ST. LOUIS — Cory Clark can climb to the top of the podium at the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships.
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A four-time All-American from Pleasant Hill, the Iowa 133-pound senior was in Saturday night’s championship match for the third consecutive year. He earned his first win, claiming a 4-3 decision over South Dakota State’s Seth Gross.
“I thought if it wouldn’t have gotten done, it would have been a disaster,” Clark said.
“And each year I didn’t accomplish that, it hurt me inside. To get it done this year is incredible.”
The win marks the 82nd individual championship in Hawkeye history and the program’s first since 2014, when Tony Ramos also conquered the 133-pound bracket.
The former Southeast Polk High School star wrestled for most of the last three months with an injured left arm. Sporting a black protective sleeve under his black-and-gold singlet, he gritted his teeth through three wins at the Scottrade Center to get to Gross.
He revealed after Saturday’s win that he tore ligaments in his wrist and that his shoulder “blew out of its socket,” but he continued towards his first championship.
“We figured out how to keep him healthy, but still build his shape and build his wrestling,” Iowa associate head coach Terry Brands said. “We don’t give up on our people here.”
Brands was on the receiving end of a celebratory slam from Clark as the sold-out crowd roared.
They shared a hug after Clark took the lead for good with 1 minute, 23 seconds left in the third period on a low single-leg takedown. From there, Gross was glued underneath Clark with a 4-3 deficit and would never come close to being released.
“Right when I got in the leg, Terry said, ‘You’ve been here your whole life, you’re good,’” Clark said. “And it made a lot of sense to me, because how many times have I come out of the back on somebody and been pretty good there? I finished it.”
The path to Saturday’s ESPN-televised final included Friday night’s semifinal against Ohio State’s top-seeded and previously unbeaten Nathan Tomasello. Clark (20-3) avenged a loss to Tomasello in the Big Ten finals by grinding out a 7-4 decision with a title-match berth on the line.
Clark had never faced Gross in competitive match. The No. 2 seed began his career as a teammate of Clark’s at Iowa before transferring to Brookings, S.D., in 2015.
Clark lost in the NCAA finals to Oklahoma’s Cody Brewer in 2015 and Cornell’s Nahshon Garrett in 2016. The decisions in those matches finished with 11-8 and 7-6 scores, as the Iowa prep four-time champ came up just short. After the mental and physical trials he persevered through to get to Saturday, the match was simply viewed as seven more minutes.
“I’ve had two years in a row where I’ve spent weeks in my basement, just pouting and being a baby,” Clark said. “Today, I can look forward and know in two weeks I won’t be in my basement with my headphones turned all the way up and crying. That’s a good thing.”
Iowa head coach Tom Brands watched the match from the warm-up area in the tunnels of Scottrade Center, allowing his twin brother, Terry, and assistant Ben Berhow to be in Clark”s corner. He was thrilled for the in-state prospect who ultimately became the leader of a strong senior class.
“All I said to him when I met him on the edge of the mat was, ‘You’re a tough son of a gun,’” Tom Brands said. “He’s always been like that.
“It’s big for our program It’s big for Cory Clark. It’s big for Cory Clark’s family.”
Clark is the program’s 19th four-time All-American, and he avoided becoming just the second Iowa wrestler to finish with three runner-up medals and no title. It capped his career and a positive comeback for Iowa on Saturday in St. Louis.
“I want to go back and see my family, see my friends and that’s when it will really hit me,” Clark said while getting emotional near the end of his press conference.