NEW YORK, N.Y. – Saturday night was a night of firsts, seconds, and thirds inside Madison Square Garden. And it ended in dramatic fashion.
In the 2016 NCAA Championships’ final match after three days of grueling competition inside a legendary arena, Ohio State’s Kyle Snyder used an ankle-pick with :08 left to force overtime with North Carolina State’s Nick Gwiazdowski, then score another takedown :15 into the first extra session to end the Wolfpack senior’s 88-match winning streak.
Gwiazdowski’s bid for a third title was thwarted, but another senior, Oklahoma State’s Alex Dieringer, finished his career with 82-straight victories and a third national title.
Illinois’ Isaiah Martinez won his second championship at 157 pounds. Gabe Dean, a junior for Cornell, picked up his second gold. Missouri’s multi-talented J’Den Cox claimed his second in three years.
Penn State’s Nico Megaludis and Cornell’s Nahshon Garrett, after long and successful careers, finished in style with their first titles.
Oklahoma State’s Dean Heil and Penn State’s Zain Retherford, both sophomores, claimed championship number one, as did Snyder.
And underdog Myles Martin, a freshman from nearby Penns Grove, New Jersey, had the highlight of the night in beating Penn State’s Bo Nickal. Locked up, both men ready to strike, Nickal tried to turn an ankle-pick into two. But Martin, the No. 11 seed at 174 pounds, countered with slick edge-of-the-mat move for six points. The flurry gave Martin a comfortable lead and he went to an 11-9 victory in one of the better matches of the evening.'
“My mindset going in before was, like, he beat me three times already,” Martin said. “He pinned me at Big Tens. I’m like, it can’t get any worse than that. So this match, I figured I would go out there and wrestle and compete as hard as I can. I’ve been doing it at practice, did it all during the year.
“If I just stick to what I do best, and just have fun, that’s the main thing about it.”
Penn State, team champion for the fifth time in six seasons, won just two of five finals bouts Saturday night. Retherford completed a 34-0 sophomore season with a dominating 10-1 major decision of Iowa’s Brandon Sorensen in the 149-pound title tilt. Fitting for the Nittany Lions all week, Retherford, from Benton, Pa., picked up a bonus point with one final third-period takedown. A redshirt in 2014-15, Retherford was fifth in 2014 at 141 pounds.
Megaludis used a physical counter for an opening period takedown to lead 2-0. The PSU senior went on the attack in the second period, turning a double-leg shot into a 4-1 advantage and eventually a comfortable 6-3 victory. An emotional senior, making his third trip to the big stage, jumped into the arms of assistant coach Cody Sanderson and went into the stands for hugs from friends and family.
“I don’t know, it’s not even celebration, it’s just relief,” said Megaludis. “I don’t know, I’m just relieved. I knew I was going to be the champion. It was a done deal a year ago when I signed everywhere -- my room, Penn State, my room at home, my bathroom at home, my wrestling room at home, my car steering wheel: I am 2016 national champion.
“I come into my car every day on my steering wheel and I see that and I brainwashed myself.”
Second place Oklahoma State, 26 ½ points behind the Nittany Lions in second place, had two champions. Sophomore Dean Heil became Oklahoma State’s 140th NCAA champion, beating Wyoming’s Bryce Meredith, 3-2, in the 141-pound final. A first-period takedown was the difference for Heil (32-1), who was fourth as a redshirt-freshman.
For Dieringer, who expects to be in Iowa City for the U.S. Olympic Team Trials next month, his 6-2 win over Wisconsin’s Isaac Jordan was not the norm. Only six times in 33 matches this season did the Wisconsin native not record at least a major decision.
“There’s a lot of emotions there,” Dieringer said. “I was kind of a little conservative, but in the situation I was in it was hard to get overaggressive. But I know I was very pleased, 18 matches in a row with a third national title in the most historic arena in the world. So it’s a pretty amazing feeling.”
He, like the other nine NCAA champions, are invited to Iowa City to try and earn a berth for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil.
“I’ll be a wrestler for life,” said Dieringer, who finishes an incredible career at 133-4 and second behind his head coach John Smith (152) on OSU’s all-time wins list. “I’m going to give back to the sport that gave me so much. I’ll be wrestling until my body can’t take it anymore. I’m going to get into coaching, help wrestlers out and help them reach their goals.
“I’ll be taking two or three days. Not much more than that. Two weeks, I’ll still be in good shape. But two weeks to train freestyle, that’s my favorite style. I have a little over two weeks to figure everything out, get ready for (Jordan) Burroughs and the rest of the guys in the field.”
For Snyder (11-0), it was his first national title, but the second “major” medal he’s added to the trophy case lately. In 2015 the Maryland native won a World Championship in freestyle in Las Vegas.
“It was incredible,” Snyder said. “It was so much fun. It’s hard to really tell when you’re wrestling just how much the fans are getting into it. You can kind of hear them, but everything’s kind of not as loud as it would normally be if you were just sitting there listening. After the match was over they were challenging the takedown, I could really hear the crowd yell, and look up to the Ohio State section and it was pretty special.”
Big matches, big events. Nothing new for a wrestler who was 179-0 in high school.
“It probably makes me a targeted guy, but I think since my freshman year of high school I’ve been targeted and people have, every time they wrestle me, it’s one of their biggest matches of the year,” Snyder added. “So I’m used to that now. And when I win something big, I don’t relax. It makes me hungrier, I want it again. I want to improve and I want to do it in a more dominant way next time I wrestle in it. So the next thing is the Olympic Trials in three weeks. And that’s a big competition for me, so I’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Martinez won his second straight NCAA title at 157 pounds, beating Penn State’s Jason Nolf for the second time in two weeks. The Illini sophomore (32-1), with just one career loss, that to Nolf during the regular season, scored the deciding takedown with 11 seconds on the clock. On Friday night, Martinez, from Lemoore, Calif.
Dean moved to 117-6 for his career with a methodical 5-3 win over Nebraska’s T.J. Dudley in the 184-pound final. Cox (33-1) was a national champion as a freshman in 2014. He lost in the 2015 semifinals, but Saturday a late third-period, low-level attack resulted in the match’s only takedown in a 4-2 victory for the Columbia, Mo., native.
Cornell’s Nahshon Garrett, like Megaludis, had been in the finals before, losing in 2014 to Illinois’ Jesse Delgado at 125 pounds. On Saturday night, the lightning-quick Californian scored a big third-period takedown and beat Iowa’s Cory Clark, 7-6. A four-time All-American, Garrett finishes his final season 37-0 and his 149 career wins rank second behind Mack Lewnes on Cornell’s all-time list.
“I’m excited that the outcome was me winning it,” Garrett said. “But I did wrestle with a little bit of fear and anxiety. I didn’t take as many shots as I probably could have, but I guess I’m not going to focus on what I didn’t do and focus on what I did do.
“(Iowa wrestlers) are obviously really good at grinding people out, and that’s how they win most of their matches. I think I did what I needed to do in order to stay in there.
“It’s awesome. It’s easy to get caught up in everything. When they were singing the National Anthem I was in tears because I was overwhelmed by the glory of the spectating and just everything emanating from me and from everybody else and it was a pretty amazing thing. And I was a little emotional before my match. So I had to calm myself down and had to get slapped in the face a couple times before I actually went out there on the mat.”
Penn State, Oklahoma State, Virginia Tech, and Iowa had six All-Americans with Ohio State, at four, edging the Hokies for third place in the team standings. Tech was one point better than Iowa in fourth place. The 2017 NCAA Championships return to St. Louis, site of an NCAA-record three-day attendance of 113,013 in 2015. Madison Square Garden drew 110,194, the second highest total since the tournament started in 1928.
It was a mixed bag for Sanderson, who saw two of his student-athletes win titles while three others left disappointed.
“I’m still trying to figure that one out right now,” Sanderson said. “Coaching wrestling is tough. Because it’s a team game. We want to win as a team, obviously. But we have ten individuals and as a coach my job is to help those individual. If the individuals do well, the team does well. So it’s certainly bittersweet. It’s tough, it’s painful. It hurts when guys don’t reach their goals.
“And in the long run those young guys, it will make them a bit hungrier, they’ll have a little more urgency to improve. They’ll come back here with fire. It still stinks to lose, there’s no way around it. It really stinks to lose.”
A bright future
North Dakota State sophomore 149-pounder Clayton Ream went 1-2 this week, but still left with some hardware. The Wentzville, Mo., native, a redshirt-freshman, maintains a 4-0 grade point average in biochemistry and molecular biology and was given the NCAA’s annual Elite 90 Award, giving to the student-athlete in the tournament with the best GPA.