1 ― Great show, great arena
College wrestling’s biggest show, the NCAA Championships, annually delivers in regards to entertainment value. With the addition of ESPN, a nationwide television audience has been able to enjoy what wrestling fans, old and new, talk about the other 362 days of the year. In 2016, the Division I contingent invades New York City’s legendary Madison Square Garden. MSG, large crowds and great memories go hand-in-hand: the first Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight, the National Hockey League’s New York Rangers, Willis Reed and the New York Knickerbockers, plus P.T. Barnum and his original circus spectacle prior to World War I. Why would three days of wrestling in the world’s greatest arena be any different?
2 ― A pack of Wolves
The usual cast of characters from the Big Ten and 34-time national champion Oklahoma State are expected to lead the pack and battle it out for top honors. But another pack, the North Carolina State Wolfpack are going to try and crash this party. Coached by Niskayuna, New York native Pat Popolizio, the red and white of Raliegh rolled through the dual season with just one loss and finished things off with a win over Iowa inside of Carver-Hawkeye Arena. N.C. State also won in Gallagher-Iba Arena this season – Carver-Hawkeye and GIA are considered the Madison Square Gardens of the wrestling world. Not since the 1980s has a Wolfpack team been mentioned among the contenders. This season, N.C. State is a contender with Nick Gwiazdowski, an unbeaten heavyweight with two national titles to his name, leading the pack.
3 ― Hat trick
Mark Messier scored a few hat tricks during his New York Ranger days. Two wrestlers, North Carolina State’s Nick Gwiazdowski and Oklahoma State’s Alex Dieringer, go for wrestling’s version of a hat trick this weekend.
Gwiazdowski, a senior heavyweight, is 29-0 this season and has won 84-straight matches heading into Thursday. As a freshman at Binghamton, “Gwiz” was 30-9 and an All-American. Since heading south to Raleigh with Popolizio, the athletic 285-pounder is 106-2 for a career record of 136-11. Pleasant off the mat, a monster on it, Gwiazdowski goes for his third NCAA title this week.
Dieringer, a senior, has been equally impressive. As a redshirt-freshman 157-pounder, Dieringer lost an overtime bout in the semifinals and eventually took third; he has not lost a match at a national tournament since. Entering Thursday, now a 165-pounder, “Ringer” has won 77-straight matches and owns a 128-4 career mark.
Add it all up and you have two wrestlers with a combined record of 264-15 in college. Both will most likely make a run at the 2016 Olympic squad in freestyle.
4 ― The next big thing
Not long ago it was Nico Megaludis, Quinten Wright, Frank Molinaro, David Taylor, and Ed Ruth, a group of youngsters expected to awaken a sleeping giant in Pennsylvania. All took part in giving the Nittany Lions their first NCAA team title since the 1950s. For four seasons, from 2011 to 2014, PSU was the best wrestling team in the country, doing it in style along the way. The next wave hits the mats Thursday. Might we be in for another PSU run? After redshirting Megaludis and Zain Retherford, an All-American as a true freshman, for the 2014-15 campaign, Cael Sanderson and crew have added a new crop of freshman phenoms.
Jason Nolf, from Yatesboro, Pennsylvania, is the Big Ten Freshman of the Year. The 157-pounder is 29-1, giving Illinois stud Isaiah Martinez his first collegiate loss during the regular season. Martinez avenged that loss in the Big Ten finals, but Nolf, a dynamic, hard-charging redshirt-freshman might get another shot on Saturday night. Sanderson’s other prize is Bo Nickal, a native of Allen, Texas, who, like Nolf, can score points in bunches. The 174-pounder is the top seed and owns a 29-1 record entering his first NCAA meet. Nickal showed he is for real with a whipping of Cornell’s talented Brian Realbuto at the Southern Scuffle to start 2016.
Although just a sophomore, Retherford (29-0) wrestles like a fifth-year senior. The Benton, Pennsylvania product is the top seed at 149 pounds. Like Ruth, Retherford did not reach the top of the ladder as a rookie. And, like Ruth, Retherford might just own three NCAA titles by the time he is done.
5 ― Been there, done that
Gwiazdowski and Dieringer are not the only returning champions. Ohio State’s Nathan Tomasello, Oklahoma’s Cody Brewer, Northwestern’s Jason Tsirtsis, Illinois’ Isaiah Martinez, Cornell’s Gabe Dean, and Missouri’s J’Den Cox have also won gold.
Tomasello won the 125-pound title as a rookie in 2015. The Parma, Ohio native is 22-0 this season and the top seed. Brewer, a No. 13 seed last March, did not receive much respect in the seeding process after losing just one regular season match. The Missourian rolled to the 133-pound title and proved he was no No. 13 seed. With just two losses as a senior, one to top-seeded and unbeaten Nahshon Garrett of Cornell, the other to a wrestler not in the tournament, Brewer was given a No. 4 seed, on the same side of the bracket as Garrett.
Tsirtis, an Indianan, was a national champion at 149 pounds as a freshman and third last March, winning 39 matches as a sophomore. He is just 13-7 in 2015-16 and is seeded sixth in New York City.
Martinez was unbeaten and the national champion at 157 pounds a year ago. From the same California community as former NCAA champion Chris Pendleton, Lemoore, Martinez is 27-1 as a sophomore and avenged that one loss by beating Nolf in an overtime bout at the Big Tens. Cornell junior Gabe Dean (29-1) arrived on the scene as a freshman by beating Ruth at the Southern Scuffle. Two seasons later the Michigan product was a national champion. Dean is the top seed at 184 pounds this week.
Missouri’s J’Den Cox is 28-1 as a junior, the one loss coming on a disqualification. As a freshman, the Columbia, Missouri native was the national champion at 197 pounds. Last season he lost to Ohio State freshman Kyle Snyder in the semifinals and eventually earned fifth place. The athletic and multi-talented Cox is seeded second behind PSU’s Morgan McIntosh.
Speaking of Snyder, he is not a national champion – he lost to Iowa State’s Kyven Gadson in the 2015 NCAA final – but it is important to note that Snyder has done it on the world’s biggest stage. Following his freshman season, Snyder earned a spot on the United States freestyle team and won a World Championship gold, beating one of the scariest men on the planet, Russia’s Abdulsalam Gadisov in, of all places, Las Vegas. Snyder, an “undersized heavyweight” was the Big Ten champion.
6 ― The anticipation
Although Saturday night is considered prime time on the big stage, many wrestling fans will argue that Friday night’s semifinal round, or even Friday morning’s quarterfinals are the real show. The winners get a chance to wrestle for a championship 24 hours later, so there is a high-level of intensity with individual and team glory on the line. The “final four” of all 10 weight classes are contested on two mats in the center of the arena. All 10 are worthy of mention, but two weights, 125 and 157, will be extra fun to watch. Of course, getting to the semifinals is never a guarantee but Tomasello, Iowa’s Thomas Gilman (24-1), Virginia Tech’s Joey Dance (28-1), and PSU’s Megaludis (27-3) have been the best four 125-pounders all season. Tomasello edged Megaludis, a three-time All-American, in the Big Ten final after the Nittany Lion senior beat Gilman. Dance, an All-American, beat Megaludis way back in November and lost a 5-4 match to Tomasello in the Las Vegas Invitational final in December.
Crashing the 125-pound semifinal party will be tough with the aforementioned foursome.
The bottom half of the bracket at 157 pounds includes Nolf, Oklahoma State’s Joe Smith, and North Carolina’s Thomas Gantt, who are a combined 84-4 this season. Nolf beat Smith, the son of Oklahoma State’s legendary head coach John Smith, at the Southern Scuffle. The younger Smith (31-3), a favorite of the Twitterheads and new media goofies, could meet Nolf in a quarterfinal that would draw the attention of wrestling fans inside and out of the Garden. Gantt (24-0), an underrated senior, could get the winner Friday night in another anticipated doozie.
7 ― Pushing out
Officiating wrestling matches are getting tougher and tougher. Crocodile rolls and the twisting and turning scrambles with ankles the main focus create difficult circumstances for officials, young and old. But a point of contention for much of the 2015-16 campaign has been the edge-of-the-mat scenario. It has been stressed to penalize wrestlers for fleeing the hold or leaving the circle, highlighted in Rule 126.96.36.199 of the NCAA Rules and Interpretations for 2015-16 and 2016-17. The problem has been the “interpretation” of something many feel equals the “push-out” rule of international competition where wrestlers can earn a point by forcing an opponent outside the circle. Officials have not been consistent this season, some calling “leaving the mat” more aggressively than others. Most coaches and officials agree that calling certain rules consistently is critical to a fair, controversy-free tournament.
8 ― Finishing strong
Having the tag “the best to never win a title” means a wrestler has had a great career but has been unable to claim the top prize. Some seniors have gone out in style, Oklahoma’s Michael Lightner, and Iowa’s Cliff Moore come to mind. This weekend a number of mat stars seek the same finish.
Cornell’s Nahshon Garrett leads that pack, entering his final collegiate meet unbeaten. The highlight-reel, mile-a-minute 133-pounder from California has finished fifth, second, and third in three NCAA appearances at 125 pounds. In his finals appearance two Marches ago, were it not for the incredible defensive skills of Illinois’ Jesse Delgado, Garrett would already be a national champion. The bracket makers were kind to the Big Ten, placing Garrett and 2015 NCAA champion Cody Brewer of Oklahoma on the same side of the bracket. Expect a high-flying Garrett-Brewer semifinal Friday night.
9 ― March Madness ... Matness
A school known for its basketball prowess this time of year has a national title contender, not only in the team race with North Carolina State, but also individually with Duke’s Connor Hartman. He is 26-1 this season with the loss coming to Minnesota’s Brett Pfarr in the Southern Scuffle semifinals. The Port Orchard, Washington native is seeded fifth at 197 pounds this week after finishing sixth and fifth at his last two NCAA appearances. Hartman is in the same half of the bracket with PSU’s top-seeded Morgan McIntosh and Iowa’s Nathan Burak. Expect the Blue Devil to find his way onto the medal stand again. Just how high remains to be seen.
10 ― Dinner and a show
Wrestling is much more Broadway than Hollywood. There are no edits, no do-overs, no commercial breaks during seven-minute matches. This is live in front of a live audience where mistakes and incredible performances are magnified. Go a day early, stay a day later … for those who have not been to New York City and the area around Madison Square Garden, take it all in. Experience the plethora of choices, from food to stage to music. Take a stroll through Central Park, walk through Times Square after a session. Bottom line, enjoy the show inside and out.