Cory Clark faces one of the best wrestlers in the country regularly in practice.
Apparently, so does University of Iowa's two-time NCAA champion and three-time national finalist Matt McDonough.
Clark, a freshman who is red-shirting this season, has started claiming notable wins, posting a 9-0 mark and earning the No. 1 pre-seed at 125 pounds for the 50th Annual Ken Kraft Midlands Championships this weekend at Northwestern University's Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston, Ill.
His latest triumph was his most impressive. Clark captured the UNI Open title on Dec. 8 with a 6-1 win over fifth-ranked Jesse Delgado, who was ranked as high as second nationally at the time. The win provided clarity to where he stood against the country's best.
"It means a lot coming from the perspective I don't know where I stand against the top-ranked college guys," said Clark, who is expected to be seeded higher than nine ranked wrestlers. "I wrestle with McDonough quite often, but against other guys and feeling different styles of wrestling from the better guys in the country it feels good to know I can compete with anybody, I think."
Clark was a four-time state champion at Southeast Polk High School, compiling a career record of 185-1. He was a prize catch, along with another 125-pound freshman Thomas Gilman, and turned heads during the Hawkeyes' wrestle-offs. McDonough scored a reversal with five seconds remaining to edge Clark, 3-2.
The early success hasn't shocked those who see Clark train daily.
"I don't think it's a surprise," Iowa Coach Tom Brands said. "I think you saw the result here and everybody thought that was an off-day for McDonough, but I think what McDonough realized right away was when both Clark and Gilman came into this wrestling room is they are a different type of freshman."
Clark also won the Kaufman-Brand Open, topping Gilman, 2-0, in the finals. Clark also won their wrestle-off in overtime. Gilman (14-3) has finished third or better in all three open tournaments this season, losing to Delgado by three points at UNI. He will be in the Midlands field as well.
"They're wired a little bit different," Brands said. "We're not surprised and we expect that, and it's a really good template for any freshman."
Brands said Clark has a different wrestling style than McDonough. The two might have more in common mentally than physically.
"They both have good outlooks of the sport of wrestling and how they approach it," Brands said. "(Clark) is a good all-position wrestler. He's good in a lot of different positions."
Even though his current results do not directly count to the Hawkeyes' success, Clark is making a strong impact on the team. He, as does Gilman, provides depth and quality workout partners for the starters.
"What's even better is I have a guy like that I can wrestle with in the room," said Iowa 133-pound All-American Tony Ramos said. "I have one of the best 125-pounders in the country other than McDonough."
Red-shirt seasons are important for college wrestlers, adjusting to more demanding training and competition and a longer grueling season. Ramos said Clark has a good approach, doing the right things and learning intricacies to improve. It will benefit him in the future.
"It shows guys come in and they're ready to go," Ramos said. "If they're going to battle everyday they can do great things like that. It's embracing the grind and staying positive and going out there and putting up those results."
Good results validate the hard work and struggles in the room. It isn't easy knocking heads with some of the country's best every day at the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex in Carver-Hawkeye Arena, but it is worth it when it leads to a victory over highly-ranked opponents.
"For sure," Clark said. "When you're going through tough times in here and then you go out on the mat and beat someone tough you understand why you're doing what you're doing."
Clark and Gilman won't be the only Hawkeye freshmen competing at Midlands. Sam Brooks and Alex Meyer, both at 184, will wrestle. Brooks is 11-4 this year, placing second at the UNI Open to Panthers' national qualifier Ryan Loder. Meyer owns a 7-5 mark.
Former Hawkeye and current Hawkeye Wrestling Club member Dan Dennis received the No. 2 pre-seed at 133 pounds. It is his first appearance at the Midlands for the first time since winning the 133-pound title in 2008. He also placed fifth there in 2005. Dennis was a two-time All-American for Iowa, finishing second at the 2010 NCAA tournament as a senior.
Former Iowa two-time NCAA runner-up Montell Marion was the top pre-seed at 149 pounds. Marion was a Midlands runner-up last season.