For some conference championships are a final chance
The hay is in the barn. All of the necessary work has been done.
No matter how you describe it, for most of Division I’s collegiate wrestlers this weekend marks the culmination of a long and grueling season. There are plenty still “on the bubble” but they can put all that to rest by finishing inside one of the 260 individual qualifying spots given to the various conference and regional qualifiers.
If a ticket to the NCAA Championships (March 19-21 in St. Louis) is not punched this weekend, an additional 70 at-large berths will be awarded March 11 based on an individual’s resume from the 2014-15 season.
As expected, the Big Ten Conference, with 86, earned the lion’s share of qualifier allocations; 10 wrestlers each from 174 and 184 pounds qualify with all 12 133-pounders. To say the Big Ten brackets are preliminaries for the NCAA Championships is no understatement.
Eight of the top 15 teams in the final regular season NWCA Coaches Poll will compete inside St. John Arena in Columbus, Ohio, Saturday and Sunday.
And you can bet, after an upset or two, a handful of the 70 at-large berths will go to Big Ten wrestlers.
“This is what you live and train for,” Iowa head coach Tom Brands said. “We’re at the Big Ten Championships, and that’s the most important thing on our schedule to this point and every year, it’s the second-most important thing on our schedule when it’s all said and done.”
The Hawkeyes entered the final weekend of the regular season unbeaten but fell to Missouri in the National Duals finals. Brands’ squad will try to dethrone reigning NCAA champion Penn State, winners of the last four Big Ten meets, and hold off Minnesota and host Ohio State.
The Buckeyes may be the most intriguing of the bunch with senior Hunter Stieber expected back in the lineup at 149 pounds. The All-American two seasons ago redshirted in 2013-14 and has wrestled just three matches in 2014-15 due to an elbow injury.
“It’s been a tough year,” OSU head coach Tom Ryan said. “We’ve had some adversity. The Big Ten [tournament] will be the first time all season that we’ll have a team with all of our starters in and ready to compete.”
How rookies Kyle Snyder (24-2 at 197), Bo Jordan (16-0 at 165) and Nathan Tomasello (24-4 at 125) respond to their first postseason will be key. One thing is certain: three-time NCAA champion Logan Stieber (21-0 at 141) will be ready.
The Gophers? The majority of a team that finished 5.5 points behind the powerful Nittany Lions last March might provide a hint to their intentions this weekend. A veteran squad led by the Dardanes brothers, Dylan Ness, Logan Storley and Scott Schiller will be formidable in a tournament environment.
Penn State? Minus the redshirting Nico Megaludis, a three-time All-American, and Zain Retherford, a talented freshman a year ago, PSU will have to wrestle at a much higher level to compete for top honors in Columbus and St. Louis.
The Pac-12 Conference traditionally holds its conference tournament a week prior to everybody else. This season was no different as Oregon State claimed a fourth consecutive conference title, outdistancing second place Arizona State by 32.5 points in the six-team field.
Three first-year starters, Ronnie Bresser (125), Jack Hathaway (133) and Cody Crawford (197), joined two other Beavers at the top of the medal stand. OSU took seven of the 19 NCAA qualifying spots and gave head coach Jim Zalesky his sixth Pac-12 title in nine seasons.
The other six
• Ask a wrestling novice what conference the top-ranked team in the land hails from and most would probably say the Big Ten. The league has produced the past eight NCAA team champions. But entering the 2015 postseason the Mid-American Conference holds that title thanks to Missouri.
The Tigers, unbeaten in dual meets capped off with a testy win over Iowa at Carver-Hawkeye Arena two weekends ago, host the MAC this weekend. The former Big 8 and Big 12 member joined forces with the MAC when MU athletics joined the Southeastern Conference.
Brian Smith’s Tigers have wrestled away league supremacy from Central Michigan, who won 11 consecutive MAC titles before MU crashed the party. The 2015 meet in Columbia received 33 qualifiers and could be a runaway as no other MAC squad is ranked among the top 25.
• Ninth-ranked Lehigh hosts the 111th Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association meet Friday and Saturday. The Mountain Hawks seek a 35th EIWA crown but will have to get by No. 3 Cornell, who is favored to win a ninth consecutive league title. The Big Red finished 17-2 in dual meets and have had at least one EIWA champion for 13 consecutive seasons. Bucknell enters the postseason after a program-high 15 dual wins. The NCAA allocated 43 spots to the qualifier.
• The Atlantic Coast Conference received 29 spots for St. Louis. Former Eastern Wrestling League member Pittsburgh discovered smooth sailing in its first year, but ran into plenty of competition in 2014-15. The Panthers started the season ranked among the top 10 but stumbled to an 8-8 finish with losses to Virginia, Virginia Tech and North Carolina State. Four ACC squads will battle in Pittsburgh this Sunday. The Hokies, conference champions in 2014, enter the postseason ranked 10th.
• With Pittsburgh heading south, No. 13 Edinboro should continue to dominate at the 40th Eastern Wrestling League Championships on Saturday at Rider College. The Fighting Scots, EWL champs in 2014, won eight consecutive league titles before the Panthers claimed top honors in 2011, 2012 and 2013. Senior A.J. Schopp (16-1 at 133 pounds) looks to become the seventh four-time EWL champ.
• North Dakota State seeks another WWC title when they host the West Regional on Saturday. Wyoming won the four previous WWC meets and again will challenge the Bison for top honors. Of the 60 wrestlers entered only 19 will earn automatic bids to St. Louis with only the champion at 133, 141, 149 and 157 punching their ticket.
• No margin for error is an understatement for the Southern Conference. Seven of the 10 weight classes take only the champion to St. Louis. Chattanooga has won 9 of the last 10 conference tournaments and will be favored to do so again.
Where’s the Big 12?
Yet another year and yet another debate about the future of the conference in regards to wrestling. This time last year there was chatter about merging with the ACC. There has been rumors of a Pac 12 and Big 12 collaboration. Probably the closest to reality is a Big 12 and WWC future together.
So, does that mean this Saturday’s Big 12 Championships are the last of its kind?
A meet that used to have four of its five teams ranked inside the top six this season features No. 6 Oklahoma State, No. 8 Iowa State and unranked Oklahoma and West Virginia. The Big 12 did not receive any NCAA allocations. The four league coaches agreed to put all their wrestlers into the at-large pool meaning approximately 20 to 25 of the 70 will come from Big 12 schools.
Tickets in hand
• Divisions II and III competed in regional qualifiers last weekend. Two things stick out: Wartburg will again be favored to win DIII honors and the DII competition in St. Louis will be a slugfest.
• Wartburg has won four consecutive crowns and six of the last seven. The margin of victory at the last four NCAAs has been 36.5, 21, 55, and 28.5 points. The Knights had seven champions and nine qualifiers in winning the Central Region by 40 points.
• The other DIII power over the last two decades, Augsburg College of Minnesota, claimed a 13th consecutive West Region title qualifying all 10 wrestlers in the process.
Ithaca and Wisconsin-Whitewater ran away with regional trophies, while Messiah edged Mount Union by two points at the Mideast and Delaware Valley outdueled NYU by one point in the East. The DIII Championships are in Hershey, Pa., March 13-14.
• The same two days also see the DII Championships on the campus of Maryville (Mo.). Defending champion Notre Dame (Ohio) qualified eight and had five champions in winning the East Region and will join the hosts, who edged St. Cloud State by five points to win the Central Region, Nebraska-Kearney, and Newberry as the top dogs entering the final tournament of the season.