This weekend's wrestling news will be dominated by the Big Ten Conference and its annual battle royal.
And for good reason. Five of the top ten squads in the final regular season rankings fly the Big Ten flag, including the trifecta at the top: Minnesota, Penn State, and Iowa.
Since the opening of the twenty-first century, Big Ten schools have claimed every NCAA championship with the exception of Oklahoma State's run from 2003 to 2006. The league's depth from top to bottom is evident in the seventy-four allocations given by the NCAA last week; the EIWA's forty-seven rank second. You can bet, also, that with a few unlikely results among the 10 weight classes the Big Ten will also gobble up a couple of the at-large bids given out next week. None of this, to wrestling fans, comes as much of a surprise.
However, this weekend, regardless of what coach-speak you hear or the "importance of duals" debate, is about earning a spot in collegiate wrestling's Super Bowl, World Series, World Cup, and Indianapolis 500 all rolled into one extra spicy, super-sized burrito.
For plenty, the ingredients are already assembled through a successful regular season. A bad tournament this weekend will not keep them from Oklahoma City; it will only add more debate in seeding meetings. The possible individual unrest that occurs in Madison, Wis., and where other highly-ranked individuals compete will only make Sunday night more difficult to endure for those who did not finish inside one of those allocated NCAA spots.
• The West Regional earned fifteen spots in the NCAA field. Six weight classes will take only the champion to Oklahoma City. One of those, 125 pounds, earned two spots, but three wrestlers – Air Force Academy's Josh Martinez, Wyoming's Tyler Cox, and Northern Colorado's Trey Andrews – are among the top 33 in the NCAA's RPI ratings. The Southern Conference also has six weights with only the first-place finisher qualifying.
• So, with all that being said, what in the wide world of sports does the 2013-14 collegiate wrestling have in store this weekend? Here are 10 things to keep an eye on from Madison to Utah.
Despite the individual nature of the sport, when it comes to team trophies everyone likes them. Qualifying for the 2014 NCAA championships takes place at nine sites: ACC (Virginia Tech), Big Ten (Wisconsin), Big 12 (Oklahoma), EIWA (Penn), EWL (Cleveland State), MAC (Kent State), Pac-12 (Stanford), Southern (Campbell), and West Regional (Utah Valley). Oregon State ran away with the Pac-12 title last Sunday, but don't expect too many runaways this weekend.
Minnesota, Penn State, Iowa, and possibly Michigan will battle for top honors in the Big Ten. Bedlam rivals Oklahoma State and Oklahoma should have a back-and-forth affair in the Big 12s. The ACC, with the addition of Pittsburgh, means the Panthers, Virginia, and Virginia Tech could have some fun. Missouri and Northern Iowa will battle for top honors in the MAC, while The Citadel and Chattanooga will fight in the SoCon. Cornell (EIWA), Edinboro (EWL), and Wyoming (West) are strong favorites in their neck of the woods.
Carrying the torch
Many programs are thinking about competing for conference honors, possible trips to the NCAA Championships, and the potential of next year's squad. That is not the case at Boston University, which announced it would discontinue wrestling after the 2013-14 season. Never a powerhouse, the Terriers of veteran coach Carl Adams will compete in the EIWA Championships this weekend with one wrestler, senior 157-pounder Nestor Taffur (31-2) certainly carrying the BU torch. Mitchell Wightman, a 165-pounder, has 18 victories this season, but it's Taffur, a native of New Jersey, who has the best chance to earn All-America honors for the Terriers in Oklahoma City.
As a junior, Taffur won thirty six matches and qualified for the 2013 NCAA championships. BU's highest finish at an NCAA tournament is 24th in 1994. At least one Terrier has qualified for the NCAAs in thirty two of the last three seasons.
Return of a Hokie
Virginia Tech was already excited about hosting the Atlantic Coast Conference Championships on Saturday. Head coach Kevin Dresser got a lot more excited on Wednesday when 141-pound stud Devin Carter was given the green light to compete. At the Las Vegas Invitational last December, Carter, an All-American in 2012 and a two-time ACC champion, sustained a complete "avulsion of his hamstrings from his pelvis."
Already one of the deepest weights in the conference, 141 pounds was given five allocations. With only 12 matches in 2013-14, Carter (12-0) will most likely have to finish inside the top five to go to OKC.
"About three months ago, I got some bad news that I'd be out for the season, and they told me I'd have a six- to nine-month recovery," Carter said in a school release on Wednesday. "I worked real hard and came in for rehab twice a day and thank God for my genes because I had a huge recovery. I'm feeling good, feeling 100 percent, and I'm ready to go Saturday for ACCs. My expectations for myself are the same as it was the day before I got hurt: to win ACCs and a national championship."
The walking wounded
Injuries in March are not good for wrestlers; actually, injuries any time after November are unwelcome. A number of student-athletes have been off the mat for different durations this season. A foursome of All-Americans from a year ago have missed significant time but are expected to go this weekend. The Big 12's Jarrod Patterson (125) and Blake Rosholt (197) of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, respectively, have not seen much action in the spring, while Cornell's Mike Nevinger (141) and Northern Iowa's Ryan Loder (184) have a combined 24 matches. Always a slugfest, 184 pounds also includes Minnesota's Kevin Steinhaus and Boise State's Jake Swartz, each of whom have battled injuries this campaign.
Swan song for the Big 12?
The NCAA lists the members of the West Regional as "West Independents." The six-team league includes host Utah Valley, Wyoming, Air Force, South Dakota State, Northern Colorado, and North Dakota State. Northern Iowa, a former member of the group, left for greener pastures in the Mid-American Conference. The six-team Pac-12, which held its conference meet last weekend, includes Arizona State, Boise State, Cal Poly, Bakersfield, Oregon State, and Stanford.
The Big 12 Conference, in wrestling, includes Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Iowa State, and West Virginia. Former Big 12 member Missouri is now a member of the SEC, but wrestles in the MAC. The four-team Big 12 earned twenty-four NCAA allocations and will compete in Norman, Okla., on Saturday. The rumor mill always heats up in March concerning the future of the Big 12 wrestling schools. So, let the rumors begin. Will there be a Big 12/West Regional, a Big 12/Pac-12 Regional, a West/Pac-12 alliance, a Pac-12/Big 12/West league? Sounds like an episode of Game of Thrones.
Big Ten big boys
The big boys of the Big Ten annually produce national champions. Eleven times since 2000, a wrestler representing a Big Ten school has won the 285-pound title at the NCAA championships. Minnesota's Tony Nelson has won the last two, while former Gophers Cole Konrad (2006, 2007) and Brock Lesnar (2000) also won the last bout of an NCAA championship. This weekend in Madison, Wisc., an NCAA preview will take place with Nelson, Michigan's Adam Coon, Indiana's Adam Chalfant, Wisconsin's Connor Medberry, Michigan State's Mike McClure, and Iowa's Bobby Telford expected to compete. The rankings show seven of the top eight in the country are from the Big Ten – North Carolina State's Nick Gwiazdowski, who is a lofty 35-2, is ranked third behind Coon and Chalfant. No heavyweight among the top 20 made it through the season without at least one defeat.
Six weight classes have at least one freshman ranked among the top six entering the weekend. The regular season credentials are plenty … can they keep it going this weekend? Those rookies very close to the top of the ladder are:
• Michigan's Adam Coon is 28-1 and ranked first at 285 pounds.
• Penn State's unflappable Zain Retherford (26-0), ranked second behind Edinboro's Mitchell Port (23-0) at 141 pounds, gave Ohio State's Logan Stieber his only loss in 23 matches this season.
• Another first-timer with a win against a national champion is Wisconsin 157-pounder Isaac Jordan (21-4), who gave Nebraska's James Green his only loss this season and who also beat 2013 NCAA champion Derek St. John of Iowa. Jordan, Green, and St. John will settle things at the Big Tens.
• Cornell's Gabe Dean (31-2) backed up his early January win over Penn State's Ed Ruth and enters the weekend ranked second at 184 pounds.
• Missouri's J'Den Cox (30-2) has been a beast for Missouri all season. He is ranked second at 197 pounds.
• Two 125-pounders from Iowa schools, Dylan Peters (27-4) of Northern Iowa and Cory Clark (15-0) from Iowa. Clark battled Thomas Gilman and, possibly, the scales for the starting nod all year.
• Northwestern's Jason Tsirtsis is 24-3 and ranked sixth at 149 pounds.
This weekend might be a good indication of which of the newbies is ready to challenge in Oklahoma City.
No sophomore slump
A trio of sophomores, All-Americans as freshmen, are certainly ones to watch the rest of the way.
Cornell 125-pounder Nahshon Garrett, from Chico, Calif., set a school record for wins last season after going 43-5 and placing third at the NCAA Championships. Garrett takes a 26-1 record and a No. 1 ranking into this weekend's EIWAs.
Oklahoma State's Alex Dieringer, third at 157 pounds in 2013, takes a 27-1 record into the Big 12s. Dieringer, a high-flying product of Wisconsin, owns a 62-4 career record.
Two seasons ago as a member of the Binghamton University program, heavyweight Nick Gwiazdowsi finished eighth and won thirty matches. With North Carolina State this season, Gwiazdowsi is 35-2 and ranked third.
Few and far between
Only five wrestlers with at least twenty matches remain unbeaten entering the weekend. They are:
• Mitchell Port of Edinboro (23-0) and Zain Retherford of Penn State (26-0) at 141 pounds
• David Taylor of Penn State (26-0) at 165 pounds
• Andrew Howe of Oklahoma (23-0) at 174 pounds
• Jim Sheptock of Maryland (25-0) at 285 pounds.
Taylor and Howe are both former national champions, while Sheptock, a native of Northhampton, Pa., finished sixth at the 2013 NCAA Championships.
If things go as planned in Madison, fans could see Round 2 of Ohio State's Logan Stieber and Retherford. Those in Norman are looking forward to a possible second installment of Howe and Chris Perry of Oklahoma State.
Missouri stars Drake Houdeshelt and J'Den Cox are a combined 61-3 this season. Houdeshelt (31-1) is the top-ranked 149-pounder in the country, yet he is the No. 2 seed at the MAC Championships behind Ohio's Tywan Claxton (24-4), the only wrestler to beat Houdeshelt this season. Cox (30-2) is the second-ranked 197-pounder behind Iowa State's Kyven Gadson, who owns a win over the Tiger during the regular season. Cox's other loss is to Ohio's Phil Wellington, who is 30-2 and ranked eighth. Wellington, a sophomore, is the top seed in the MAC.