NEW YORK ― The usual cast of characters hit New York City’s Madison Square Garden this week.
There’s the old guard, Oklahoma State, back again for a run at a 35th NCAA team title. The Cowboys, then Oklahoma A&M, under legendary Edward C. Gallagher, won the first NCAA tournament in 1928. Over the last century the program has set a standard that not even the New York Yankees can match.
Under Dan Gable, the Iowa Hawkeyes became wrestling’s top program from the early 1970s into the 21st Century. Gary Kurdelmeier got the Iowa ball rolling, leading the Hawks to back-to-back NCAA trophies in 1975 and 1976, but it was Gable who took the black and gold to new heights. From 1978 to 1997, Iowa won 15 NCAA championships. From 1978 to 1986, nine straight times, it was Iowa. The Hawks moved their total to 23 with three straight from 2008 to 2010.
Ohio State, knocking on the door, was close in 2008 and 2009. The Buckeyes and head coach Tom Ryan finally took the next step in 2015, claiming the program’s first NCAA title in wrestling. Logan Stieber became the fourth Division I wrestler to win four individual titles.
And then there is Penn State, winners of four of the last five team titles. The program broke a long drought dating to 1953 with top honors in 2011. Sixth last year, PSU is here to stay.
The usual supporting crew ― Missouri, Michigan, Lehigh, Nebraska, and Illinois ― will be in attendance. Great programs, but never quite enough at the big dance in March.
What makes 2016 a bit more intriguing is a pair of new faces from the Atlantic Coast Conference who could crash the party, go from wrestling-only conversations to a national story in front of an ESPN audience.
North Carolina State finished 17th at the 2015 NCAA Championships, thanks mainly to heavyweight Nick Gwiazdowski’s run to his second national title. All head coach Pat Popolizio and the Wolfpack have done this season is beat tradition-rich Minnesota, Oklahoma State, and Iowa in dual meets, the wins over the Cowboys in Stillwater, and the victory over the Hawkeyes in the always-intimidating Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“It’s not the norm to see N.C. State up there with the traditional national powers, but we have to do our job to prove that we’re that good,” Popolizio told The News&Observer. “We’ve been tested all year but the biggest test is still ahead of us.”
Gwiazdowski (29-0), a native of New York, has won 84-straight matches and is the top seed at 285 pounds. He has a little more support this season as senior 157-pounder Tommy Gantt (24-0), 141-pounder Kevin Jack (23-3), and 165-pounder Max Rohskopf (15-2) all have the potential to make deep runs into the tournament. Popolizio, also from the state of New York, knows the regular season is not where a program earns respect. He also knows that strange things can and do happen at NCAA wrestling tournaments.
“On paper, (Penn State) looks like they can’t be beaten,” the Wolfpack coach said. “That’s what I like about this sport is you have to go out and still do it. The NCAA tournament is wild. You will see things that you never thought could happen.”
Virginia Tech is the only team to beat N.C. State in a dual meet in 2015-16. Last March, the Hokies and head coach Kevin Dresser, a graduate of Iowa, finished 10th. It marked the program’s third top-10 showing.
Tech has a handful of individual contenders. Joey Dance, a junior, is seeded second at 125 pounds with a 28-1 record and heavyweight Ty Walz, also a junior, is 23-2 and seeded third. Up and down the lineup, Dresser has potential All-Americans.
“We’ve got to be able to bounce back when bad things happen,” Dresser said. “If things go wrong and we end up in a consolation (bracket) in a couple places, we’ve got to come back and get third place (in that weight class).
“We’ve had a great training period since the ACC Championships and are super excited about going to New York City. We have a great group of guys who hopefully can go make a little history this weekend.”
History has not been on the side of non-Big Ten and Big 12 (previously Big Eight) teams. Arizona State won the team title in 1988. Since, only Ohio State, Penn State, Minnesota, Iowa, or Oklahoma State has hoisted the trophy at the end of the NCAA Championship in Division I. The list of champions is already short, even shorter when considering the schools outside the power conferences to win a national title. Arizona State (1988), Northern Iowa (1950), and tiny Cornell College in Iowa (1947) form a very short list. Every other champion since 1928 has been a current Big Ten or Big 12 school.
When wrestling hits the mats Thursday inside Madison Square Garden all eyes will be on the Nittany Lions. Sanderson and Co. redshirted Nico Megaludis and Zain Retherford in 2014-15, yet PSU still finished sixth at the national tournament in St. Louis. Back for this season, Megaludis, a senior 125-pounder who is a three-time All-American, and Retherford, an unbeaten 149-pounder who finished third at 141 pounds as a true freshman, means the blue and white will be tough to beat.
The numbers speak for themselves: Megaludis, 133-pounder Jordan Conaway, Retherford, freshmen Jason Nolf (157) and Bo Nickal (174), and unbeaten senior 197-pounder Morgan McIntosh are a combined 168-10. Jimmy Gulibon is just 12-9, but the All-American wrestled well at the Big Ten Championships two weekends ago.
“Without question, Penn State will be tough to beat,” said Oklahoma State head coach John Smith.“We’ve had to deal with some adversity this year, but this team has really worked hard and is in a position to challenge. We are going (to New York City) to win a national championship, that is always our goal.
The Cowboys lost freshman 133-pounder Kaid Brock and All-American 174-pounder Kyle Crutchmer to injury. Chandler Rogers, Crutchmer’s replacement, lost his father in late February. Chance Marsteller, one of the nation’s top recruits, started the season at 157 pounds as a redshirt-freshman but ran into trouble and was suspended. Smith’s son, Joe, a three-time state champion in Oklahoma, was inserted into the lineup at 157 and is the sixth seed in New York City.
“It’s been an interesting season,” John Smith said. “But you have to adjust, work through things, find ways to compete in March.”
Alex Dieringer, a senior 165-pounder, leads the Cowboys. Like Gwiazdowski, Dieringer seeks his third NCAA title.
Iowa, with nine NCAA titles since 1995, seeks its first championship since 2010 when the Hawkeyes routed the field by 44.5 points. Like the other contenders, Iowa has a strong corps of individuals with the ability to wrestle on Saturday night: All-Americans Thomas Gilman, Cory Clark, Brandon Sorensen, and Nathan Burak are a combined 94-5. Gilman is a junior from Council Bluffs, Iowa, who finished fourth at the 2015 NCAAs at 125 pounds. Clark, also a junior, calls Pleasant Hill, Iowa, home. He lost in the 133-pound finals last March. Sorensen, a sophomore, from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was fourth at 149 pounds in St. Louis. Four Hawks are making their first NCAA appearance.
“We talk about the things we can control and that is when you are stepping on the mat make sure you are ready to go,” said UI head coach Tom Brands when discussing a few of his entries. “Wins and championships certainly dictate where you are placed in the bracket, but there is a path and that path is one match at a time.”
The 2015 champions, Ohio State, might be flying under the radar a little too much heading into Thursday. The Buckeyes have 2015 NCAA champ Nathan Tomasello, unbeaten at 125 pounds in 2015-16; rookie Micah Jordan (25-2 at 141), All-American Bo Jordan (15-2 at 165), and All-World Kyle Snyder (6-0), who won a World championship in freestyle following an NCAA runner-up showing last March. Kenny Courts, now a senior, was unseeded at 184 pounds in 2015 … he finished fifth to help the Buckeyes to a 10-point win over Iowa.
Seeded wrestlers can and do fall at the national tournament. Unseeded wrestlers make runs that nobody expected. Going into Thursday’s first session, Penn State is favored to win its fifth NCAA Championship in six years. Can North Carolina State or Virginia Tech enter their names into the history books? Will Oklahoma State, in its 100th year of wrestling, win No. 35? Will Iowa reclaim their throne?
Three days inside Madison Square Garden will answer those questions.