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IOWA CITY, Iowa - University of Iowa Coach Tom Brands receives a positive vibe from this year's Hawkeyes.
It helps to have six All-Americans and seven with NCAA tournament experience. He isn't bitter that it resulted in a second consecutive third-place finish, following three straight NCAA team championships.
Instead, Brands recognizes the pieces are in place for a title run, and sees his Hawkeyes working hard to put the puzzle together for the 2012-13 season. Iowa is ranked fourth in the National Wrestling Coaches Association/USA Today Division I Coaches Poll preseason rankings.
"We're moving in the right direction, there's no doubt," Brands said Wednesday during the team's annual media day event at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. "That's a good thing. That's a good feeling. It's one of those things were its better moving that way then the other way. We know we have a lot of work ahead of us. Our guys are working out that way, training that way."
A strong nucleus returns in by two-time NCAA champion and three-time national finalist Matt McDonough, who won the 125-pound crown in March, two-time All-American and 2012 157-pound finalist Derek St. John and junior Tony Ramos, who placed third at 133 as a sophomore.
They have developed into strong leaders, but have been joined by the likes of heavyweight Bobby Telford, who placed fifth at the NCAA tournament, All-American Ethen Lofthouse (184), 165-pounder Mike Evans, an NCAA qualifier last season, and seniors Grant Gambrall (174), a 2011 All-American, and Mark Ballweg (141), according to Brands.
"Our leadership is good," said Brands, adding Josh Dziewa, Mike Kelly and Brody Grothus in the mix. "Seems like it's been a little bit better than in the past for whatever reason, and, hence, this guy feels better."
The Hawkeyes have been more assertive holding each other accountable. It has been there, but now the wrestlers are comfortable increasing the volume of their words to match their actions.
"You have to be a lot more vocal now," Ramos said. "Leading by example is one thing, but if no one is going to say something about it or call somebody out on it then it's not going to get handled."
St. John added, "We're all the guys doing the right things all the time. I think people just feed off that."
They are feeding off the competition in the practice room as well. A strong freshman class has added a boost, pushing the the rest.
It has even helped McDonough, who is 100-4 in his career and is looking to become Iowa's 18th four-time All-American and the Hawkeyes' seventh three-time NCAA champion. He would be the first since Joe Williams won three from 1996-98.
"They are extraordinary as far as pushing the older guys," McDonough said. "That's what you have to do. You've got to have that mentality and determination to get better.
"Having those guys around the wrestling room, for myself personally to train with in here, it's a blessing in disguise being able to have a guy who isn't afraid to come at you with everything he's got."
Ramos is ranked third, compiling a 33-4 record last season and a 58-10 two-year mark. He worked hard in the offseason, adding some size with hopes of making a leap to the top of the podium.
"Pretty much just kept working out, working hard, figuring out ways to get over the hump to get that national (championship), not third place," Ramos said. "Not just for myself, but for the team.
"We're all working and we're getting better."
St. John was a win away from a national title, despite battling a severe injury that was suffered in early December and aggravated in January. He was 21-3 last season, going 24-6 as a freshman and placing fourth at the NCAA meet.
"He's a tough guy," Brands said about St. John. "He's one of the toughest guys I've seen just from a rebound from, I call it catastrophe. How he finishes matches and finishes the season, and finishes hard situations. There is a reason why he's relevant and his name is familiar to people."
The Hawkeyes have some holes to fill in the lineup. Two-time 141-pound NCAA finalist Montell Marion is gone, and the team didn't have a wrestler at 149 and 197 in the NCAA tournament field.
Ballweg and Dziewa lead the way at 141, while former West Liberty prep Tomas Lira and freshman Nathan Burak could be in at 197. Mike Kelly and Pat Rhoads, who is dropping down from 157 and 165, will contend at 149, where Kelly competed at the Big Ten Championships.
"The biggest competition in our room is (141)," Brands said. "It's deep, 149 is deep, as well. Mike Kelly returns there, Mark Ballweg at 141. They'll be pushed by some other guys. Josh Dziewa at (141), we like how he's looked recently. He's been hobbled throughout his career but seems to be healthy. We have depth at those weights. At (149), the No. 1 seed in the room is Mike Kelly, based on last year. But he knows he has to do better as well."
Iowa posted a 14-4 dual mark, going 6-2 in the Big Ten, which is led by top-ranked Minnesota and two-time defending conference and NCAA team champ Penn State, which is ranked second. Iowa placed third as a team at both the Big Ten and NCAA Championships. Brands said he knows that the talent exists to do the job at the end of the season. Everyone has to believe it, work for it and achieve it.
"Then last year we left some points off the board, when you're talking about realizing your full fire power," Brands said. "The formula isn't complicated, it's very simple. Ten weight classes, you want 10 weight classes scoring points."