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Roger Moore | NCAA.com | March 2, 2017

Status quo for Big Ten, Sun Devils back in business

  Penn State wrestling gears up for the Big Ten conference title tournament this weekend.

Here is this week's edition of NCAA.com's Divison I Wrestling Notebook:

Big Ten status quo

When half of your conference’s teams are ranked inside the nation’s top 10, it is to be expected that the conference meet will be tough. That’s life in the Big Ten, backed up by the 77 allocations given to a league that includes reigning NCAA champions Penn State, Iowa and Ohio State. Throw in Nebraska, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota and Rutgers, and you have a stacked field of programs fighting for the lion’s share of spots for the 2017 NCAA Championships in St. Louis from March 16-18.

At the top of the list is Penn State, which has eight wrestlers ranked inside the top five in regards to RPI. With national champion Zain Retherford (19-0, 149) and 2016 finalists Jason Nolf (19-0, 157) and Bo Nickal (18-0, 184) leading the pack, PSU head coach Cael Sanderson knows it’s not necessarily how many qualify but about who can score points over three days in St. Louis.

“We’re hoping to get 10 through, but the more important part is getting guys through who are going to score big points,” Sanderson said on Monday. “You don’t necessarily need 10 guys to win.”

A quick rundown of the NCAA Award Standings for the annual Most Dominant Award proves Sanderson’s point. Retherford, Nolf, and Nickal rank 1, 2 and 4, respectively, with rookie 174-pounder Mark Hall (24-2) at No. 10. That foursome has combined for 48 pins this season.

RELATED: Updated standings for NCAA Wrestling Awards | NWCA rankings

Much of the discussion heading into the Big Ten meet this weekend in Bloomington, Indiana, revolves around the status of 125-pounder Nick Suriano (16-2), who was injured in PSU’s victory over Oklahoma State in the title bout of the NWCA National Duals Championship Series. With the current NCAA qualification format, Suriano, a freshman ranked second behind Iowa’s unbeaten Thomas Gilman, can step on the mat for one second at the conference meet, injury default, then earn an at-large berth on March 7. The qualification system is based on a season’s worth of work, and Suriano has the required credentials. According to Sanderson, a decision will be made as late as Saturday.

A missing piece of the Nittany Lion puzzle gives Iowa and Ohio State a fighting chance for a conference title. The Hawkeyes, with Gilman, 149-pounder Brandon Sorensen (22-3), 133-pounder Cory Clark (12-2) and rookie 157-pounder Michael Kemerer (25-1), will be in the mix, along with the Buckeyes, who will depend on Olympian Kyle Snyder (9-0, 285), Nathan Tomasello (16-0, 133) and Myles Martin (23-7, 184), all three national champions.

With 77 qualifiers, all one has to do is pick a weight, any weight, to find a loaded bracket. The 165-pound field, for instance, includes the nation’s top four wrestlers with top-ranked Isaiah Martinez (23-0), a two-time NCAA champion, Michigan’s talented rookie Logan Massa (25-1), Wisconsin’s Isaac Jordan (19-2) and Penn State freshman Vincenzo Joseph (14-3). Martinez, Gilman, Retherford, Nolf, Tomasello and Snyder give the Big Ten six of the 10 top-ranked wrestlers.

Sanderson may have said it best Monday.

“It’s a steel sharpens steal mentality,” the PSU coach said in regards to the rugged Big Ten dual schedule from January through the end of February.

Cowboys in position for another conference crown

Oklahoma State hopes to welcome back senior heavyweight Austin Schafer (18-1) to its lineup at this weekend’s Big 12 Conference Championships in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Schafer has been out due to injury for over a month.

“I don’t know if you’re ever healthy,” OSU head coach John Smith said on Tuesday. “There’s always something wrong with student-athletes that have wrestled a full season. I think we’re pretty good.

“I think Austin Schafer will wrestle. He doesn’t have to wrestle to go to the NCAA Championships because he’s qualified already, so I feel confident enough that he’s feeling good enough to compete.”

The Cowboys won the 2016 conference tournament by 61 points, their fourth straight and 13th since the Big 12 started holding a league meet in 1997. Smith’s squad has nine wrestlers seeded either one or two, including unbeaten national champion Dean Heil (24-0) at 141 pounds.

South Dakota State had a strong dual campaign and heads to Tulsa with North Dakota State, Oklahoma and Wyoming among those trying to chase down Smith’s team. Among the anticipated matchups are Heil and Wyoming’s Bryce Meredith (26-5), two finalists from the 2016 NCAA Championships, and OSU’s Kaid Brock (23-1) and SDSU’s Seth Gross (27-1), who gave Brock his only loss this season. Iowa State veteran Earl Hall (19-8) could have a say in the finals matchup; the senior leads a Cyclone contingent in transition after Kevin Jackson resigned as head coach during the regular season and the program hired Virginia Tech’s Kevin Dresser.

Rising Sun Devils

Arizona State and Stanford battled for top honors at the 2017 Pac-12 Championships last Sunday at Stanford. The young Sun Devils claimed the program’s first league crown since 2006 and ended Oregon State’s stranglehold on the Pac-12 trophy.

Since his return to Tempe in 2014, head coach Zeke Jones, a three-time All-American and member of ASU’s 1988 NCAA Championship squad, has quickly returned the program to respectability. It was not long ago that the program was momentarily discontinued. Now, after winning a conference crown, order has been restored.

“All of our guys put their all into making this weekend all that it was, whether it’s on the mat or in the back room as practice partners,” said Jones, who will take five wrestlers to St. Louis for the NCAA Championships. “It takes a lot of us to get it done. We have a very young team, and we’re not done yet, but it’s a good start. These guys are going to be a part of the leadership of our team for a very long time.”

RELATED: ASU captures first Pac-12 title in 11 years

Jones’ five qualifiers include four redshirt freshman and a sophomore. Zahid Valencia (33-0) rolled through the 174-pound bracket to win his first conference title, while brother Anthony (31-5) did the same at 165 pounds. Josh Maruca, 21-8 at 149 pounds, and 157-pounder Josh Shields (32-7), both from Pennsylvania, are also in their first year. The lone non-freshman of the group is heavyweight Tanner Hall (28-5), just a sophomore.

Jason Tsirtsis, a national champion 149-pounder for Northwestern in 2014 before his transfer to ASU, and Ryan Milhof, an All-American 125-pounder at Oklahoma, is also expected to join what could be a very strong lineup in 2017-18.

EIWA = Cornell

Cornell, coming off a dual victory over Ohio State, has won 10 straight Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling titles. This weekend at Bucknell, Pennsylvania, the Big Red go for No. 11 and will have to hold off a talented Lehigh squad, coming off a dual victory over Rutgers. Only the Big Ten’s 77 qualifiers tops the EIWA’s 43 allocated by the NCAA last week. Big Red senior 184-pounder Gabe Dean has won 18 of his 27 matches by fall this season; he seeks a fourth EIWA title.

The Mountain Hawks’ lineup had a late change when two-time All-American Mitch Minotti lost the 165-spot to freshman Cole Walter in a wrestle-off this week.

“That was a hard decision,” Lehigh coach Pat Santoro said Monday. “[Minotti has] done so much for the program. He’s had a lot of injuries and always come back. Even above his wins, he’s brought a lot to this program with leadership and changing the culture.”

Challenging the Tigers

Since leaving the Big 12 for the Mid-American Conference in 2012, Missouri has won four straight MAC titles — throw in the 2012 Big 12 title and head coach Brian Smith’s Tigers have won five straight conference trophies. Among the top six all season, MU suffered a late-season loss to Northern Iowa, which will challenge along with Central Michigan for top honors this weekend in Cedar Falls, Iowa. The Tigers have five wrestlers seeded No. 1 led by Olympian J’Den Cox (17-0) at 197 pounds, Lavion Mayes (16-2) at 149 pounds and Daniel Lewis (20-3) at 165 pounds. UNI has a talented group of underclassmen led by 149-pounder Max Thomsen (24-4).

“The grind of a season, it’s tough,” UNI head coach Doug Schwab said last week. “We’ve gone every weekend since the [Southern] Scuffle … that’s a long time when you are on the road, getting up every week, it can wear on you. But our guys have taken it well.”

Thomsen beat Mayes and sophomore Bryce Steiert (17-3) beat Lewis in the Panthers’ win over MU.

“Sometimes you need that win to prove it to yourself,” Schwab said. “Inside you’re thinking you can do it, ‘Yeah, I can beat those guys’ … but then when you go do it, it raises it to a whole other level.”

Fun in Raleigh

Virginia Tech completed an 18-1 dual campaign with a big win over Nebraska in the NWCA’s National Duals Bowl Championship Series. Since, however, the Hokies lost their head coach, Kevin Dresser, to Iowa State. Assistant Tony Robie will man the sidelines for a squad that has plenty of tournament power. Tech was second to North Carolina State at the 2016 Atlantic Coast Conference meet but will be favored this weekend in Raleigh, North Carolina, with six wrestlers seeded No. 1. The Wolfpack won 13 of 15 duals and have national title contender Kevin Jack (28-1), who will battle North Carolina’s Joey Ward (23-4) and Virginia’s George DiCamillo (19-3) for the 141-pound crown. All three are among the top five in the country.

Scots and Broncs

Edinboro’s Fighting Scots have been led the Eastern Wrestling League, winning 12 titles since 2000. A year ago, Rider ended a string of two straight for Edinboro, and those two will battle for the 17 NCAA qualifiers available. Head coach Tim Flynn’s Scots, as usual, have a good tournament team with Sean Russell (28-6, 125), Pat Lugo (26-7, 149), Austin Matthews (16-6, 165), Dakota Geer (26-8, 184) and Billy Miller (27-9, 285). Lugo and Matthews have two signature wins for the league, Lugo besting Iowa All-American Brandon Sorensen, and Matthews pinning Oklahoma State’s talented Chandler Rogers. Matthews and Rider’s Chad Walsh (26-2) could make for an exciting 165-pound EWL final. Clarion’s Brock Zacherl, 20-2 at 141 pounds, is also one to watch.

Bloomsburg is the host for this season’s EWL meet.

Mountaineers and Mocs

Chattanooga won 10 of 11 Southern Conference titles from 2005-2015, including five straight heading into the 2016 league meet where Appalachian State won its first conference crown since 2003, edging UTC by half a point. ASU heavyweight Denzel Dejournette, whose victory gave the Mountaineers the narrow victory in last March’s SoCon tournament, was named the SoCon Wrestler of the Year this week after compiling a 23-5 regular season record. Only 17 NCAA spots are available, with five weight classes only taking the champion.

Charleston, South Carolina, is host to this weekend’s SoCon Championships.

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