When wrestling commences at the NCAA Division I Championships in Philadelphia on March 17, it will be hard to tell who has the home mat advantage.
State College, Pa., home of the fourth-ranked Penn State Nittany Lions, is located barely three hours from Wells Fargo Arena, host of the 2011 championships.
The state of Pennsylvania is home to 11 Division I programs, meaning there will be pockets of fans – some with imaginative T-shirts, others with English soccer-like songs supporting their student-athletes.
There will be an atmosphere unlike recent championships in St. Louis or Omaha or Oklahoma City.
Adding to the atmosphere will be those native sons returning home in foreign singlets, like Easton’s Jordan Oliver or Denver’s Steve Fittery.
Let us not forget that the New Jersey border is within shouting distance of Philadelphia. Before becoming one of Nebraska’s all-time greats, Jordan Burroughs attended high school in Sicklerville, N.J., a 30-minute drive from the site of collegiate wrestling’s showcase event this spring.
It’s not just a homecoming for most of what is expected to be a large contingent of wrestlers from the area. Six of the 10 No. 1-ranked wrestlers entering the postseason are from either Pennsylvania or New Jersey.
“I think part of the reason there are so many good wrestlers from that area is because we start maybe a little earlier,” said top-ranked 141 pounder Kellen Russell of Michigan. “There are so many good coaches and good programs … the competition is probably better than a lot of places.”
Russell (30-0) attended Blair Academy in New Jersey, annually one of the nation’s top prep academies. After an All-American sophomore campaign at Michigan, Russell redshirted in 2009-10. Being able to handle all the pressure of being a top contender, plus all the possible off-the-mat distractions this year, could be aided by maturity.
“I really think going into a tournament like this, experience is very important,” Russell said. “It’s not my first time at a national tournament, so going in I know what to expect. There are distractions but you can’t let that take away from why you are there.”
A pair of seniors are looking to finish in style, possibly winning a second national title in front of the home fans.
Burroughs, a national champion at 157 pounds in 2009, enters the Big 12 Championships this weekend with a perfect 29-0 record and ranked No. 1 at 165 pounds. An injury forced him to miss most of 2009-10.
“It’s going to be amazing, wrestling that close to home,” Burroughs said. “The only problem I’m having right now is trying to find enough tickets so everyone can go. Having the tournament in Philly, it will be a great way to finish my college career. It would be great to go out with another national title.”
North Carolina State’s Darrion Caldwell, the NCAA champion at 149 pounds in 2009, missed all of last season due to an injury. The Rahway, N.J., product is looking forward to his final collegiate tournament.
“It’s going to be something to remember,” said Caldwell, unbeaten and ranked No. 1 heading into the ACC Championships. “Winning my first title was something I’ll never forget. But if I was able to do it in front of my home fans it would be a little extra [special]. There are so many good wrestlers in the tournament, so many from that area, that I bet it’s going to be loud all week.”
The Iowa Hawkeyes, when they are in the title chase, always provide a boisterous crowd during the tournament. Winners of three consecutive team championships, Iowa will again bring plenty of attitude and noise.
Oliver, just a sophomore, is ranked No. 1 at 133 pounds. The unbeaten Pennsylvanian leads third-ranked Oklahoma State, which is expected to challenge for top honors with Iowa, Cornell, Penn State, Minnesota and a handful of others.
“I’m really excited about the tournament,” said Oliver, who finished fourth at nationals as a freshman in 2010. “There is going to be a lot going on. I’m going there to win a national championship, to help my team win a national championship. The fact that it is in Philadelphia amps it up.
“It’s going to be a great show. To able to wrestle that close to home in the national championships is going to be something to remember. I don’t get a chance to wrestle in front of a Pennsylvania crowd very often, and I know, like a lot of other guys from that area, I am really excited about it.”
Steve Fittery, a Division II runner-up for Shippensburg (Pa.) who is ranked No. 1 at 157 pounds for American this year, and Pittsburgh 141 pounder Tyler Nauman, a native of Middletown, Pa., were both All-Americans in 2010. Standing at the top of the medal stand is obviously the goal. Doing it in Philly? Icing on the cake.
“It would be a pretty big deal,” said Nauman. “I don’t know how many people have asked about tickets but it’s a lot. My dad is calling me everyday. A couple of old roommates are getting a suite. My mom doesn’t get to come to many matches (she lives in Florida) but she’s going to be (in Philadelphia) and is talking about making up some shirts.
“With all the people coming there might be a little more pressure on me to perform. But I’m not looking at it that way. I’m looking forward to having fun with it.”
Lehigh’s Zach Rey, another New Jersey native, is ranked No. 1 at 285 pounds. He takes an unbeaten record into the EIWA Championships.
“I’m actually a (New York) Giants fan, so I’m not a huge fan of Philly,” admits Rey, a native of Hopatcong, N.J. “It’s going to be a good show. It’s nice to have it close to home, though, as opposed to the Midwest.”
The tournament has been sold out since early February. Fans can expect high decibel level crowd noise on more than one occasion during the three days. And don’t be surprised when a native of Pennsylvania or New Jersey, someone the average mat fan hasn’t heard of, someone not ranked inside the top 10, rocks the house with a cement-mixer or similar move native to the area.
During those three days of wrestling, it will be obvious when a local boy does something special. The fans will let everyone know.
The 2011 NCAA Championships starts March 17. College wrestling’s version of Saturday Night Live – the finals – will be the evening of March 20.