The NCAA Division I wrestling championship goes from March 21-23 at the PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Here are 10 things to know before the action gets started.
1. How do you spell H-O-D-G-E?
For Penn State's Jason Nolf and Bo Nickal, this season has been a case of 'what you can do, I can do better.' The Penn State seniors have combined to win four NCAA titles and compiled an incredible 217-6 collegiate record, including a 51-0 mark as seniors.
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Nolf, from Yatesboro, Pennsylvania, is PSU’s all-time pins leader with 59 and is 112-3 for his career, including a 26-0 mark in 2018-19. Nickal (25-0), from Allen, Texas, is 105-3 for his career with 56 pins. Nolf lost in the NCAA finals in 2016 to Illinois’ Isaiah Martinez, but has routed the 157-pound field the last two NCAA meets. Nickal lost in the 2016 174-pound NCAA final to Ohio State’s Myles Martin, but returned the favor in dramatic fashion last March to win his second title.
Both Nolf and Nickal are seeded No. 1 this week and are each favored to win a third NCAA championship. Most would agree, the Hodge Trophy, collegiate wrestling’s version of the Heisman Trophy, is a battle between these two “take-no-prisoner” seniors.
Others, on the outside looking in, include Iowa’s Alex Marinelli, Cornell’s Yianni Diakomihalis, PSU’s Mark Hall, and Ohio State’s Myles Martin.
2. Battle of attrition
Talk of the 133-pound division has included “best ever,” the “toughest weight class in the history of the world,” and “the deepest weight in recent history.” However you describe it, at the end of the day — or three days for that — whoever wins this bracket in Pittsburgh will have earned it. From the opening whistle Thursday there are going to be nothing but big-time matches. The bottom half of the bracket reads like some sort of All-Star meet with national finalists, All-Americans, and, basically, a bunch of really good wrestlers.
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Oklahoma State freshman Daton Fix (30-1) is the top seed; he won a Junior World Championship in freestyle before college. Michigan’s Stevan Micic is unbeaten and a finalist in 2018. Third-seeded Nick Suriano of Rutgers was an NCAA finalist at 125 last March.
Pittsburgh rookie Micky Phillippi is the only man to beat Fix this season. Ohio State’s Luke Pletcher was an All-American in 2018. Minnesota’s Ethan Lizak is a two-time All-American and an NCAA finalist in 2017. How stacked is this weight? Wyoming sophomore Montorie Bridges, the Big 12 runner-up, was an All-American last March. He’s seeded 12th this week. And what’s even better? Only two of the top eight seeds are seniors — Lizak, at No. 6, and Missouri John Erneste, at No. 8.
That is the short list. Do not be surprised when there are matches going longer than seven minutes, and video-reviews galore. If participants do not bring their “A” game to Pittsburgh they will be watching from the stands on Saturday.
3. Roar of the Nittany Lions
Penn State has a stranglehold on the Division I field. Head coach Cael Sanderson has a group with sights set on the NCAA record 170 points Dan Gable’s final Iowa squad scored in 1997. Those Hawkeyes had five individual champions. PSU heads to Pittsburgh with Nolf (26-0), Vincenzo Joseph (23-1 at 165), Mark Hall (26-0 at 174), Shakur Rasheed (19-0 at 184), Nickal (25-0), and Anthony Cassar (25-1 at 285) all seeded either 1 or 2 in their respective brackets. Sophomore Nick Lee (27-2) is the third seed at 141 pounds, while rookie Roman Bravo-Young (21-4 at 133) and Brady Berge (18-3 at 149) are each seeded inside the top 12. Six in the finals and two other All-Americans means Sanderson’s bunch will challenge Gable’s 1997 group.
Fans can watch our Pre-NCAA tourney media day live online for free yes wooo!— Penn State WRESTLING (@pennstateWREST) March 15, 2019
1:45 to 2:15 pm – Head coach Cael Sanderson press availability
Watch live!: https://t.co/f5ZzxubKZQ
2:20 to 3 pm -- Nittany Lion NCAA qualifier availability
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A year ago, PSU totaled 141 ½ in winning the 2018 NCAA team title. The 2017 group finished with 146 ½ points, the Nittany Lions’ highest total during their run of seven championships in the last eight years. The program’s first NCAA title, in 1953, saw Charles Speidel’s team score 21 points and edge Oklahoma by six points.
4. The challengers
The two OSUs, Michigan, Iowa, Missouri, Cornell, North Carolina State, Minnesota? Can any of these teams challenge the reigning champs?
Oklahoma State finished the dual season unbeaten and with a seventh consecutive Big 12 Conference crown. The Cowboys, winners of 34 NCAA team titles but none since 2006, bring nine wrestlers to Pittsburgh led by top seeds Fix and heavyweight Derek White (28-1). OSU also has unbeaten Nick Piccininni (30-0 at 125) and Preston Weigel (11-0 at 197) seeded inside the top three. Finalists and All-Americans are required and John Smith’s group has the potential to out all nine of its entries on the podium. Two-time All-American Joe Smith received no favors at 165 pounds; the junior might square off with top-seeded Alex Marinelli of Iowa in the first round.
Ohio State traded haymakers with PSU for three days in 2018 and came up just short, totaling 133 ½ in Cleveland. Minus Nathan Tomasello and Kyle Snyder, Tom Ryan’s squad is not as solid but still a formidable tournament group. Four Buckeyes — Joey McKenna (20-2 at 141), Micah Jordan (25-2 at 149), Martin (20-0 at 184), and Kollin Moore (19-2) — are seeded No. 1 or 2 with Martin the top man in his bracket. Pletcher (23-5 at 133) is also a veteran of NCAA wars.
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Iowa will depend on the unbeaten Marinelli (23-0 at 165) and 2018 NCAA champion Spencer Lee (18-3 at 125). Rookie 197-pounder Jacob Warner (17-4) and sophomores Austin DeSanto (18-4 at 133) and Kaleb Moore (20-5 at 157) will have to make some noise. Heavyweight Sam Stoll (9-5) will have to find some health to advance deep in his bracket.
Michigan has plenty of firepower with Micic (16-0 at 133), Alec Pantaleo (18-7 at 157), Logan Massa (20-5 at 165), and Myles Amine (17-3 at 174). Rookie heavyweight Mason Parris has won 29 matches.
Missouri’s hopes rest on Jaydin Eierman (23-3 at 141) and three-time All-American Daniel Lewis (24-1 at 174) leading a group that will have to wrestle well above their seeds.
Rob Koll brings another quality Cornell group to an NCAA meet. 2018 NCAA champ Yianni Diakomihalis (24-0) and rookie Vito Arujau (26-2 at 125), plus Max Dean (21-5 at 184) and Ben Honis (19-4 at 197) give the Big Red another probable top 10 showing.
5. Fantastic freshmen
This year’s group of freshmen is stellar. The best of the class may be Junior World champion Gable Steveson, who entered the Big Ten finals at 30-0 before falling to PSU’s Cassar. Steveson, who suits up for Minnesota, is seeded third behind OSU’s White and Cassar in the 285-pound bracket. Wisconsin’s Trent Hillger (22-6) and Michigan’s Parris are also two first-timers worthy of attention.
The massive 133-pound field includes Fix, Phillippi, Bravo-Young, and Iowa State’s Austin Gomez, who is 21-5 and a dangerous No. 13 seed. Two at 125 pounds, Arujau and Princeton’s Patrick Glory (26-4), are seeded inside the top eight, while Oklahoma’s Dom Demas (29-7) won the Big 12 title at 141 pounds.
The 149-pound bracket includes five rookies worthy of note, including North Carolina’s Austin O’Connor (29-5), PSU’s Berge, Oklahoma State’s Kaden Gfeller (28-4), Penn’s Anthony Artalona (26-5), and Missouri’s Brock Mauller (29-2).
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Virginia Tech’s Mekhi Lewis (23-2 at 165) is another freestyle star, while Nebraska’s Mikey Labriola (26-6 at 174) and Warner are potential podium finishers.
Iowa’s Lee and Cornell’s Diakomihalis grabbed NCAA gold in their first appearance.
6. Back for more
Returning NCAA champions include: Spencer Lee (125), Yianni Diakomihalis (141), Jason Nolf (157), Vincenzo Joseph (165), Zahid Valencia (174), Bo Nickal (184), Mark Hall (174 in 2017), Myles Martin (174 in 2016). Five of those are seeded No. 1 and of that group there are just six losses, three by Iowa’s Lee, two by Arizona State’s Valencia, and one by PSU’s Joseph. Lee and Valencia are each seeded third with Joseph, a two-time NCAA champ, No. 2.
Pat Smith (Oklahoma State), Cael Sanderson (Iowa State), Kyle Dake (Cornell), and Logan Stieber (Ohio State) are the only wrestlers to win four NCAA titles. Lee, Diakomihalis, and Joseph are still on track to join that group.
7. Scarlet Knight No. 1?
The wrestling program at Rutgers has never had a Division I NCAA champion and just 16 All-Americans. Four of those top eight finishes belong to Suriano and Anthony Ashnault.
Suriano, after transferring to Rutgers from Penn State, advanced to the 125-pound NCAA final in 2018 where he fell to Iowa’s Lee. Now a junior, Suriano, from Paramus, New Jersey, is 24-3 and seed third at 133 pounds after winning a Big Ten title two weekends ago. He lost a marathon, video-review-filled match with Fix during the regular season and also fell to Micic in a dual meet. Ashnault, a fifth-year senior, has advanced to the NCAA semifinals twice and earned All-America status three times. The South Plainfield product is 27-0 and the top seed at 149 pounds.
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8. Hands to the face
Officials have made an effort to cut down an aggressive hands-to-the-face calls in 2018-19. Rule 5, Section 3 in the NCAA Wrestling Rules and Interpretations states:
Unnecessary roughness involves physical acts that occur during a match. It includes any act that exceeds normal aggressiveness. It would include, but is not limited to, a forceful slap to the head or face, gouging or poking the eyes, a forceful application of a cross-face, a forceful trip, or a forearm or elbow used in a punishing way, such as on the spine or the back of the head or neck.
Unnecessary roughness penalties are assessed in conjunction with other technical violations as outlined in the Penalty Table. Points for unnecessary roughness shall be awarded in addition to points earned.
Debate, all week, will include coaches, officials, wrestlers, fans, and media. Here’s hoping no matches are determined by phantom “hands-to-the-face” calls.
9. NCAAs in the Keystone State
Thirteen times the NCAA Wrestling Championships have been held in the state of Pennsylvania, the last in 2011 at Philadelphia. Penn State hosted in 1999, 1968, 1953, 1938, and 1930; Lehigh hosted in 1951, 1948, 1941, 1935 and 1933; Franklin & Marshall served as host in 1939. The NCAA meet has not been in Pittsburgh since 1957 when Port Robertson’s Oklahoma Sooners edged host Pittsburgh for the team title.
10. The Steel City
Pittsburgh is known as the Steel City for a reason. The U.S. steel industry’s golden age was from the late 1800s to the early 1900s and Pittsburgh was its hub. By 1911, the city produced half of the nation’s steel, including materials for New York’s Empire State Building and the Brooklyn Bridge. During World War II, Pittsburgh provided 95 million tons of steel to the war effort. The Pittsburgh Steelers’ logo is adopted from the American Steel and Iron Institute in 1962. And, although it is called a Philly Cheesesteak, Primanti Brothers in downtown Pittsburgh also makes a fine sandwich.
Welcome to the City Of Champions! https://t.co/NDGfCslPx8— City of Pittsburgh (@CityPGH) March 14, 2019