OKLAHOMA CITY -- If the three days inside Chesapeake Energy Arena compare to the 2013-14 regular season, collegiate wrestling fans are in for a treat this week.
Every weight class has its own storylines.
Defending 125-pound champion Jesse Delgado of Illinois, a junior, has a building rivalry with Penn State junior Nico Megaludis. What about Cornell’s sensational sophomore Nahshon Garrett?
Is Penn State’s Zain Retherford for real at 141? Ohio State’s Logan Stieber is a two-time champion and seeded second behind Edinboro’s Mitchell Port. Is Virginia Tech’s Devin Carter capable of making a run?
Is Kendric Maple, a senior for Oklahoma and undefeated champion last season, really fourth best at 149?
The winner of the 157- and 197-pound brackets might require a hospital stay on Sunday.
Is David Taylor unbeatable in his final tournament?
Chris Perry. Andrew Howe. Enough said.
Ed Ruth and Gabe Dean in a possible Friday night semifinal. Enough said.
Heavyweights …how many overtime tiebreakers will we see in that bracket?
And that is just the individual battles to come. Wrestling fans remember a team race that required some Saturday night theatrics in 2013. As many as five teams think they can win a team title this weekend.
“We’ve got to wrestle well, but everyone else has to wrestle well, too,” said Penn State head coach Cael Sanderson, leader of a program that has won the last three NCAA team titles. “I think that is the exciting part; there are several teams that have a chance to win. And it is very simple; whoever scores the most points wins.
“We are not going to worry about any other team and what’s there seeds and what’s going on with them because that is just going to distract us. We are just going to live in our own little world and score points when we can, that’s all we can do”
Sanderson has another powerful squad, led by national champions Taylor and Ruth and All-Americans Megaludis, Brown, and Dylan Alton. There are some unknowns: Retherford, rookie 133-pounder Jimmy Gulibon, James English at 149, heavyweight Jon Gingrich, and the talented Morgan McIntosh at 197.
The Nittany Lions rallied to win the Big Ten Championships against a Tom Brands-built Iowa squad that seeks the program’s 24th NCAA title.
“I believe we have a team to win it here, and I believe we have a team to win it in a couple weeks and that’s how you go forward,” said Brands following the Big Tens. “That’s what our next mission is, and we’ve got to get ready for the next tournament. Even if we come out on top, there’s things to work on and there’s things to work on now. It’s the same either way. We’ve got to go to work.
“We’re on a mission.”
Don’t discount the Hawkeyes. Ramos, 2013 NCAA champion Derek St. John, All-Americans Mike Evans, Ethan Lofthouse, and Bobby Telford will be tough outs. The key for Iowa, however, lies in Corey Clark, Josh Dziewa, Brody Grothus, and Nick Moore.
Minnesota had eight All-Americans in 2013 and still finished third behind Penn State and Oklahoma State. The winners of back-to-back NWCA National Duals trophies, the Gophers must find a way to translate that into bonus points in OKC. Up and down the lineup, UM head coach J Robinson has plenty of firepower. Chris and Nick Dardanes will have to be more than middle of the pack; Dylan Ness, a finalist two seasons ago, has to come up with some dramatics similar to a regular season that included a win against St. John; Logan Storley must find a way to upset the Perry-Howe train; Scott Schiller and Kevin Steinhaus are very capable; Tony Nelson, in search of his third NCAA title, gives UM yet another option.
“We have to be ready for a fight,” Robinson said. “We really have to be ready to compete. Nobody is going to give this thing up.”
Oklahoma State chased down the Nittany Lions, but came up just short in 2013. The loss of two-time champion Jordan Oliver and the dynamic Alan Gelogaev showed up during the dual season. But entering Thursday, the Cowboys certainly have to be in the conversation.
“We’re behind from a standpoint of the top teams,” OSU head coach John Smith said following his squad’s Big 12 Conference title.
“We’re going to have to close the gap. You’ve got several guys that have low rankings, and that doesn’t put you in a very good position. But we closed the gap last year, and that’s something we’re going to have to do.
“We’re going to have to wrestle above our seeds if we’re going to do well.”
Eight Cowboys are seeded, but, as Smith points out, four of them are seeded outside the top 10. Morrison, three-time All-American Tyler Caldwell, Perry, and 157-pound stud Alex Dieringer should keep the Cowboys hanging around. But to win the program’s 35th title, it will require something unexpected from Eddie Klimara, Anthony Collica, Josh Kindig, and senior Blake Rosholt, an All-American in 2013 but injured much of the spring semester.
When the season started, Oklahoma, after beating the Cowboys in a dual, were looked at as a threat. A poor finish to the dual season took the Sooners out of the chat, but considering Mark Cody’s squad includes two national champions in Maple and Howe, plus All-Americans Jarrod Patterson, Cody Brewer, Nick Lester, and Travis Rutt, it is hard not to put them back in the hunt.
What about Cornell?
Garrett is a legitimate title threat, as is senior Chris Villalonga and Dean, an impressive rookie. The Big Red will need something special from Mark Grey, veteran Mike Nevinger, and newbies Brian Realbuto, and Dylan Palacios.
Another to watch this week is Northern Iowa, a program on the rise under the energetic Doug Schwab. The Panthers have two very good rookies in Dylan Peters and Cooper Moore, plus Colon and the very dangerous Joey Lazor. Veteran Ryan Loder will be a tough out at 184 pounds. The Panthers, unbeaten in duals, will have to wrestle out of their heads to challenge.
Ohio State might not have the firepower, but with two potential finalists in Stieber and Nick Heflin, the Buckeyes cannot be discounted. Michigan owns a dual victory against Minnesota, but a top-five finish by the Wolverines will require a ton of crazy results.
Fasten your seat belts, the 2014 gathering of collegiate wrestling’s elite should be a wild ride.
Speaking of champions
Since collegiate wrestling’s first NCAA Championship in 1928, only 11 programs have claimed the title. Oklahoma State, with 16 titles before 1950, leads the pack with 34. Iowa, with 23 since 1975, easily ranks second versus Iowa State (8), Oklahoma (7), Penn State (4), Minnesota (3), and Arizona State, Cornell, Indiana, Michigan State, and Northern Iowa. Four programs – Penn State, Iowa, Minnesota, and Oklahoma State – have combined to claim the last 25 team titles.
Individually, Oklahoma State has produced 136 national champions with Iowa (79), Iowa State (68), Oklahoma (66), Lehigh (27), and Penn State (27) rounding out the top five.
The team race at the 2013 NCAA Championships in Des Moines, Iowa, went deep into Saturday night. Oklahoma State passed Penn State after Jordan Oliver and Chris Perry title bouts, but Ed Ruth and Quentin Wright put the Nittany Lions back in front. The margin of victory was four points for PSU.
How close was it?
In 1978, Iowa, under head coach Dan Gable, edged Iowa State by .5. The Cyclones went 1-2 in three finals bouts, getting a win by Mike Land against Randy Lewis in the 126-pound final. ISU’s Kelly Ward lost to Lee Kemp in the 158-pound final and Frank Santana lost by injury default to Ron Jeidy in the 190-pound final.
The margin at the 1965 tournament was one point – Iowa State in front of Oklahoma State. Syracuse’s Jim Nance provided aid to ISU, beating OSU’s Russ Winer in the heavyweight final.
Iowa held off Minnesota in 1999 by two points thanks in part to Stephen Neal’s victory against UM’s Brock Lesnar in the final match of the tournament. The 1956, 1963, 1968, and 1974 NCAA championships were also determined by less than four points.
Might 2014 produce similar results?
Cael Sanderson won the Outstanding Wrestler Award in all four of his NCAA Championship appearances from 1999-2002. The four-time champion for Iowa State is one of just six wrestlers to earn the award more than once. The others are: Oklahoma State’s Yojiro Uetake (1965 and 1966), Lock Haven’s E. Gray Simons (1961 and 1962), Oklahoma’s Dan Hodge (1956 and 1957) and Tommy Evans (1952 and 1954), and Northern Iowa’s Bill Koll (1947 and 1948).
Penn State’s David Taylor was named OW in 2012.
Three and counting
Penn State goes in search of a fourth consecutive national title this weekend. An impressive streak, but still short of some of the great NCAA dynasties. Iowa won nine in a row from 1978 to 1986 and Oklahoma State claimed seven consecutive from 1937 to 1946 – A&M’s streak might have been longer had World War II not washed out the NCAA tournaments in 1943, 1944, and 1945. Iowa ran off six in a row from 1995 to 2000.
State of things
Thirty-eight states are represented in the field of 330 this week with, as usual, Pennsylvania leading the way. The Keystone State has 63 qualifiers with Ohio (31), New Jersey (24), Illinois (21), and New York (20) rounding out the top five. Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, has as many qualifiers – two – as eight U.S. states. Surrey, in British Columbia, Canada, is also represented.