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It’s 4:45 p.m. on a Tuesday in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. As athletes and coaches funnel in and out of the arena for meetings and practice, the Iowa women’s wrestling coaching staff is heading down to the compliance office to run a question about recruiting by the staff.
It’s been two years since coach Clarissa Chun was hired, and this 2024 class will be the first “normal” recruiting cycle for the first-year Hawkeye program. It’s been a learning curve for the staff, not only picking up the tricks of the trade when it comes to attracting talent to come to Iowa City, but also in making sure they are doing things the right way.
Operating in a proper manner is one of three pillars the Iowa program goes by in recruiting, alongside bringing in talent that can compete on a national level and can complete a degree at the University of Iowa within five years.
“We expect an athlete to come here and fight for national titles and hopefully international placings,” assistant coach Gary Mayabb said. “Then we want every single one of them to walk out of here with a degree from the University of Iowa, a Big Ten education. Finally, in order to do all that, we have to do it right. Those three pillars, they don’t change.”
With that in mind, how does Iowa then go forth and find talent that fits that mold? Here is how the Iowa women’s wrestling recruiting process unfolds:
Iowa women’s wrestling recruiting process, from beginning to end
The scouting portion of the program’s recruiting can begin as early as the eighth or ninth grade for Chun and the coaching staff. In a sport like girls wrestling that is still growing at the junior high and high school levels across the country, certain pockets of state and local tournaments in established states like California, Washington and now to some extent Iowa are valued places to identify and scout talent. Monitoring how recruits preform at these events is important, especially considering not everyone can afford to travel across the country.
National events are among the main places Iowa will start to identify prospects, particularly ones that are freestyle, since that’s what the women wrestle in college. An example of that would be the annual USAW 16U Junior National Championships held in Fargo, N.D., where the best of the best come to wrestle − and it is a freestyle tournament.
That desire to bring in wrestlers who perform well nationally is apparent when taking a look at the current roster. The Hawkeyes have a long list of accomplishments at national events, and three have qualified for the Olympic Trials.
“That’s where our recruiting has to start,” Mayabb said. “What do you do at national events? How well have you done at them? The majority of all of our athletes, when we ask them why Iowa, they answer, ‘Because I want to be in a room that encourages, pushes and helps me achieve national and international rankings.'”
The one thing the Iowa roster doesn’t have a lot of is homegrown Iowans. Felicity Taylor (South Winneshiek), Lilly Luft (Charles City) and Ella Schmit (Bettendorf) are the lone three on a roster of 28. For reference, the Iowa men’s program has nearly half of its athletes (20 of 41) from Iowa.
A lot of that has to do with there being limited opportunities offered to young Iowa girls until recently. The Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union officially recognized the sport last season, making it more accessible and visible for girls in Iowa. Chun and her staff believe the state will start to churn out more high-level talent and that the percentage of girls from Iowa on the Hawkeye roster will grow. Just one look at its current recruiting class for 2024 shows the progress.
“There’s still like so many great rising talents in the state of Iowa that are sophomores and juniors that are young that are coming up,” Chun said. “I think Iowa will continue to strengthen and grow because of the level of coaches around the state of Iowa that are accessible to these young women.”
Once an athlete has been identified, the recruiting pitches begin. The first time college coaches can contact an athlete is on June 15 following an athlete’s sophomore year. Athletes can then take official or unofficial visits as soon as Aug. 1 before their junior year begins.
Iowa’s pitch is undoubtedly one of the easiest to sell to recruits as the only Power Five conference program in women’s wrestling. The team can tell recruits about the $31 million practice facility that will be available next season; the chance to get a Big Ten Conference education; name, image and likeness (NIL) opportunities; and one of the best wrestling brands in the country.
It can be a tough pitch to turn down, even though the staff tells many girls they are going to redshirt the first year on campus.
Iowa commit Kiara Djoumessi, a senior at Waverly-Shell Rock, said she would be more than happy to wait her turn at Iowa since it means she would be practicing and competing with some of the best talent the sport has to offer.
Djoumessi is looking to study business marketing when she arrives in Iowa City. The ability to stay close to home, get an education and wrestle for the Hawkeyes made it a no-brainer, even though she was recruited by some of the other big powers in the sport like North Central of Naperville, Ill.
“We barely talked about stuff like that when I went on my visit to North Central,” Djoumessi said. “It was just the amount of stuff that they (Iowa) have to like give me and support me, which was nowhere close to anything that I’d get anywhere else.”
Equally important is selling the parents on the staff’s vision. Djoumessi’s father, Alain, is an assistant coach for his daughter’s Waverly-Shell Rock team. He understands the importance of taking on a wrestler’s journey and the impacts a coach can have on someone. He’s given his stamp of approval for Chun and the staff and is glad his daughter won’t be too far from home.
“Coach Chun and her staff are doing a really good job at Iowa and I think are a great fit for her,” Alain Djoumessi said. “She’s close enough that I can swing by and watch her wrestle.”
Certainly in today’s world, NIL is a big part of college athletics and recruiting. Chun said a “good handful” of the members on her team are making money from NIL deals. Those opportunities are enticing to recruits, but still secondary to other things Iowa can offer.
“If people want to come to Iowa because they want to be coming for an NIL deal and looking out for themselves, then this is not the place for them,” Chun said. “We’re about the program first.”
All these resources that Iowa can offer is their greatest strength, helping the Hawkeyes bring in five top-40 recruits in the 2024 class. However, that strength is also their toughest challenge. Mayabb shared that there are droves of athletes who want to come to Iowa and that he would love to help bring in. Oftentimes, Mayabb has to tell potential recruits that while Iowa would like to have them, they’re going to have to pursue options at another college because there are only so many spots on the roster.
“There’s an awful lot of people that would want that opportunity,” Mayabb said. “Right now, it’s very tough for us. We never want to be a gatekeeper. We want to open doors up and we want to open opportunities up. But again, we only have limited slots. That’s our biggest angst.”
Iowa is putting the finishing touches on its 2024 recruiting class. Chun and her staff are currently targeting to fill three weight classes for the upcoming year and still have a spot or two they would like to fill before the cycle is over.
Current recruits signed, committed to Iowa for 2024
Rankings are from Flowrestling.
Karlee Brooks, Phoenix, Arizona – Signed
- No. 11 pound-for-pound high school wrestler
- 2023 USMC Women’s U17 National Champion at 53 kilograms
- Originally a Hawaii native
- Projects at 116 pounds
Chun said she and the Brooks family bonded over the Hawaii connection they share, as she’s able to bring an understanding of the culture Brooks comes from. The oldest sibling of a big family, Brooks receives praise from Chun for her selfless attitude and caretaker traits.
“She’s not going to come in with a lot of negativity or bad habits,” Chun said. “She’s coming in with a solid foundation of her upbringing through the sport.”
Brooks should compete with Ava Rose at 116 pounds to be the Felicity Taylor replacement. Those are some huge shoes to fill as Taylor is a college national champion and a U23 national champion.
Cadence Diduch, Freeport, Illinois – Signed
- No. 15 in class of 2024
- Four-time Fargo finalist, three-time champion
- Two-time Illinois state champion
- Projects at 136 pounds
Diduch is a coach’s daughter, with her father being a football coach. She’s a highly skilled athlete as well, playing soccer before fully committing to wrestling.
“It helps as far as understanding the skills and the characteristics of what coaches look for in a coachable athlete,” Chun said.
The 136-pound room currently has four wrestlers on the roster, but three of them (including mainstay Nanea Estrella) are seniors. Diduch and sophomore Esther Han are the future of the class for the Hawkeyes.
Kiara Djoumessi, Waverly-Shell Rock – Committed
- No. 36 in class of 2024
- 2023 IGHSAU individual and team state champion
- 48-0 season in junior season, 35 wins by fall
- Projects at 143 pounds
Chun and the coaching staff cannot talk publicly about Djoumessi since she hasn’t officially signed with Iowa yet, but it doesn’t take much to know that the Hawkeyes got a solid addition here. Not only as a wrestler (considering her 48-0 record last year and hot start in her senior season) but also as a future leader.
She wants to follow in similar footsteps as her dad and become a wrestling coach one day, perhaps at the Division I level as the sport continues to grow.
“There’s gonna be a need for it, and even if it’s not like Division I, I’ll take up a high school job,” Djoumessi said. “There’s so many open positions and schools that need a women’s wrestling coach who’s willing to put in the time, willing to put in the effort and really make things happen.”
She’ll be in a tough weight class at 143 pounds with sophomores Reese Larramendy and Ella Schmit and freshman Danni Swihart all around for the foreseeable future. Djoumessi knows that if she wants to be the best, she has to beat the best.
Naomi Simon, Decorah – Signed
- No. 23 pound-for-pound wrestler in high school wrestling
- Three-time Iowa state champion
- 37-0 last season, 26-0 through senior year with 24 wins by fall
- Projects at 170 pounds
Simon is looking to become the first female four-time state wrestling champion in the state of Iowa. Beyond that, Simon has several hobbies and interests outside of wrestling (for example, she’s a member of the band at Decorah High). That and her selfless attitude sold Chun and the coaching staff.
“She’s one that truly works hard and she’s gonna bring that mindset and culture of making our program better,” Chun said. “She’s a selfless person.”
Simon has wrestled at 170 the previous two seasons. If she continues there, she’ll have a tough battle with sophomore Kylie Welker and freshman Rose Cassioppi for a spot in the lineup, but her mindset should help everyone in the class improve.
Val Solorio, Canonsburg, Pennsylvania – Signed
- No. 19 in class of 2024
- 2021 U16 national champion
- A Florida state champion, now in Pennsylvania in first year as a sanctioned sport in the state
- Projects at 101 or 109 pounds
With Ava Bayless, the Gonzalez twins and Sterling Dias all in the program, the Hawkeyes have an embarrassment of riches at 101 and 109 for the future.
Even so, Chun is ecstatic with what Solorio will bring to the room.
“She’s a spark plug, the way she competes is so gritty,” Chun said. “We’re excited to have some of that in the room as well, just a go-getter. She’s one that she knows what she wants and she gets after it.”