Here are a few things we learned from last weekend’s conference tournaments and NCAA qualifiers:
• Whoever wins the Big Ten Championships is nine times out of 10 considered the favorite heading into that season’s national meet. For the fifth time in six years, Penn State hoisted the trophy of collegiate wrestling’s top conference. Head coach Cael Sanderson saw his Nittany Lions outdistance second place Iowa by 23.5 points. Ohio State, winners of the 2015 Big Ten title and eventual national champion finished one point behind PSU. Six of the 10 finals bouts included Nittany Lions with unbeatens Zain Retherford (149) and Morgan McIntosh (197), plus freshman phenom Bo Nickal (174) winning championships; Nico Megaludis (125), Jimmy Gulibon (141), and Jason Nolf (157) finishing second, Nolf taking his first loss of 2015-16 when Illinois’ Isaiah Martinez won a twisty and turning marathon Sunday afternoon.
“The kids stepped up and wrestled well,” Sanderson said. “You are always happy with a Big Ten championship. Overall we wrestled pretty darn well. We lost a couple of tight matches in the finals, but both lost to national champs in two of those close matches. The guys wrestled well. We had three champions and we got eight through. We would have liked to have 10. We thought we had the ability to have 10, but you have to show up and earn your way.”
Cory Clark (133) and Sammy Brooks (184) won titles for the Hawkeyes. Rising star Kyle Snyder, a World champion in freestyle last fall after finishing second at the 2015 NCAA meet, beat Michigan’s Adam Coon for the heavyweight title.
So, what did we learn? As usual, the Big Ten is the toughest conference in the country … by a landslide.
• We learned that the basketball-crazy Atlantic Coast Conference can wrestle, too. North Carolina State, coming off a massive win in Iowa City to finish the regular season, held off a good Virginia Tech team to win ACC honors just a year after finishing in the cellar at the league meet.
“An ACC Championship means a lot to this program,” NCSU head coach Pat Popolizio said. “From coming in last place a year ago, to winning the title this year, it’s been a long time coming. “For all of the work that we put in each day, we are seeing the results and looking forward to the NCAAs.”
Wolfpack heavyweight Nick Gwiazdowski was one of four champions for NCSU, moving his win streak to 84. Thomas Gantt, a senior 157-pounder, remained perfect this season. He might have a thing or two to say about the 157-pound race. The big question is where Snyder will be seeded, because everyone in college wrestling cannot wait to see Gwiazdowski and the Buckeye sophomore tangle.
• The new Big 12 Conference was a success, held at a neutral site in Kansas City with all the benefits of a national meet. Food. Drink. Music. Hotels. Everything within walking distance. On the mats it was all Oklahoma State, who wrapped up the program’s 50th overall conference championship before the first day was through. Seven champions, including senior Alex Dieringer, now a winner of 77 straight matches. South Dakota State pushed Oklahoma and Iowa State for most of the two days in the race for second in a league that might not be done expanding.
• Cornell is still king of the EIWA. Rob Koll’s Big Red won a 10th straight league title with Nahshon Garrett (133), Dylan Palacio (157), Brian Realbuto (174), and Gabe Dean (184) leading the way. Garrett, now a four-time EIWA champion, might be considered the best of the 2016 senior class without a national title.
“Nahshon is at a different level by far than anyone in the country, and he’s going to show that in two weeks,” Koll said of his undefeated senior. “Guys were starting to question Gabe (Dean), which is ridiculous because he’s an absolute beast. We’re exactly where we need to be at this time of the year. I couldn’t be more pleased.”
• Missouri may never relinquish control of the Mid-American Conference. The Tigers, winners of their last league meet in the Big 12, made it four straight MAC trophies with a 34-point margin over former MAC power Central Michigan. MU junior J’Den Cox, an NCAA king in 2014, won his third MAC championship and will be a tough out in the 197-pound bracket. Brian Smith’s gang will be someone to watch in New York City.
• We learned that close regular season races translate into close postseason tournaments. The Southern Conference had a three-way tie during the dual season. The conference meet came down to Appalachian State’s Denzel Dejournette beating Chattanooga’s Jared Johnson in the 285-pound title match to give ASU a half-point win over the Mocs. It ended UTC’s five-year run of SoCon championships.
In the end, with less than two weeks until the 2016 NCAA Championships in New York City’s Madison Square Garden, we learned that the three days of wrestling that remain are going to be must-see.
Never too late
Iowa State’s Patrick Downey fought eligibility and injury issues most of the 2015-16 campaign. Finally cleared and healthy, the Baltimore product wrestled three matches prior to last weekend’s Big 12 Championships. More suited to 184 pounds, Downey went 4-1 at 197 in Kansas City, including a win over the top seed, and finished third to qualify for nationals.
“I’d be lying if I said I thought I’d being going to the NCAA tournament,” said Downey, a former U.S. Junior World Team member and junior college national champion last March for Iowa Central. “You can train as hard as you can, but you can’t get the feel of matches. To get five matches (in Kansas City) was good; I felt better every match.
“That’s been the vision. Usually I’d be really bummed about not winning this tournament, but I knew I could be top-four and punch my ticket. With everything that has gone, it feels good to be going (to NYC).”
Wrestling fans do not have to wait until March 17-19 for some good competition. Division II and III hold their national tournaments this weekend. As many as six, maybe seven, could win the team title in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, at the DII Championships. St. Cloud State (Minn.) was champion in 2015 and will battle Notre Dame College (Ohio), Maryville (Mo.), Nebraska-Kearney, Pittsburgh-Johnstown, and others for top honors. Notre Dame’s Joey Davis is one to watch, unbeaten in college and going for his fourth NCAA title.
DIII hits the mats in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where someone besides Wartburg (Iowa) or Augsburg (Minn.) will try and finish first. Either Wartburg or Augsburg have been DIII kings since 1994 when Ithaca College (N.Y.) captured the championship. Might Wabash (Ind.), Messiah (Pa.), Wisconsin-LaCrosse or Roger Williams (Ma.) break the streak?