NEW YORK, N.Y. – Madison Square Garden is synonymous with big sporting events. So it’s fitting that one of the most anticipated wrestling matches in decades is set for Saturday night.
North Carolina State’s Nick Gwiazdowski has won 88 straight collegiate matches. Friday night the Delanson, N.Y., native, won a repeat of the 2015 NCAA finals against Michigan’s Adam Coon. On Saturday night, Gwiazdowski goes for this third consecutive national title.
After going 179-0 as a Maryland high schooler and winning a Junior World Championship in freestyle, Kyle Snyder spent one year at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. As a freshman at Ohio State in 2014-15, he advanced to the 197-pound NCAA finals where he was pinned by Iowa State’s Kyven Gadson. During his “offseason” from folkstyle, Snyder won a World Championship in freestyle, becoming the youngest American to do so. A redshirt was in the cards for 2015-16, but Snyder decided to suit up late in the season. In four matches this week, the Buckeye machine has a pin, technical fall, and a major decision. He beat Virginia Tech’s Ty Walz, 10-6, in the semifinals.
Saturday night. Big stage. National television audience. “The World’s Most Famous Arena.”
For wrestling fans it rivals Ali-Frazier or Game 7 of a New York Rangers Stanley Cup run.
Gwiazdowski versus Snyder.
“I want to wrestle the best guy,” the NCSU senior said following his win over Coon. “If you want to be the NCAA champ you have got to wrestle the best guy, so we are the two best guys at this point. So tomorrow night we will find out and either way I think it’s good for the media attention, also for both of us.”
Snyder has been on wrestling’s biggest stage, beating a Russian in Las Vegas for a World title as a 19-year-old. A big atmosphere is nothing new for the Maryland native.
“We’re actually pretty good friends,” Snyder said. “We trained together a lot this summer. He comes up to Ohio State and trains, a decent amount last year and we made the decision we were texting back and forth to see how each other was doing. He’s a good guy and we didn’t think we were going to wrestle each other.
“So we threw the kitchen sink at each other and let it all go, so I feel like we have a good feel for each other and I know he is a good game-planner. I know he’s going to have a game plan for me, and I just want to make it a wrestling match. I want to get in wrestling positions and I feel like if I can get into lots of wrestling positions I’ll come out on top, I’ll win the majority of them.”
Penn State running away from the field
Meanwhile, four words sum up the star-studded Penn State Nittany Lions: major, technical fall, and pin. Zain Retherford, who advanced to the finals at 149 pounds, had his third straight pin Friday night. Jason Nolf, a finalist at 157 pounds, has a pin and two technical falls, including Friday night’s dismantling of Rider’s Chad Walsh. Nolf (33-1) gave Illinois’ Isaiah Martinez his only collegiate loss earlier this season. The 2015 NCAA champion beat the Nittany Lion rookie in the Big Ten finals two weekends ago. Friday night, Martinez (31-1) escaped an inside-trip-wielding Ian Miller of Kent State. A Miller takedown late forced overtime, but the Illini sophomore scored 18 seconds into the extra session.
“I think that we all have the same goal here, to become national champions, both individually and team-wise,” Nolf said. “If we want to do that – if you want to just win an individual title, you don’t have to go out and score bonus points, you can win every match by a point. But that’s not what we’re looking to do. We’re trying to score points for our team. I think that’s why we’re scoring bonus points and the fact that we love wrestling.”
Bo Nickal (33-1), the third of the Nittany Lions’ young three amigos, added a tough 4-3 win over Indiana’s Nathan Jackson in the 174-pound semifinals to give PSU a 4-for-4 start to the semifinal round. Senior 125-pounder Nico Megaludis (31-3) opened the evening with a win; senior 197-pounder Morgan McIntosh (32-0) finished things with a victory and PSU advanced five to the finals. The PSU finalists have produced 20 ½ points in bonus points through two days, thus the Nittany Lions take a 114 ½ to 79 ½ lead over Oklahoma State into Saturday. Iowa, in third, has three finalists with the Cowboys sending two. PSU, Oklahoma State, Iowa, and Virginia Tech each have six All-Americans. The Hokies are in fourth, 1 ½ betters better than the Buckeyes.
“We want to be the best team we can be,” PSU head coach Cael Sanderson said. “These guys feed off each other. They love to compete and you see them smiling and joking around. They go out there and get after it.
“Five guys have a chance to win a national title; (Jordan) Conaway has a chance to come back and take third. It’s a pretty good team.”
Most seasons, Nolf and Martinez would get top billing, but it will be a nice warmup to the 285-pounders.
Iowa’s Thomas Gilman trapped 2015 champion Nathan Tomasello on his back early in overtime and scored a fall to advance to the 125-pound final where he will face Megaludis, an 8-2 winner over American’s David Terao. Megaludis, now a three-time finalist, beat Gilman (28-1) in the Big Ten semifinals two weekends ago. The Hawkeyes also pushed Cory Clark (26-1) and Brandon Sorensen (29-1) to the finals, Clark, a finalist in 2015, beating Illinois’ Zane Richards with a late takedown at 133 pounds, and Sorensen, an All-American in 2015, beating Oklahoma State’s Anthony Collica, 4-2, in a 149-pound semifinals.
Oklahoma State senior 165-pounder Alex Dieringer (32-0) moved his win streak to 81 with a dominating major decision of Missouri freshman Daniel Lewis. The Wisconsin native wrestles for his third NCAA title Saturday night against Wisconsin’s Isaac Jordan, a 5-4 winner over his cousin, Bo Jordan of Ohio State in the other semifinal.
“I am just trying to stay calm,” Dieringer admitted. “I don’t want to think about it too much, you know. I don’t want to get sad about it even though it’s going to be a sad day after tomorrow night. “I’m just going to try to stay calm and focus on my match.”
The Cowboys also pushed sophomore 141-pounder Dean Heil (31-1) to the finals. He beat Rutgers’ Anthony Ashnault, 8-3, in the semifinals and meets Wyoming’s 14th-seeded Bryce Meredith, who shocked second-seeded Joey McKenna of Stanford with a late takedown for a 4-3 victory. Meredith (29-4) also beat the third seed, North Carolina State’s Kevin Jack, on his march to Saturday night.
Cornell’s Nahshon Garrett did not take long to move into his second NCAA final, flipping 2015 NCAA champion Cody Brewer of Oklahoma to his back for a pin in 19 seconds. The Cornell senior is 36-0 and has been chomping at the bit all season.
“I learned that if I keep on attacking, there’s not a whole lot of people that can stop me,” said Garrett, a native of California. “And I believe that (Brewer) was a great test the first match I wrestled with him because, obviously, he dominated this tournament last year, absolutely destroyed it. And, yeah – and it was just great to be able to see how I matched up with competition that was, like, at that level.”
Garrett’s teammate, junior Gabe Dean (33-1), advanced to his second straight final, handling North Carolina State’s Pete Renda Friday night. The 2015 NCAA king will face Nebraska’s T.J. Dudley (24-6), an easy winner over Missouri’s Willie Miklus in the other semifinal at 184 pounds. Dean has lost one match over the last two seasons.
Missouri’s J’Den Cox (32-1) moved into his second NCAA final, beating Minnesota’s Brett Pfarr Friday night. Cox, the champion in 2014, meets McIntosh on the big stage Saturday.
Ohio State went 2-2 in the semifinals, also pushing rookie Myles Martin to the finals. He beat unseeded Lelund Weatherspoon of Iowa State, 8-2, to move to the 174-pound finale against Nickal.