A few things were determined from November to March at the Division I level of college wrestling.
Minnesota, NCAA champions three times since the turn of the century, proved to be the top dual team by winning the new version of the NWCA National Duals. After dropping a season-opening dual to Cornell on Nov. 18, the Gophers came back two days later to knock off 2011 NCAA champion Penn State in State College, Pa.
December and January included Gopher losses to Oklahoma State and Iowa. J Robinson’s battle-tested Gophers bounced back to beat Iowa and Oklahoma State on the same Sunday in mid-February to finish the dual season 14-3. A balanced UM squad, with nine wrestlers seeded, will be tough to beat in St. Louis.
Iowa, winners of three consecutive NCAA titles from 2008-10, appeared to be on the outside looking in this season with 2011 All-American Derek St. John hobbled by injury. However, the sophomore 157-pounder won a pair of overtime matches and beat Northwestern’s talented Jason Welch in the Big Ten final to bring the Hawkeyes back into the conversation and certainly a threat to win the school’s 24th national team title. Tom Brands’ Hawkeyes have seven wrestlers seeded No. 5 or better.
Oklahoma State, which last claimed an NCAA title in 2006, was set up to make a major run at the program’s 35th national championship. But on a February night in Norman, Okla., 285-pounder Alan Gelogaev, unbeaten at the time, went down with an injury, the second time in as many years. The Cowboys still have plenty of firepower with 2011 champion Jordan Oliver, unbeatens Jamal Parks and Chris Perry, plus transfer Cayle Byers. It’s the supporting cast, however, that holds the key for coach John Smith’s squad.
Rob Koll’s Cornell Big Red was in position to win the program’s first title last March. It came up 15 points short. When you have two-time champ Kyle Dake, top-seeded Cam Simaz, Steve Bozak and a handful of other threats, you cannot count out a program that has been second the last two seasons.
|Want to see deeper into the Division I Championship? Read what NCAA.com’s Roger Moore has to say about each weight and all the top wrestlers heading to St. Louis this weekend. For the breakdown, click here.|
But when wrestling commences inside Scottrade Center in St. Louis on Thursday for the 2012 NCAA Division I Championships, there will be a solid favorite – Cael Sanderson’s Penn State Nittany Lions.
A team that won the school’s first wrestling title since 1953 returns one champion, two finalists and a third-place finisher.
Quentin Wright rolled to the 184-pound title in Philadelphia last March. The two-time All-American is 26-3 and seeded sixth this season. Sophomore 165-pounder David Taylor (27-0), a 2011 runner-up, and senior 149-pounder Frank Molinaro (28-0), a three-time All-American, have been dominant in 2011-12. Likewise for sophomore 174-pounder Ed Ruth (26-0), who has been a bonus-point machine.
Of Taylor’s 27 victories, 25 are of the bonus-point variety; 21 of Molinaro’s 28 wins and 22 of Ruth’s 26 victories provide the same statistic. Wright can claim 21 of 26 with bonus points. That foursome has the potential to score 100 points by themselves. Not since 2003 has a second-place team reached the 100-point plateau.
Sanderson will also bring three-time NCAA qualifier Cameron Wade (26-4), a sixth seed at 285, and talented freshmen Morgan McIntosh (17-8 at 197), Nico Megaludis (24-7 at 125) and Dylan Alton (24-5 at 157). Wade, a senior, has also scored plenty this season, picking up bonus points in 18 of his 24 wins.
Anybody else have that kind of bonus point power? Yes and no.
Oklahoma State’s Oliver has 15 pins and 23 bonus-point wins in 24 victories this season. Perry and Parks have combined for 24 bonus-point wins with Byers’ 13 more than 50-percent of his win total.
Iowa’s Matt McDonough, a champion in 2010 and a runner-up last March, has 19 bonus wins; 133-pounder Tony Ramos (28-3) has 18; two-time All-American 141-pounder Montell Marion (26-3) has 12.
The Gophers may be the most balanced squad in the field with plenty of All-American potential up and down the lineup.
Three-time All-American Zach Sanders (25-3) is the second seed at 125. Cody and Sonny Yohn are both seeded 10th – Sonny is a two-time All-American – and Kevin Steinhaus (27-4), also an All-American in 2011, is seeded fifth at 184.
For UM to have a chance, four rookies will have to contribute, led by Logan Storley (23-6), the fourth seed at 174. The freshmen tandem of Chris and Nick Dardanes has 42 wins combined, and the always dangerous Dylan Ness (20-8) is seeded seventh at 149.
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Illinois has had a wrestler in the NCAA Championships 65 times. Nine times the Illini have been among the final five. Jim Heffernan’s squad nearly knocked off Oklahoma State in a dual and has Jesse Delgado (30-6) seeded fourth at 125; Bernard Futrell (27-6) seeded fourth at 133; Conrad Polz (20-6) seeded ninth at 165; Jordan Blanton (25-7) seeded seventh at 174; and Mario Gonzalez (23-7) seeded seventh at 197.
Ohio State will rely on brothers Logan and Hunter Stieber, both first-time NCAA participants, and high school teammate Cam Tessari. Logan (28-2) is seeded second behind Oliver at 133, with Hunter (25-4) the fifth seed at 141. Nick Heflin (23-8) is seeded ninth at 174. The Buckeyes on head coach Tom Ryan finished second in back-to-back seasons (2008 and 2009) and will be freshman-heavy in St. Louis.
Could there be a Cinderella? Could Nebraska, Lehigh, Oklahoma, Missouri or Wyoming crash the party?
History shows that Division I wrestling rarely finds someone to fit into the glass slipper. It looks as if Penn State has replaced Iowa State as part of the ‘Big Four’ with Iowa, Oklahoma State and Minnesota.