The 2015 NCAA Wrestling Championships will be held at the Scottrade Center, home to the National Hockey League’s St. Louis Blues. This weekend marks the seventh time the city -- all since 2000 -- has played host to the event.
Iowa has won the team title three times (2000, 2008, 2009), with Oklahoma State winning twice (2004, 2005). Penn State won the 2012 team trophy. The Nittany Lions have won the past four NCAA championships, including last season’s 5.5-point victory against second place Minnesota in Oklahoma City. The Big Ten Conference has won the past eight team titles and 16 of the past 21 -- Iowa (9), Penn State (4), and Minnesota (3). Oklahoma State is the only program outside the league (1994, 2003-2006) to earn top honors during that same stretch.
Only 11 schools since 1928 have claimed NCAA titles -- Oklahoma State (34), Iowa (23), Iowa State (8), Oklahoma (7), Penn State (5), Minnesota (3), Arizona State, Cornell College (Iowa), Indiana, Michigan State and Northern Iowa. The Cowboys also hold a large advantage in individual championships with 138 over Iowa (80), Iowa State (68) and Oklahoma (66).
The tournament kicks off Thursday with two sessions per day. There are 10 brackets with 33 entries in each, a total of 330 wrestlers. The double-elimination format culminates with the championship finals Saturday night.
Making a point
Dr. Harold Nichols’ Iowa State Cyclones were the first to reach the century mark at an NCAA Tournament, scoring 104 points to win the 1969 title in Provo, Utah. Scoring systems and the amount of participants has changed, but scoring 100 points has been a requirement for many team champions since the early 1970s. Since Nichols’ robe-wearing Cyclones lifted the trophy in ’69, the team champion has scored at least 100 points 36 times. The lowest total for a winning team came in 1974 when Stan Abel’s Oklahoma Sooners totaled just 69.5. At the 2014 NCAA Championships, Penn State totaled 109.5 points to claim top honors. Iowa’s massive 170 points in 1997 may never be broken.
Prognosticators have the team champion in 2015 below the century mark. So, every advancement point in the championship bracket, every pin, technical fall, and major decision, every half-point in wrestlebacks could play a role this week. One only has to look at the Big Ten Championships and the Iowa-Ohio State deadlock to see the possibilities of a late-into-Saturday team race inside the Scottrade Center.
Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio State, Cornell, Penn State, Oklahoma State … and a few others might just be in the mix heading into Friday night.
Missouri finished the dual season unbeaten, knocking off host Iowa in the finals of the National Duals. Head coach Brian Smith’s Tigers rolled to a third consecutive Mid-American tournament title and brings all 10 wrestlers from Columbia to St. Louis. Can the Tigers join wrestling’s elite and win a championship with a lineup laced with Missouri natives? Yes.
Three from MU are seeded No. 1 at their respective weight classes. Senior Alan Waters (30-0), a Kansas City product, is No. 1 at 125 pounds. Drake Houdeshelt (32-1) is the top seed at 149 pounds and hails from O'Fallon, Missouri. Returning national champion J’Den Cox (33-0), a Columbia, Missouri, product, is the top man at 197 pounds. Throw in Johnny Eblen (26-5), a 174-pounder from Kansas City, heavyweight Devon Mellon (30-9), from Lawson, Missouri, and Lavion Mayes (33-2), the third seed at 141 pounds who hails from Mascoutah, Illinois, a half-hour drive from St. Louis, and the Tigers should get plenty of crowd support. Missouri has finished inside the top five just once (third in 2007).
Only three wrestlers have won four NCAA individual titles -- Oklahoma State’s Pat Smith (1990-92, 1994), Iowa State’s Cael Sanderson (1999-02) and Cornell’s Kyle Dake (2010-13). Ohio State’s Logan Stieber will attempt to join that list in 2015. Stieber, a senior from Monroeville, Ohio, has done nothing but win almost since the first time he stepped on a wrestling mat. He was a four-time state champion for Monroeville High School, winning 184 of 185 starts and pinning 134 opponents. A few months after beating Oklahoma State’s Jordan Oliver in the NCAA finals, Stieber competed at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials for freestyle and advanced to the finals where he lost to eventual Olympic bronze medalist Coleman Scott.
At Ohio State, Stieber is 114-3 with a 24-0 mark this season and a 45-match win streak. He is the top seed at 141 pounds. “I don’t feel the pressure,” he told the Columbus Dispatch this week. “This is fun for me. I’m not nervous at all. This is what I live for. This is the best time of the year.”
National title. Outstanding Wrestler. Hodge Trophy. U.S. World Team Trials. Stieber could have nothing but fun in the next seven months.
There is not a huge number of participants this week in search of a perfect season. Joining Waters, Cox and Stieber are: Minnesota’s Chris Dardanes (23-0 at 133 pounds), Illinois 157-pounder Isaiah Martinez (29-0), Oklahoma State’s Alex Dieringer (29-0 at 165), Nebraska senior 174-pounder Robert Kokesh (34-0) and North Carolina State 285-pounder Nick Gwiazdowski (30-0). No weight class has more than one unbeaten entry.
The crop of freshmen in 2015 is led by Big Ten champion Isaiah Martinez. In the Big Ten finals, Martinez beat three-time All-American Dylan Ness of Minnesota without much trouble and already has a “four-timer” buzz floating around him. There are plenty of others to keep an eye on.
Iowa’s Brandon Sorensen is 34-4 and owns the only win this season against 2014 NCAA champion Jason Tsirtsis at 149 pounds. Ohio State’s Bo Jordan (17-1) lost his only match in the Big Ten finals at 157 pounds. Another Buckeye, 197-pounder Kyle Snyder is 26-3 and seeded fourth.
Ohio State 125-pounder Nathan Tomasello is 28-4 and won the Big Ten trophy. He is seeded fourth in St. Louis. Oregon State’s Ronnie Bresser takes a 31-4 mark into the same bracket. Geo Martinez of Boise State is 26-4 and seeded eighth at 141 pounds; Rutgers’ Anthony Ashnault (26-6) is seeded seventh at the same weight. Arizona State 149-pounder Christian Pagdilao is 21-3 and could make noise as a 10 seed, much like Virginia Tech’s Zach Epperly (25-6), who has a victory against 2013 finalist Matt Brown of Penn State. Epperley is seeded seventh and might get another shot at Brown on Friday morning.
A handful of rookies will make the top eight. A few others will not meet expectations under the bright lights.
174 and 184 pounds: who wants it?
Oklahoma State’s Chris Perry won the 174-pound bracket the past two seasons. Penn State’s Ed Ruth was the king at 184 pounds the past two NCAA meets. With both gone, who is next in line?
The 174-pound field includes a group of veterans. The top three and six of the top eight seeds are seniors, led by Nebraska’s Kokesh, who is as tough as a South Dakota winter. He is a two-time All-American and will be difficult to beat. But the bracket also includes Penn State’s Brown (24-3), a finalist in 2013 and All-American last March; Iowa’s Mike Evans (27-2), a two-time All-American; Minnesota’s Logan Storley (26-6), a three-time All-American; Missouri’s Eblen and Pittsburgh’s Tyler Wilps (15-3), an All-American last March. Expect an overtime tiebreaker or two to make an appearance in this grueling, grind-it-out bracket.
The past two NCAA gatherings have seen Ruth hammer everyone in the 184-pound field. With Ruth moving on to the freestyle ranks, who is the top dog? Cornell sophomore Gabe Dean (39-2) ended Ruth’s long win streak two Januarys ago and is the No. 1 seed this week. Pittsburgh senior Max Thomusseitt (24-1) was pinned by Dean at the Southern Scuffle and is No. 2 with Arizona State’s Blake Stauffer (31-1), Old Dominion’s Jack Dechow (29-1) and Oregon State’s Taylor Meeks (37-4) rounding out the top five.
One to watch could be Iowa’s Sam Brooks (27-5), a nine seed who could feed off the always-festive Hawkeye crowd. If Cornell is to contend for team honors, head coach Rob Koll and crew need Dean to make a deep run. Dean and Brooks could meet in a rather large, team-race-flavored quarterfinal.
Fans in the stands
Northern Iowa was the first to reach the 90,000 plateau, seating 90,071 for the 1997 NCAA Championships, legendary head coach Dan Gable’s last leading the Hawkeyes. St. Louis has set a new standard in wrestling attendance, drawing over 90,000 five of the six times they have hosted. Twice the national championships for wrestling have drawn over 100,000 with the 109,450 total for 2012 in St. Louis a tournament record. The attendance totals for St. Louis read: 109,450 (2012), 97,336 (2009), 94,324 (2008), 95,063 (2005), 87,676 (2004) and 97,231 (2000). The Scottrade Center lists its capacity at 19,150, so for six sessions is it feasible to draw 114,900? Expect another 100,000-plus this week.
Augsburg College dethroned Wartburg last weekend in Hershey, Pennsylvania, to win the Division III national championship. St. Cloud State edged Nebraska-Kearney this past weekend at St. Louis’ Chaifetz Arena for top honors in Division II. Inquiring minds want to know: Has a state’s programs ever swept all three in the same season? The answer is no. Minnesota’s Gophers are certainly a contender in Division I, finishing second to Penn State in 2014. So, the home to Paul Bunyon and 11,842 lakes could make history in St. Louis.
A state has claimed two of the three but never all three in the same season. Recently, Iowa (DI) and Warburg (DIII) claimed titles in 2008 and 2009 but the state of Nebraska reigned in DII. Minnesota (DI) and Augsburg (DIII) were kings in 2007, but Central Oklahoma ruled the day in DII. Oklahoma State (DI) and Central Oklahoma (DII) won titles in 2003, but Oklahoma has no DIII programs.
Steve Costanzo, coach of St. Cloud State, and Augsburg boss Steve Moulsoff will be supporting Gopher leader J Robinson.
Pennsylvania reigns again
As usual, the state of Pennsylvania is the most well-represented when it comes to Division I qualifiers. The numbers can be skewed just a bit when considering an academy or two (i.e. not all Blair Academy kids are from New Jersey), but that would not change the Keystone State’s status as the top dog. Pennsylvania, with 48, outdistances Ohio by 12, with New Jersey (30), Illinois (26), California (19), Iowa (16), Minnesota (15), Virginia (11), Missouri (10), Florida (9), Indiana (9) and New York (9) rounding out the top 10.
The glass slipper … wrestling shoe
College basketball likes to use the term “Cinderella” when a team not picked to win many games knocks off a higher seed early and makes a run deeper into the tournament. As difficult as it is to wrestle in a glass slipper, is there one, two or three student-athletes ready to make a shambles of a bracket or two? Remember Nico Megaludis, a 10 seed at 125 pounds, making the finals in 2012? How about Jakes Rosholt, also a 10 seed, winning the 184-pound title in 2003 or the unseeded Carl Fronhofer advancing to the 165-pound finals at that same event?
Who is it going to be in 2015? North Carolina State’s Joe DeAngelo, a senior 125-pounder? North Dakota State 184-pounder Hayden Zilmer? Maybe Virginia’s Joe Spisak?
Odds are Thursday night or Friday afternoon media members will be scrambling to find information on a previously unknown individual.