
"It’s going to be a good week," he said. "I feel good with where everything is at right now. It’s time to go compete."