Oklahoma State head coach John Smith made an interesting comment following his team’s dismantling of Oklahoma on Dec. 2. He said, “We aren’t trying to beat Oklahoma, we are trying to beat Penn State, and Iowa, and Ohio State.”
This statement comes from the leader of the top-ranked team in the country who has outscored four opponents 142-9 so far this season. Preseason polls show Oklahoma State as the No. 1 team in the land.
And for good reason.National champion Dean Heil returns at 141 pounds. All-Americans Anthony Collica (149), Joe Smith (157), Kyle Crutchmer (174) and Nolan Boyd (184) are supported by New York rookie Nick Piccininni at 125 pounds, by offensive whizzes Kaid Brock (133) and Chandler Rogers (165), by steady Preston Weigel at 197, and by ever-improving heavyweight Austin Schafer. The Cowboys lineup has no weak links in December.
“What we have to do is focus on enforcing our will early,” Smith said. “Penn State is scoring bonus points now and in March. We have to get that mentality early, work on separating the score early and going for technical falls and pins. You do that now, it comes easier in March.”
Penn State has won five of the last six wrestling championships in Division I. Head coach Cael Sanderson has mentored a plethora of young talent that has gotten better with age — Nico Megaludus. David Taylor. Ed Ruth. Morgan McIntosh. Quentin Wright. Frank Molinaro. Matt Brown.
The 2016-17 crew is as potent as ever. National champion Zain Retherford (149) and finalists Jason Nolf (157) and Bo Nickal (184) are back and dominating. True freshman 125-pounder Nick Suriano is already 7-0 with a victory over Lehigh’s Darian Cruz. Another rookie, Vincenzo Joseph, is 6-1 at 165 pounds. Veteran Jimmy Gulibon (141) is also back, while heavyweight Nick Nevills hopes for an injury-free campaign. Entering Sunday's dual with Binghamton, no Nittany Lion is ranked outside the top 15 in his weight class. While winning, this team, like previous PSU squads, appears to be having fun.
“We have a lot of guys who compete hard and lead by example,” Retherford said after the 30-10 win over Lehigh. “It’s a lot of fun to wrestle for this team.”
Race for the Hodge
Where to start when it comes to collegiate wrestling’s Heisman Trophy is anybody’s guess.
Ohio State heavyweight Kyle Snyder claimed top honors at 285 pounds last March, beating North Carolina State’s Nick Gwiazdowski in an epic final. Snyder made the U.S. Olympic squad and won a gold medal at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. His credentials alone make him a frontrunner.
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A teammate of Snyder in Rio was J’Den Cox, who won his second NCAA trophy last March then earned a bronze medal in a difficult freetstyle bracket. Sometimes style points help the cause, which Cox is not necessarily concerned about; he just wins.
Iowa’s Thomas Gilman will hammer a ton of 125 pounds in 2016-17. Like Cox, Oklahoma State junior Dean Heil, the champion at 141 pounds last season, doesn’t do it with flash; he just wins.
The Penn State trio of Zain Retherford (149), Jason Nolf (157) and Bo Nickal (184) are bonus-point machines and will factor into the conversation.
And why not Isaiah Martinez, a two-time NCAA champion for Illinois? Cornell’s Gabe Dean is off to fast start, winning a title in Las Vegas. The senior goes for a third NCAA title next March.
With the talent floating around Division I in 2016-17 this list might just add a few names.
If you are looking for young talent you’ve come to the right place. A handful of rookies have impressed early, led by Michigan 165-pounder Logan Massa and Arizona State 174-pounder Zahid Valencia, who each won titles at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Collegiate Invitational on Dec. 2-3.
Massa, a redshirt freshman from St. Johns, Michigan, beat Wisconsin’s talented Isaac Jordan 8-7 in the finals last Saturday. Massa’s success is not a big surprise, considering he was 182-4 in high school and his only loss during a redshirt season came to three-time national champion Alex Dieringer in the Southern Scuffle title bout.
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Likewise for Valencia, a three-time state champion from California who was seventh at the Junior World Championships before suiting up in Tempe. Valencia beat Cornell’s Brian Realbuto 3-2 for his first Vegas title.
Penn State’s Nick Suriano (125), Oklahoma State’s Kaid Brock (133), Princeton’s Matt Kolodzik (141) and Iowa’s Nick Kemerer (157) are also ranked among the top six early this season.
Strength of schedule
Missouri held off Virginia Tech in Columbia earlier this season. On Thursday night, Brian Smith’s Tigers tangled with Ohio State in Columbus. Wrestling fans were hoping for a dramatic finish where MU 197-pounder J’Den Cox bumped up to heavyweight to face OSU’s Kyle Snyder in a winner-take-all fight to the finish. Cox earned a bronze medal at the 2016 Olympics in Rio; Snyder won gold. The hosts did not cooperate, however, hammering Missouri 30-9. The highlight of the dual may have come in one of the Buckeyes’s three losses — 197 pounds. Redshirt freshman Kollin Moore battled Cox for three periods and had the Tiger veteran on the ropes late in a 6-4 Cox victory. If prognosticators did not have OSU in the title conversation, Thursday night should probably change that.
● Once intense rivalries, Oklahoma versus Oklahoma State and Iowa versus Iowa State have lost some of its shine recently. The Cowboys whipped the Sooners 33-3 on Dec. 2 in Norman and have won 13 of the last 14 meetings. Iowa State has not beaten Iowa in a dual since 2004, a span of 12 matches. ISU visits Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Friday night.
● Next Friday night, No. 8 Cornell wrestles at top-ranked Oklahoma State. A feature match could include reigning NCAA champion Gabe Dean against OSU’s Nolan Boyd, who beat Dean in a dual in Ithaca, New York, last season. Dean avenged that loss in the NCAA quarterfinals on his way to a second title at 184 pounds.
● Minnesota junior 157-pounder Jake Short got off to a slow start this season, dropping three matches to unseeded wrestlers before December. At the CKLV last weekend, Short knocked off 2016 NCAA DII champion Destin McCauley of Nebraska-Kearney on Friday and eventually took out 10th-ranked Central Michigan’s Colin Heffernan in the finals.
“Last year, I had a good tournament but I had an up-and-down year,” said Short, who takes a 9-4 into duals with Michigan State and Michigan this weekend. “[Last] weekend, the biggest thing for me was just wrestling hard. I ended up getting my hand raised at the end of it, but I was able to give my full effort, which is a big step forward. I think my mentality has really changed. I’m excited for more competitions this year.”