Looking for a storyline heading into the 2011 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships this week?
Leading the list is a team race that could rival something similar to a gladiatorial fight to the finish.
Not since 1953 has a team from the East won a national championship. Penn State hosted and won the tournament in ’53 as head coach Charlie Speidel’s Nittany Lions ended a two-year reign by the Oklahoma Sooners coached by Port Robertson.
The team trophy moved west a year later and has since not been won by anybody east of Michigan.
Cornell and Penn State enter the 2011 Championships with the ability to end the drought.
The Iowa Hawkeyes have won three consecutive titles, winning in 2010 by 44 ½ points. Tom Brands’ squad suffered major losses to graduation and entered this season outside the conversation of contenders. But an unbeaten dual campaign – their only blemish a tie with Oklahoma State – and a down-to-the-wire battle with Penn State at the Big Ten Championships have brought the Hawkeyes back into the melting pot.
Oklahoma State, winners of 34 national team titles including four consecutive from 2003 to 2006, appear to be back in the title hunt. However, John Smith’s troops will bring five freshmen and a sophomore to Philadelphia.
Can they get it done?
“Cornell, Penn State and Iowa, those three in particular,” said Smith of the Cowboys’ top competition. “Boise State, if they are healthy. I wouldn’t exclude Minnesota or Oklahoma. I think we’re going to see a championship tournament that could come down to five or six All-Americans. Where those All-Americans finish is going to determine the championship. You have got to have some guys on the podium up high because that’s what scores points. On the podium down low doesn’t score very many points.
“I think this is the type of tournament that we are going to be talking about for a long time.”
All-Americans lead to team titles. In a race this tight, a pin in wrestlebacks, a major decision thanks to a last-second takedown … every point will be key.
At the Big Ten Championships in Evanston, Ill., Penn State and Iowa battled to the end with one point separating the two. The Nittany Lions totaled 16 ½ bonus points in the tournament; Iowa had 12.
Brands expects similar battles in Philadelphia. Putting the Big Tens in the rear view mirror and looking ahead is Iowa’s focus.
“You don’t do that,” Brands told the Iowa City-Press Citizen’s Andy Hamilton. “You don’t go backward. You go forward. We’re not built that way. We’re about winning championships — individual championships — and when you win five and you’re Penn State, you’re going to win the tournament. We need to be the ones who are winning championships.”
Rob Koll’s Cornell Big Red won a fifth consecutive EIWA team title after going 13-1 in duals in 2010-11. At the 2010 NCAA Championships, Cornell was a distant second, but the buzz started immediately following the three days in Omaha.
“It’s a strong possibility that nobody is going to run away with this thing this year,” said Koll during his team’s run at the National Duals title in January. “It’s going to be a dogfight. Do we have best team? Only time will tell, but I do think we are going to be there in the end.”
Kyle Dake won a national title at 141 pounds as a freshman. He enters his second NCAA tournament as the No. 4 seed at 149 pounds and with a 26-2 mark. Senior Mack Lewnes was a finalist in 2010. He brings a 35-2 standard and the No. 3 seed at 174 pounds. Cam Simaz was third at 197 as a sophomore. He’s been ranked No. 1 all season and is 31-1 and the No. 1 seed this time around.
Throw in veteran 133-pounder Mike Grey (11-0), DJ Meagher (23-6 at 157), Justin Kerber (30-4 at 165) and Steve Bosak (30-3 at 184) and Koll’s squad will be tough to beat.
Like Oklahoma State, Penn State brings a high-flying group of youngsters to Philadelphia. Three of head coach Cael Sanderson’s top dogs are rookies but those first-year starters helped PSU to a 17-1-1 dual record.
David Taylor, a Dave Schultz Excellence Award winner as a high school senior in Ohio, has turned in a fabulous first season, going 34-0 at 157 pounds. He’s the three seed behind two undefeated All-Americans.
Redshirt-freshman Ed Ruth (32-1) is the No. 2 seed at 174 pounds. He owns a win against Lewnes. A third rookie, true freshman Andrew Alton (28-8), is the six seed at 141 pounds. Like Taylor, who has 32 bonus-point victories, Alton has been a bonus-point machine with 17 pins and 21 wins by at least major decision.
Two have been there before: 149-pounder Frank Molinaro (28-2) and 133-pounder Andrew Long (15-1). Molinaro, a No. 2 seed, is a two-time All-American at 141 pounds. Long, a transfer from Iowa State, lost in the 125-pound NCAA finals in 2010.
Sanderson also has Quentin Wright (16-6), the Big Ten champ at 184 pounds and All-American two seasons ago, and heavyweight Cameron Wade (28-6), who is seeded ninth.
After a draw with Iowa the first week of January and dual losses to Virginia Tech and Missouri at the National Duals, the Cowboys have been strong, including a Big 12 Championship.
Sophomore Jordan Oliver, a native of Easton, Pa., is unbeaten and the No. 1 seed at 133 pounds after finishing fourth behind three seniors a year ago. Senior Clayton Foster, an All-American at 184 last March, is 22-0 and the No. 2 seed at 197.
Two-time qualifier Jamal Parks (25-3) is the No. 5 seed at 149 pounds and could be on a collision course with Dake in Friday morning’s quarterfinals. Redshirt-freshmen Chris Perry (23-5 at 184) and Dallas Bailey (23-7 at 165) are seeded seventh and sixth, respectively.
Thursday’s first round will include a match that could kick-start the week. OSU senior Neil Erisman (12-4), the Big 12 champion, faces Taylor. The crowd will certainly be paying attention.
“If you would have told me back in November after we lost our heavyweight we’d be in this position I wouldn’t have believed you,” Smith said. “This team has really worked hard, battled through some adversity.”
In 2010 as a 197-pounder, Alan Gelogaev was an All-American. But an injury to the new heavyweight sidelined him in November and the Russian has been unable to return. In his absence redshirt-freshman Blake Rosholt moved up and earned an at-large selection to the NCAA Championships.
Iowa, winners of 23 team championships – all coming since 1975 – will have to pull a few rabbits out of a hat in order to win a fourth consecutive. 125-pounder Matt McDonough (23-1) won a title as a freshman in 2010 and enters as the No. 2 seed.
After missing the first half of the season, junior Montel Marion, a finalist at 141 pounds last March, is 9-3 and the No. 6 seed in the bracket in 2011.
Luke Lofthouse (20-5) has come on strong late in the season. He’s a No. 5 seed at 184 pounds. Derek St. John (19-4 at 157) and Tony Ramos (21-4 at 133) are both No. 6 seeds. Heavyweight Blake Rasing (17-5) is a No. 7 seed.
Wisconsin can pack a powerful punch with Tyler Graff (33-3), the four seed at 133; Andrew Howe (22-2), the defending champion and No. 2 seed at 165; Travis Rutt (33-2), the four seed at 184; and Trevor Brandvold (14-0), the three seed at 197. The Badgers were fourth a year ago, and with a good tournament, could steal the trophy away from the favorites.
The best of the rest
• Boise State, the preseason No. 2, took a body blow when 2010 NCAA finalist Kirk Smith went down with an injury late in the season. Smith needed an at-large selection to make the field and is seeded 11th with an 8-2 record. BSU, the Pac-10 champs, still bring Andrew Hochstrasser (23-1), seeded No. 2 at 133; Jason Chamberlain (24-1), seeded No. 6 at 149; and Adam Hall (25-0), the top seed at 157. To hang around near the top, coach Greg Randall will have to find another point-scorer or two.
• J Robinson’s Minnesota Gophers, winners of three national team titles since 2001, will have to wrestle above their seeds to contend. Two-time All-American Zach Sanders (29-4) is seeded fifth at 125; All-American Mike Thorn (34-4) is the No. 2 man at 141; rookie Kevin Steinhaus (30-9) is No. 8 at 184; All-American Sonny Yohn (13-5) is No. 9 at 197; and heavyweight Tony Nelson (29-6) is No. 8.
• Jack Spates’ final Oklahoma Sooner squad had three wrestlers seeded among the top eight – Jarrod Patterson (25-7 at 125), Zack Bailey (24-3 at 141), and Tyler Caldwell (28-5 at 165). Bailey and Caldwell were All-Americans in 2010. Like the Gophers, Oklahoma will need a few surprises.
• Virginia Tech made headlines with its performance at the National Duals. But the Hokies have since returned to earth. Kevin Dresser’s team will bring just three seeds into the weekend led by No. 5 Jesse Dong (32-3 at 157).
The list of team champions is short. Only 11 programs have claimed team titles since the NCAA first staged a tournament in 1928.
Oklahoma State (34), Iowa (23), Iowa State (8), Oklahoma (7) and Minnesota (3) are the only schools to win multiple championships. Arizona State, Cornell College, Indiana, Michigan State, Northern Iowa and Penn State have each won one. Cornell College, located in Iowa, is now Division III.
The last team other than Iowa, Oklahoma State or Minnesota to win a title was Arizona State, which, under Bobby Douglas, won a championship in 1988.
Could Penn State grab No. 2? Can Cornell join the list? Or maybe somebody will pull off a miracle.
Whoever hoists the team trophy on Saturday night inside Wells Fargo Arena will have earned it. And there’s a good bet that, in the home of Rocky Balboa, they will be bruised, battered and scarred.