STILLWATER, Okla. – There was plenty of belly-aching about the new format for the NWCA National Duals this season, the majority of it coming from collegiate wrestling’s fanbase.
But much of that was put to rest, at least for a day, as Oklahoma State hosted Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois for the inaugural Mat Mayhem on Sunday. Three of the four dual meets came down to the final match with the Gophers edging Oklahoma State 18-13 in the championship finals.
“What we talked about is just being ready mentally because there are very few times you get to wrestle for a championship in your life,” said Minnesota coach J Robinson, whose squad finishes the dual campaign with a 14-3 record. “The beauty of it is that if you win you get to keep it for the rest of your life. We took it in stages. Any time you wrestle Iowa it’s going to be intense and Oklahoma State is the same way. We tried to stay in the moment and it worked out for us.”
The Gophers dropped a dual meet to Oklahoma State way back on Dec. 5. On Jan. 29 the Gophers fell to Iowa 19-17. After winning the Piscataway, N.J. regional two weekends ago, UM earned another shot at the Hawkeyes in the semifinals.
The rivals split the 10 matches, five and five, just like last time. However, this time around 165 pounds saw a different outcome as Cody Yohn, who was pinned by Mike Evans in Iowa City, reversed the outcome, winning in overtime. Iowa still maintained a lead after Ethan Lofthouse’s victory at 174 pounds, but the Gophers strung together three consecutive wins to advance with a 16-15 win. Minnesota All-American heavyweight Tony Nelson beat Iowa rookie Bobby Telford 2-0 in the dual’s final bout.
“That’s a 9-point swing in the dual,” said Robinson of Yohn’s overtime decision. “That’s the beauty of this thing. We brought 10 guys and they all played a part in us winning a championship.”
The finals provided plenty of dramatics as well.
The Cowboys, who entered Sunday unbeaten and ranked No. 1 in most polls, led 13-9 after Chris Perry’s 4-0 decision at 174 pounds. But Kevin Steinhaus, Sonny Yohn and Nelson rallied UM to the 5-point win.
The hosts were without the services of 285-pounder Alan Gelogaev, who suffered a season-ending injury in a dual meet last Thursday. In his place, true freshman Austin Marsden took the mat. He saved the day in the Cowboys’ semifinal victory against Illinois when he, a native of Illinois, beat Pat Wagner with a takedown in the final 20 seconds to give OSU a 19-15 win. The Illini won just four bouts, including a huge pin by Tony Dallego in the 184-pound bout that gave UI a 15-13 lead.
“There were a lot of big moments in both matches for us,” said OSU head coach John Smith. “We’ve been in tough matches all year, especially this week with Ohio State, Oklahoma, Illinois and Minnesota. Right now we have to find some people to fill some holes. It would be easy to lay down and say that we can’t compete for a national championship now, but I am going to dig in, dig my heels in and ask a little bit more from my guys.
“(Jamal Parks) was down 5-0 and he dug in and never hit the panic button.”
Parks, one of two unbeaten wrestlers for the hosts, trailed 5-0 early after getting thrown to his back by UM redshirt freshman Dylan Ness in the finals. Parks rallied with four takedowns the rest of the way and escaped with an 11-8 victory. Ness also had a sweet toss in the semifinals, throwing Mike Kelly to his back on the way to a big major decision.
Iowa came back to beat Illinois, 28-6, in the third-place dual.
“We have tough matches every week and this weekend was no exception to that.” said Iowa head coach Tom Brands, whose squad returns to the mat March 3-4 at the Big Ten Championships. “We go 5 and 5 with matches against Minnesota with bonus points being the difference. From where I sit we have to win individual matchups. If we are winning matches that means we aren’t worrying about giving up bonus points.
“Right now we have to get more selfish. I don’t think we are selfish enough right now. You win matches by scoring takedowns and we didn’t have nearly enough (Sunday).”
Overall, the two-week, 24-team, four-regional format was positive.
“You can look at it both ways,” said Illinois 165-pounder Conrad Polz. “It’s good preparation for what’s to come with the Big Tens and NCAAs, but you can also look at it as this is the time to get my body ready for what’s to come, supposed to maybe have some time off to get heeled. I have mixed feelings about it. I love the dual format when you are wrestling great teams; everybody is involved, but, again, there are some things that will probably need to change.”
One of the goals of the NWCA is to increase the popularity of the dual format culminating in a dual meet championship.
“The whole purpose of the National Duals is making college wrestling more relevant on college campuses across the country,” said NWCA President Mike Moyer. “And the obvious way to do that is to grow the spectator base. Our infrastructure in wrestling is currently to support one event, the NCAA Championships. That is certainly our crown jewel but our sport needs more than one signature event. The National Duals gives us another opportunity to create another signature event.
“There is nothing easy about what we are trying to do. But just because it is hard doesn’t mean it won’t be worth it in the long run.”
“I think it is great for the fans and I don’t mind the split format, because having two meets like we had on (Feb. 19) and then having to turn around and do it again the following day, at least this time of year, is pretty tough,” said Illinois coach Jim Heffernan. “I think the finality of a final four is going to be good. We wrestled Oklahoma State in the 2005 National Duals and came back to Champaign and nobody talked much about it. We come back from Cornell and say we are Regional champions and going to the Final Four and all-of-a-sudden everyone wants to talk about it. As a coach I support it 100-percent. It’s difficult to find a spot that fits everybody. We need to find a spot in the season and stick with it.”
“I like the two weekend format,” said Smith. “It will get tweaked a little bit, but I think it would be silly not to keep with it. I am in full support of it.”
Without question Robinson and the Gophers support it.