As the Iowa Hawkeyes set their sights on the first NCAA team title for the program in over a decade, their steady young heavyweight will be a key part of a this potential championship lineup. Illinois native Tony Cassioppi has rocked his first season as a starter in the Black and Gold, winning a Midlands title and holding an undefeated record up until last weekend. A loss to Junior World Champion Mason Parris halted the Hawkeye's momentum, but this weekend Cassioppi has a chance to prove he's a still a title contender to be feared.
His next opponent? 2019 NCAA All-American true sophomore Gable Steveson, a guy who ran through all of his heavyweight competitors in the dual season last year and has taken just two career losses in college so far, both of which came against Anthony Cassar in the postseason. With Cassar out with an injury and moving on to freestyle, heavyweight is seen as Steveson's weight class to lose, but Iowa's big man might have something to say about that assumption. What does Cassioppi need to do to challenge the Minnesota superstar? Let's take a look at the film and find out.
Pinned by Parris
Cassioppi is 15-1 on the year with his only loss, as previously mentioned, coming against Michigan's Mason Parris by fall in the second period. Paris' athleticism serves as his biggest strength and the Wolverine said as much in his post-match press conference.
That athleticism showed as Paris rolled past Cassioppi, scored the only takedown points on the match and out-scrambled the Hawkeye. Cassioppi's only points came from a reversal and an escape, but the most concerning part about the match as Cassioppi stares down Steveson is that he couldn't fight off Paris' power. He gave up the last takedown in the second period and looked helpless as Paris' turned him, and, after some adjusting, put his shoulders on the mat.
Steveson's strength will be similar to that of Paris', if not better, but Hawkeye fans are hoping that Cassioppi and his coaches have made the necessary adjustments to prepare for a guy like Steveson. Paris and Steveson did not wrestle this year, as Steveson sat out the match either for injury or rest, but both Cassioppi and Steveson are listed as probable starters for this dual. The pin could be concerning for Cassioppi, but it's not the only factor that needs to be considered.
Using Hillger as a benchmark
Cassioppi and Steveson have never wrestled in college, but they shared twelve common opponents, with five of them coming from this year. The only common opponent to allow Cassioppi and Steveson to win by only a decision was Trent Hillger, and the Wisconsin sophomore gave up just three points against Cassioppi. Steveson won by the larger 10-5 margin, and Cassioppi has to recognize that Steveson's numerous takedowns against means the Gopher will come out firing looking for big points.
Cassioppi had wrestled just two matches as an Iowa starter when All-American Hillger came to town, and while these two men fought competitively, Cassioppi's takedown in the first period served as the only non-escape point of the match. A one-takedown match won't be enough against Steveson.
Cassioppi is a more experienced starter than he was when he first wrestled Hillger, and if he wants to battle with Steveson, he needs to shoot more than he did against Hillger, and he needs to be ready to score off Steveson's attacks.
Nearly two months after Cassioppi battled Hillger, Steveson picked up his aforementioned win against the common opponent by scoring four takedowns and a reversal against the Badger to close out what was an upset win over Wisconsin in Minneapolis. His action never stopped, but he still didn't have enough for the major. Hillger is the only athlete that Steveson has not majored this year, but the match against Hillger was also just Steveson's sixth match of the year, as he returned to the mat late this season.
Steveson wrestled his first dual of season on December 20 against South Dakota State and won in major decision fashion; since then, he's majored 90% of his opponents and recorded three falls. Steveson's best wins of the year include the 10-5 win over Hillger, a 13-5 major decision over Penn State's Seth Nevills, and an 8-0 win over Jordan Wood, all ranked opponents. Lehigh's Wood has seen Steveson in the past and finished fourth at the NCAA tournament last year after dropping a 4-0 decision against Steveson in the consolation finals.
Cassioppi has not had the chance to wrestle Wood, but he does also have a win over Hillger and Nevills, granted a decision in both, as well as ranked wins over Christian Lance, Matt Stencel, Carter Isley, Trent Hillger and Cannon Gremmel. Iowa State's Gremmel also held Cassioppi to a decision, as did Isley, Lance, Traub, Stencel and Zach Elam of Missouri. The Hawkeye has a 43.75% bonus rate but wrestled six more matches this year than his Minnesota counterpart, and that schedule has allowed him to rack up more ranked wins for his resume.
Fighting for the fall
Comparing the pins from Cassioppi and Steveson, Cassioppi has the edge, as he's picked up five falls compared to Steveson's three, but again, he's wrestled six more matches. His most recent fall came on the road against Purdue's Thomas Penola, an opponent that Cassioppi previously pinned at Midlands within the first 91 seconds and Steveson tech falled at the end of January. The confidence with which Cassioppi wrestled Penola was not on display when the Hawkeye took the mat against Parris, but the match against Steveson is in Carver-Hawkeye, and Cassioppi is undefeated at home.
Watch how Cassioppi puts Penola on his back in the first period:
Steveson's most recent pin also came in the state of Indiana, as he pinned Hoosiers' Brandon Streck in early February during the first minute of the dual. Streck took the first shot, but the move didn't pay off as Steveson scored on the re-attack for the first two points of the dual and immediately worked for, and ultimately scored, the fall.
Cassioppi pinned Streck just a little bit faster as he put the Hoosier on his back within 20 seconds on January 10 while Steveson needed 56 seconds, though the difference there is negligible. Steveson’s other pins came against Jonah Niessenbaum of Duke and Will Hilliard of Old Dominion while Cassioppi’s also secured pins against Niko Camacho of American and Grayson Walthall of Chattanooga.
Looking at the videos and highlights, both of these competitors clearly have the skills to make a finals run in March. Steveson will be looking for his first title after being knocked off by Cassar last year to finish third, while Cassioppi will strive to make the finals as a redshirt freshman. This will be the biggest test of the year for Steveson, but if the Parris match is an indication, Cassioppi is not only beatable, but able to be pinned.
Cassioppi, however, does have Carver-Hawkeye Arena playing to his advantage, and Steveson has never wrestled in front of that crowd before. A rebound win following the Parris pin would likely move Cassioppi to the No. 2 spot behind Parris but ahead of Steveson, while a win for Steveson is more expected and would keep the rankings steady.
In what could be an NCAA semifinals or finals preview, Cassioppi and Steveson are expected to take the mat during the Iowa vs. Minnesota dual at 9:30 p.m. on Big Ten Network. The film from that match will tell us a lot about what could happen in March.