ST. LOUIS – Picking the winner for the Outstanding Wrestler Award at the 2012 Division I Wrestling Championships is not going to be easy. If you blink, you miss a few of the candidates.

American’s Ryan Flores has four pins. Oklahoma State’s Jordan Oliver, Illinois’ Bernard Futrell, Cornell’s Kyle Dake and Penn State’s David Taylor each have three wins and three pins.

Three other defending champions -- Iowa’s Matt McDonough, Michigan’s Kellen Russell and Penn State’s Quentin Wright -- have dominated. Penn State’s Ed Ruth has a pair of pins and an easy win. Cornell’s Cam Simaz hasn’t exactly been a slouch.

Dake
CU

Pins are coming in bunches, and even Russell, a senior known for close matches, has opened up the playbook.

“I feel good, trying to stay as offensive as I can,” said Russell, the 2011 champion at 141 pounds who improved to 31-1 with a solid 7-3 win against Minnesota’s Nick Dardanes in the quarterfinals. “I’m trying to get more shots off. I’ve been trying to work on multiple attacks all year. It’s really a mindset, trying to go out and score early. I’ve changed the way I’ve approached my matches this year.”

In the past, Dake, trying to make history by winning three championships at three weights, has been known as a grind-it-out wrestler. Not so this week. The junior 157-pounder has not seen the second period, recording three first-period pins.

“Nobody expects me to go out and score a bunch of bonus points but I’ve gone out early and looked for it this week,” Dake said while running his record to 33-0.  “It’s about winning at this point, getting to the top of the podium.”

Oliver (27-1) and Futrell (30-6) meet in the semifinals. After a scare in the annual NWCA All-Star Classic in November – the match is an exhibition – Oliver won by major decision in their meeting in the National Duals last month. Oliver, a junior, has had just one win that did not include bonus points this year, a 7-3 win against Ohio State’s Logan Stieber.

“I think being in this situation last year, it helps,” Russell said of being mentally ready for the semifinals. “The experience of wrestling in the semifinals … you are going to be nervous that first time. You are still going to have some nerves no matter how many times you are there, but you know what to expect the second time around.

“It’s a great night to be a part of.”

McDonough’s biggest scare of the week may have come against the scales on Friday morning. Obviously the Hawkeye junior made it, coming back with a 13-3 major decision in the 125-pound quarterfinals. The 2010 champion and 2011 finalist has his toughest match so far, facing Kent State veteran Nicholas Bedelyon, who is 32-4 after beating Illinois’ Jesse Delgado in the wildest of quarterfinal bouts.

Wright, seeded outside the top four for a second consecutive year, was expected to see a tough match with Central Michigan’s Ben Bennett, the third seed who was 31-4 entering Friday. But Wright (29-3) locked up a quick cradle and it was all she wrote.

“The coaches have really been emphasizing going for the pin,” Wright said. “If you want to win tournaments you’ve got to go get bonus points.”

Wright is one of five Penn State semifinalists and wants a shot at title No. 2 as a junior.

“Last year was last year. You can’t take that away,” Wright said. “This is a new year. I have to stay focused for every match. Nothing is ever given here.”

Dominating is always nice, but at this point of the tournament it’s about survival; advance and move to the next round.

Lehigh’s Zach Rey, the champion at 2011, has been living dangerously. The senior 285-pounder won a 6-4 overtime match in the first round, a 2-1 decision Thursday night, and a 2-0 nail-biter against Iowa’s Bobby Telford in the quarterfinals. He meets Flores in the semifinals.

DIVISION I CHAMPIONSHIP 
Session 3: 
Brackets | Scores | Round-by-Round 
Highlights | Recap
Session 2:
 Brackets | Scores | Round-by-Round | Recap
Session 1:
 Brackets | Scores | Round-by-Round | Recap
Preview: Breaking down the race

Still a race, sort of
Penn State, with five in the championship bracket and two in wrestlebacks, leads Cornell 78.5-61.5 in the team race. Cornell has four in the semifinals but just one alive in the bottom half. Iowa, with four in the semifinals and two in wrestlebacks, sits in third with 58.5 points. Minnesota has three semifinalists and five in wrestlebacks and is fourth at 56.

Oklahoma State struggled on Friday. The fifth-place Cowboys have only four left in the tournament, three of those in the semifinals. Illinois, Lehigh, Ohio State, American and Pittsburgh round out the top 10.

And then there was one
Hofstra’s Justin Accordino is the only unseeded wrestler to make the semifinals. The 149-pounder had an 11-3 major decision of Oklahoma’s Nick Lester in the quarterfinals. The junior next meets Penn State’s Frank Molinaro for a shot in the final.

Only three weight classes – 133, 174 and 285 – saw the top four seeds advance to the semifinals.

The routine
Two hours before competition starts each day wrestlers must go through a medical skin check followed by a visit to the scale. Participants are given an additional pound on the second day and two pounds on Saturday. For instance, a 125-pounder can weigh 126 on Friday and 127 on Saturday. There was some “almost drama” on Friday morning concerning Iowa’s Matt McDonough, the top seed and 2010 champion. Weigh-ins don’t usually have spectators but there were a handful of interested on-lookers around 9 a.m. before the quarterfinals.

There are always predictions as to how much certain wrestlers, those who cut a significant amount, weigh by the time Saturday night rolls around. The standard may be former 125-pound national champion Gene Mills of Syracuse, who may or may not have weighed as much or more than 134-pound national champion Jim Gibbons of Iowa State.

As far as skin checks? “I can’t remember anybody failing skin checks on the second day,” said Dr. Tom Allen, who has part of the process for over 20 years. “Trainers pretty much have anything under control by the time they get here.”