There are very few words to describe the final three sessions of the 2011 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships last March in Philadelphia.
Intense might be a good place to start.
With Penn State and Cornell neck-and-neck heading into Friday night’s semifinal round, in and around Wells Fargo Arena there was a buzz probably heard as far away as Pittsburgh.
Not since 1953 had Penn State won a Division I title and head coach Cael Sanderson’s youthful group was in prime position to end that drought. Cornell, the preseason No. 1, had a possible four finalists and Rob Koll’s group was in search of the program’s first championship.
Nittany Lion junior 184-pounder Quentin Wright electrified the crowd with a pin in the semifinals. He joined teammates Frank Molinaro and super freshman David Taylor in Saturday’s finals.
Meanwhile, the Big Red stumbled mightily as Mack Lewnes, Steve Bosak and Cam Simaz all dropped semifinal bouts.
|2||Penn State (3)||240|
|3||Oklahoma State (1)||230|
|• Complete Poll|
By the time the dust had settled on Saturday night, Penn State was champion, out-distancing Cornell by 14 points. Iowa and Oklahoma State hung around but finished a distant third and fourth, respectively.
Can St. Louis’ Scottrade Center, the site of the 2012 Championships, March 17-20, provide as much drama as 2011? Looking at who is gone, who is back … and the early indications … it may in fact be another barnburner.
The reigning champions took a hit over the summer when two-time All-American Andrew Long was dismissed from the team. Andrew Alton, a talented freshman a year ago, will take a redshirt season. But the cupboard is hardly bare.
Wright, Molinaro and Taylor, who was undefeated before the 2011 157-pound finals, join a fourth All-American, Ed Ruth (174), to give PSU plenty of power again. Heavyweight Cameron Wade also returns. Transfer Derek Reber should fill 133 with rookies Nico Megaludis (125), Dylan Alton (157) and Morgan McIntosh (197) stepping in. McIntosh, a Californian, is expected to be one of the top rookies in 2011-12.
“We don’t feel pressure. We are excited about what these guys were able to do last year, but last year is in the books,” said Sanderson, who made the U.S. World Team in freestyle over the summer and competed at the 2011 World Championships in Turkey. “It’s something we can always be proud of, the Penn State wrestling fans and alumni. We have a chance to have a very successful season this year as long as we continue to attack with the same attitude and passion that we have in the past.”
Old rivals Oklahoma State and Iowa, a pair of programs that have combined to win 58 NCAA team titles, eight since 2000, return virtually their entire lineups. They will be in the hunt in March.
The Hawkeyes bring back seven starters, including 2010 NCAA champion Matt McDonough, who lost in the finals last March. Montell Marion (141), Derek St. John (157) and Grant Gambrall (184) all return with All-American credentials. Three freshmen could start for head coach Tom Brands.
“It’s upon us, and we have a mission like we do every year,” said Brands. “You try to maybe say it a little bit differently, but it’s hard when you have the same philosophy and you’re coaching guys that are about that philosophy. Then they buy into that philosophy and sounds like a broken record because it’s about distancing yourself from the opponent.
“I remember the first press conference I had coming back (to Iowa), and I said we were surrounded with the Gophers and Nebraska and Oklahoma State, Penn State, and that’s still the case. The challenge is great, and we like challenges.”
Oklahoma State lost two starters, including 197-pound finalist Clayton Foster, but head coach John Smith replaced him with transfer Cale Byers, a two-time NCAA qualifier at George Mason. Alan Gelogaev, an All-American two seasons ago, returns from injury and should be one of the top heavyweights.
Junior 133-pounder Jordan Oliver is coming off a dominating, undefeated campaign, while senior 149-pounder Jamal Parks reached the medal stand for the first time. Three sophomores, Jon Morrison (125), Josh Kindig (141) and Chris Perry (184), bring back a year of varsity experience.
“All you ever hope for is to have that opportunity. You’re not hoping to win a national championship — instead, you can kind of control your destiny by what you have, and I think we’re in that position right now,” Smith said. “I’m not in the hope mode that things work out, I’m in a pretty good position to be thinking, ‘I need to control our destiny of where we finish.’ You’re not always in that position and I feel like I’m in it now. I think we can control what we do over this season at a very challenging time when there’s several good teams out there.”
Last season’s runner-up must replace Lewnes, and 133-pounder Mike Grey, but returns three All-Americans, led by junior Kyle Dake, who is 2-for-2 and goes for No. 3 at a third different weight class this season. Rookie Marshall Peppelman is expected to step in at 165 with Mike Nevinger and Chris Villalonga looking for work somewhere in the lineup.
Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan will also field solid squads, giving the Big Ten five of the top 10 in most preseason polls.
The Gophers may not have the star power but J Robinson’s team is solid top to bottom with All-American Zach Sanders (125), newcomer Dylan Ness (149), and All-Americans Kevin Steinhaus (184), Sonny Yohn (197) and Tony Nelson (285). The Gophers could find some star power in 2008 Olympian Jake Deitchler, set to return to the mat, and high school star Logan Storley, a six-time high school state champion.
Michigan returns eight starters and continues its climb back after a disastrous 2009-10 campaign. Kellen Russell won the 141-pound title as a junior and leads the Wolverines.
Illinois returns a pair of All-Americans, BJ Futrell (133) and Jordan Blanton (174) from a team that finished 22nd last March.
Two eastern schools to watch, as usual, are Lehigh and American.
Pat Santoro’s Mountain Hawks were eighth in Philadelphia and return three All-Americans, led by 285-pound champ Zach Rey. Robert Hamlin lost in the 184-pound finals while Brandon Hatchett was fifth at 165.
At American, Teague Moore replaces Mark Cody, who replaced the retiring Jack Spates at Oklahoma. Moore will send two returning All-Americans to the mat, Ganbayar Sanjaa and Ryan Flores, who gave Rey his only defeat of the season before losing to him in the NCAA finals.
Nebraska’s Jordan Burroughs won the Hodge Trophy last season. The Husker claimed the 165-pound NCAA title and followed it up by winning a World championship in freestyle in Turkey over the summer. Who are the favorites in 2011-12?
Oklahoma State’s Jordan Oliver, a junior, was 29-0 last season.
Iowa’s Matt McDonough, also a junior, was 27-2 after claiming a title at 125 as a freshman.
Michigan’s Kellen Russell finished 38-0 as a junior.
Cornell’s Kyle Dake owns two titles and has just four losses in two seasons. He was 31-2 as a sophomore.
Penn State’s David Taylor was a phenomenal 38-1 as a rookie, his only loss coming in the 157-pound final. He will compete at 165 this season which will not include Burroughs, Tyler Caldwell or Andrew Howe.
Lehigh’s Zach Rey was 34-1 and champion at 285 pounds last season.
A number of collegians are taking an Olympic redshirt year. Kent State’s Dustin Kilgore, the 197-pound champion last March, and Wisconsin’s Howe, a champion in 2010, lead the pack. Another Badger, two-time All-American Tyler Graff (133), is also set to sit out.
Others include Missouri heavyweight Dom Bradley and Caldwell, who lost in the 165-pound finals to Burroughs while wearing Oklahoma crimson and cream before transferring to Nebraska after the season.