The 2019-20 wrestling season was going to be an amazing year for Austin Gomez.
The redshirt sophomore out of Carol Stream, Illinois, was coming off a season that saw him finish with a 11-3 dual record, a third place finish at the Big 12 tournament at 133 pounds and being an NCAA qualifier.
Coming into the season, expectations were high for Gomez, who started the year pegged as the fifth best 133-pounder in the country.
In a strain of bad luck for Head Coach Kevin Dresser and the Cyclones, Gomez would run into some issues making his big return to the mat. Throughout the offseason, Gomez battled to return back to 133 pounds, and right as the season started, he suffered a concussion that ultimately resulted in Iowa State seeking a medical redshirt.
“It’s hard now because I’m not on the grind, so it’s different,” Gomez said. “But it’s definitely been a learning experience; how to take care of my body and just how to do the right things outside of the wrestling room.”
With one of the best guys Iowa State had to offer out for the season, Dresser and company needed someone to fill in a big role at 133.
Enter the redshirt junior out of Suwanee, Georgia, Todd Small.
For Small, the journey to get to this point differs from some of the other guys on the roster that came into Iowa State as highly scouted high school recruits. Small had to take a different path during his wrestling career to make it to where he is now.
All throughout his high school career, Small had no trouble racking up accolades while competing for the Bulldogs of North Gwinnett High School in Suwanee.
At the end of Small’s high school career, he compiled a total prep record of 175-12. In that time, Small was dubbed a two-time Georgia state champion in his junior and senior year. This accomplishment will forever go down in history books at North Gwinnett, as Small was the first Bulldog to secure two state titles during his time there.
While in high school, Small also finished as a finalist in the 2014 USA Wrestling Junior Greco Nationals at 106 pounds. Small had made it to the finals before, falling in the championship match in a 7-2 decision to eventual Cyclone-turned-Big 12-foe, Danny Vega.
Despite having a good resume to his name, Small faced a rather big issue when it came time to make the move to the collegiate level.
Georgia has never been highly considered a state known for its wrestling, especially compared to the state that he would soon find himself in.
“Coming from Georgia, it’s not really known as a wrestling state, Iowa is known as a wrestling state,” Small said. “Getting recruited in Georgia is pretty hard unless you’re really like a top five ranked guy kind of thing.”
Because of this, Small decided that he wanted to start his collegiate career by going through the junior college (JUCO) route and keeping the states' reputation with wrestling in mind, Small had his eyes fixed on one place: the state of Iowa.
For Small, he wanted to go to a place where, if he committed to go through the JUCO route, he could see himself staying there to finish out his collegiate career.
The state of Iowa was the go-to choice for wrestling considering the three major universities in Iowa — the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa — and all of the influential wrestlers that spent time in the region.
Small committed to the JUCO route and packed his bags for Fort Dodge, Iowa, to compete as a Triton for Iowa Central Community College.
The risk was worth the reward, as Small’s time at Iowa Central helped showcase his talents and got his name recognized by plenty of Division I schools, one of which was only roughly 67 miles away in Ames.
Small’s first collegiate season as a Triton came during the 2016-17 season, where Small was listed at 125. In his first season at Iowa Central, Small walked away with the 2017 National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) championship at 125.
The following season, which would be his second and last season at Iowa Central, Small bumped up his weight class to 133.
Even in a new weight class, just like the season before, Small went on to win another NJCAA championship, this time at 133. Two years, two national titles.
This is what got more and more schools and coaches to get familiar with Small’s name.
One of those coaches was Iowa State University’s Head Coach Kevin Dresser, who had just finished his first season with the Cyclones.
“Any time you win two [NJCAA] titles, you’ll get somebody's attention,” Dresser said.
Outside of keeping an eye on his JUCO performance at Iowa Central, Dresser went to one of his former wrestlers at Virginia Tech, Pete Yates, to talk about Small. Dresser said that Yates had great things to say about the Iowa Central wrestler.
Yates, like Small, was a wrestler made in Georgia, so it’d come as no surprise to find that Small and Yates knew each other, especially when Small was still at North Gwinnett.
With some interest being shown in him, Small made the trip out to Ames for a campus visit. With the combination of Iowa State’s interest and liking what he saw during the visit, Small announced his commitment to the Cyclones.
The first season with Small on the roster came during the 2018-19 season, where he would be redshirted and only allowed to participate in open tournaments.
It didn’t take Small too long to find success as a Cyclone, despite being redshirted and wrestling unattached.
“I thought the redshirt year for me was going to be good just because of transitioning from JUCO to [Division I],” Small said. “There’s not too much of a difference, but it’s the little things that are different — like the pace and different things like that — so I think really that year of me sitting behind actually helped out a lot.”
In his very first match wearing an Iowa State singlet, Small recorded a 19-3 tech fall over Northern Iowa’s Darren Eades during the 2018 Harold Nichols Cyclone Open in the open 133 division.
While Small would end up finishing second place in the Cyclone Open, he’d win his first title nearly a month later at the UNI Open, taking home the Open 133 title.
Small would go on to finish the season with a 14-4 record, with the highlight of the season being the Open 133 title from the UNI Open.
While Small was competing in all of the 133 brackets in these kinds of open tournaments, Iowa State was reaping the benefit of having Austin Gomez holding down the spot at 133.
With Small and Gomez competing around the same weight class, the two work closely with each other and have formed a good relationship with each other.
Small and Gomez echo each other on the kind of relationship they have, with both of them being supportive of one other and striving to have the other be at their very best.
The 2019-20 season is where everything has come full circle.
At Iowa State’s media day, Dresser mentioned that Gomez would try to make his return to 133 at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational (CKLV), but as established, that didn’t happen.
Gomez suffered a concussion severe enough that Dresser and company felt it best to apply for the medical redshirt and not try to force anything to happen.
Because of this, Small was called upon to step up into the role as Iowa State’s starting 133.
Even if he wouldn’t be competing during the year, Gomez still traveled with the team and provided support.
“I’m always kind of getting him ready for his matches,” Gomez said. “Just telling him to get to his offense and score points and stuff like that.”
Despite starting the season with an Open 133 title during the 2019 Harold Nichols Cyclone Open, Small went through some early season struggles.
In his very first dual as a Cyclone, Small was on the losing end of a 3-1 decision to Bucknell’s Darren Miller in Iowa State’s home and season opener.
Things weren’t going to get any easier, because the very next opponent that Small had to face was Iowa’s Austin DeSanto, who was making his return down to 133 and looked to start his eventual run as a top three ranked 133-pounder.
DeSanto showed a split crowd of Iowa and Iowa State fans packed inside Hilton Coliseum exactly why he was considered one of the best in the country, defeating Small in a commanding 16-5 major decision.
Despite this, having a match against that caliber of an opponent early in the year provided an excellent learning opportunity, which would eventually be applied during the CKLV.
“I think the whole first couple weeks was a little bit of a wake-up call to Todd Small and he started to feel the routine of being the guy every weekend,” Dresser said. “I also think he saw the pace of Division I wrestling is a different pace of junior college wrestling.”
In the following weeks, Small would compete in the CKLV, a tournament dubbed a “mini NCAA tournament” based off of the shear amount of high-caliber teams and high-caliber wrestlers in attendance.
Walking into the CKLV, Small was an unranked guy. But walking out of the CKLV, Small put on one of the best Iowa State performances, finishing in fourth place with a 6-2 record. This was good enough to be tied for the second best performance of the tournament for Iowa State, with David Carr finishing third, and Ian Parker and Gannon Gremmel placing fourth.
Small got knocked into the consolation bracket, where he’d record five consecutive victories, with two coming against the No. 11 seeded Louie Hayes and No. 7 seeded Tim Rooney, before falling to Nebraska’s Ridge Lovett in the third place match.
Small was starting to work through his early season struggles, and a big part of that was his work ethic in the wrestling room, which is something Dresser talked about throughout the season.
While not everything has been pretty throughout the year, Dresser and company like the progression they’ve seen out of Small.
Since the CKLV, Small has amassed a dual record of 8-3 and solidified his improvement by cracking multiple top-20 rankings, where he stands at No. 16 by InterMat with only a few more duals to close out the 2019-20 season.
All eyes will look to next season where Small, Gomez, some redshirts and incoming recruits will battle it out for the starting spot on the team.
“In the college wrestling world, when you start having that kind of competition in the room of two top-20 guys in the nation banging heads just to make the team, that’s what you got to have,” Dresser said.
Playing more of a support role this season, Gomez has been helping the team in its preparations to make a run in March, but has his eyes set on returning to the one place he belongs: the mat.
For Small, getting to this point was something that he couldn't imagine back when he was just a high schooler trying to get recruited.
After making the journey from Georgia over to JUCO, and eventually to Ames, Small consistently strives to be better, to clean up the duals that haven’t gone his way. He looks forward to the tournaments that await Iowa State in March.
“I always watched Iowa State and everything, but it was one of those things where you just picture yourself wrestling there – but I didn’t ever think I’d get a chance to just because of the recruitment out of Georgia,” Small said. “But I’m glad I’m here now and it’s an honor to wrestle for Iowa State.”