IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The age-old question remains: Which of the 50 United States produces the best wrestlers? In 2013, there could be up to seven correct answers, but per capita, the state of Iowa is still among the best, if not the best.
As the smaller Iowa high school programs gear up for sectional tournaments this weekend, the third-ranked Hawkeyes host No. 1 Penn State in a collegiate clash that will have the attention of the entire wrestling community. Iowa is coming off a 16-15 road win at Minnesota on Jan. 26, where four of its victors in the dual are native Iowans: senior Matt McDonough (125, Linn-Mar), senior Mark Ballweg (141, Waverly-Shell Rock), junior Derek St. John (157, Iowa City West), and sophomore Nick Moore (165, Iowa City West).
There are 17 Iowans on the Hawkeye roster, and freshman 125-pounder Thomas Gilman, who competed at Skutt Catholic in Omaha, Neb., lives in Council Bluffs.
When UI head coach Tom Brands was a senior in college, six of the other nine starters in the lineup were from Iowa. Tom and Terry Brands are from Sheldon, Chad Zaputil from Centerville, Mark Reiland from Eagle Grove, Bart Chelesvig from Webster City, Travis Fiser from Iowa Valley (Marengo), and John Oostendorp from West Liberty. Other starters were Troy and Terry Steiner (North Dakota) and Tom Ryan (New York).
"Fans take pride in Iowans, especially recruiting, but once they come here, in the fans' minds, they're Iowans or Iowa Hawkeyes, regardless," UI head coach Tom Brands said. "When I look at the teams I was on, you didn't separate the in-state from the out-of-state. The No. 1 thing is the fans embrace everybody as a Hawkeye -- if the guy buys into our program, eventually you don't know where they're from."
Still, the college wrestling scene is littered with local boys leading the way for their respective home teams: Ed Ruth at Penn State, Chris Perry at Oklahoma State, Tony Nelson at Minnesota, Dom Bradley at Missouri, B.J. Futrell at Illinois, Logan Stieber at Ohio State, Kyle Dake at Cornell University.
That is what makes the success at places like Iowa and Oklahoma State more impressive. The "top wrestling states" according to Brands are (in alphabetical order) California, Illinois, Iowa, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania. Based on population, California is tops in the United States with 37,253,956 people, followed by Illinois (fifth), Pennsylvania (sixth), Ohio (seventh), New Jersey (11th), Oklahoma (28th) and Iowa (30th with 3,046,355 people).
"The state of Iowa is one of the toughest, if not the toughest state in the country," said UI redshirt freshman Brody Grothus of Davenport Assumption. "Time and time again, the state of Iowa produces some of the best wrestlers in the nation. That's a toughness we bring to the program, and it's supplemented by guys like (Mike) Evans, (Bobby) Telford, (Ethen) Lofthouse, and (Tony) Ramos."
Three of the last four NCAA individual national championships won by Hawkeyes were by native Iowans -- McDonough in 2010 and '12, and Jay Borschel (Linn-Mar) in 2012. Oddly, entering the 2012-13 season, the top three career winning percentages in UI history were by wrestlers from out-of-state: T.J. Williams, Brent Metcalf, and Lincoln McIlravy; but the next four -- including McDonough at 113-4 -- are native Iowans.
"I would say the level of talent hasn't significantly dropped by any means over the past few years (in the state of Iowa)," McDonough said. "I think it's pretty darn good."
That is good news for the Hawkeye program, where two of its 2013 incoming recruits begin pursuit of their fourth Iowa state championships when sectional tournaments begin Saturday.
And on Friday, the UI continues its chase for a 35th Big Ten Conference team championship against the two-time defending NCAA champion. It is a Nittany Lion team with eight native Pennsylvanians in its starting lineup.
Let the age-old argument continue.
No. 3 Iowa (5-0) and No. 1 Penn State (5-0) are the last two unbeaten wrestling teams in the Big Ten Conference. They meet Friday evening on Mediacom Mat inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
The 20th-rated University of Iowa men's swimming and diving team, and the 29th-rated Hawkeye women will compete at the Northwestern Invitational this weekend in Evanston, Ill.
The University of Iowa women's gymnastics team travels to No. 3 Michigan on Saturday. Action begins at 3 p.m. (CT) in Crisler Arena.