At first look, Oklahoma State appeared to roll through the competition at the 2017 Southern Scuffle in Chattanooga, Tenn., last Sunday and Monday. The Cowboys had seven in the finals, crowned four champions, set a scoring record with 198 points and had the largest margin of victory (72 points) since the event began in 2003. But a closer look shows junior 141-pounder Dean Heil and his grinding, razor-thin victories, as more indicative of how tough the tournament was.

Heil, a national champion in 2016, is no stranger to close matches, but over two days in Chattanooga the Ohio native took it to a new level. Against North Carolina redshirt A.J. Headlee, Heil showed off his defensive skills in a 3-2 victory. A round later, Minnesota’s Tommy Thorn could not find a late takedown, and Heil prevailed, 2-1, on a riding time point. In the semifinals, Virginia’s George DiCamillo lost a video review and the match as the OSU 141-pounder made like Harry Houdini in a 3-1 victory. The championship bout saw another down-to-the-wire affair as Heil beat North Carolina’s Joey Ward.

In the end, OSU won a lot of close matches, the type of thing that needs to happen in March.

“I had a lot of close matches this tournament, closer than I would have liked,” Heil said. “But it comes with me not wrestling to my full potential and not being myself after that second match. But I still found a way to finish on top and win tough matches. I had to battle against top kids all week, guys who are gunning for me and going to give me everything they have and more. I had to really gut things out this week, whatever it takes to win matches. People will look at this week and say that Dean Heil is just surviving. But it’s the middle of the season and finding ways to win against good competition helps you down the road.”

“I think (our performance) was good,” said OSU head coach John Smith, whose squad returns to the mat Jan. 15 at home against Iowa. “I’m obviously pleased with the effort. I think it definitely showed us some areas where we are struggling a little bit. Of course, that big deficit you like to see. You did that in the quarterfinals and the semifinals. I think the one thing that we’ve got to take from here is that the couple of teams that we need to challenge for national championships may not have been here. Those are the things you keep an eye on. You don’t want to pat yourself on the back too much but be motivated by a good performance and a good team effort.”

Reigning NCAA champion Penn State, winners of the last six Southern Scuffle titles, did not attend this season. Missouri rallied by Lehigh for second place with Minnesota and Northern Iowa rounding out the top five.

Legendary status

The legend of Gabe Dean began at the Southern Scuffle in January of 2014. After getting pinned by Penn State’s Ed Ruth earlier in the season, Dean, then a freshman, advanced to the 184-pound finals at the Southern Scuffle. Considered one of the bigger upsets in collegiate wrestling history, Dean ended Ruth’s mammoth 84-match winning streak.

On Monday night in the same arena a 7-2 decision of Oklahoma State’s Nolan Boyd gave Dean his fourth Scuffle championship, joining former Big Red star Kyle Dake and Minnesota’s Cole Konrad as the only four-time champions since the event began in 2003.

“It seems like yesterday that I was wrestling here four years ago,” said Dean, now 19-0. “It’s crazy how fast it goes. I’m just thankful for the support I have at Cornell, the coaches, my teammates, my family, everyone who is a part of this.

“Now it’s about getting to work and being prepared for our next matches against Drexel and Missouri. Getting ready for the next match is the focus right now.”

Dean, a two-time national champion, improved to 136-6 for his career.

Penn State rested and ready

A rested Penn State squad returns to the mat for the first time since Dec. 11 when they wrestle at Minnesota Friday and at Nebraska on Sunday. The Nittany Lions (4-0) missed the Reno Tournament of Champions, Dec. 18, due to weather issues.

Meanwhile, Minnesota was fourth at the Southern Scuffle and the Huskers battled Iowa for two days at the Midlands Championships, Dec. 29-30. Six PSU wrestlers are unbeaten with Nick Suriano 7-0, 125), Zain Retherford (8-0, 149), Jason Nolf (8-0, 157), and Bo Nickal (7-0, 184) ranked among the top four – Retherford and Nolf are ranked No. 1. Perhaps the match of the weekend could be Sunday in Lincoln when top-ranked TJ Dudley squares off with Nickal, ranked second.

Star in the making

Mark Hall received plenty of recruiting attention when he won six Minnesota state titles. The true freshman showed why at the Southern Scuffle. In the 174-pound semifinals, Hall appeared to be headed to defeat against Lehigh’s Ryan Preisch, who scored a takedown in the third and led 3-1 and was on a leg again when Hall slickly pulled out a cement-mixer for a pin at 6:29. Later that evening in the finals, Hall took out Oklahoma State All-American Kyle Crutchmer for the title.

“You just hit it, kind of wait for him to think a stalemate is coming,” said Hall after the semifinals. “Sometimes you get it, sometimes you don’t, but in that situation I wasn’t getting to his legs very well and (the mixer) had to work. Usually I’m better about getting to the legs but (Preisch) had a game-plan. I lost a little focus, didn’t do some of the things I needed to do in a couple of situations. My dad will remind me of those things.”

After the semifinals, talk of pulling the redshirt was not something Hall was interested in. After being named Outstanding Wrestler Monday night Hall told Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter Ward Gossett, “That’s undisclosed information even to me, so I’m not sure what’s guaranteed. Whatever it is, I’ll be ready against Minnesota. If that’s not to be I’ll be ready for Junior Nationals.

Speaking of rookies

Iowa won another Midlands title last week and, as expected, Thomas Gilman rolled through the 125-pound bracket. Hawkeye 149-pounder Brandon Sorensen also claimed a title. But a third, freshman Michael Kemerer was also up to the task, winning a marathon, two-tiebreaker slugfest with Nebraska’s top-seeded Tyler Berger in the finals.

“Sometimes during the (video) breaks they were taking away my points, sometimes they were taking away his points, but I just had to clear my mind quickly and get ready to wrestle,” said Kemerer (16-0) of a match that lasted much longer than the 11-minute, two-breaker total. “Ultimately going out there and attacking quick is the best way to do it.”

Iowa wrestles at Michigan Friday and at Michigan State on Sunday.

Big goals

Duke’s Jake Kasper surprised the 285-pound field with athleticism and “want-to” at the Southern Scuffle. In Monday’s final he beat Minnesota All-American Michael Kroells, 5-3. Kasper, a former 184-pounder who redshirted in 2015-16, won one of the wilder matches of the tournament Sunday night when he won a throw-fest with Appalachian State’s Denzel Dejournette. Kasper turned an Austin Schafer (Oklahoma State) double-leg attempt into a 6-pointer in the semifinals and knocked off the top seed, 10-3, in the finals.

“I certified my freshman year of high school at 119 and in seventh grade I wrestled at 92 pounds,” said Kasper, a native of Lexington, Ohio. “I think being smaller I developed a lot of wrestling skills, tried to get into proper wrestling positions. That’s where I feel like I’m stronger than these guys. Against these big boys who are really strong I have to use what I’ve got, that quickness and being able to scramble. (This week) I just wanted it more. I don’t necessarily know if I saw this happening, but I set high goals for myself. My goal this year is to be an undefeated national champion and the undefeated part is done so far. I didn’t go home for Christmas to stay back and train; I’ve made a lot of sacrifices to get where I am. I think I deserved it more than I saw myself deserving it because I’ve been working really hard.”

Roommates and mentors

Former Oklahoma State national champion Teague Moore, now head coach at American University, is hosting a small reunion Friday in Washington, D.C. Moore welcomes former teammate Mark Branch, coach at Wyoming, and two other OSU alumni, Kevin Ward, coach at Army West Point, and Coleman Scott, coach at North Carolina, for a quadrangular. All wrestled for current OSU head coach John Smith.

Wyoming opens with American, then battles North Carolina and Army West Point.

 “It’s something different, something we haven’t done in the past,” Branch said. “It’s three teams we have a good relationship with but we don’t compete against normally. It’s a great opportunity for our guys to see different competition.

“It’s either guys I coached or teammates of mine, so there are some friendships there that won’t be too friendly during Friday’s competition.”