The 87th NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships return to St. Louis for what will be another fantastic three days. Penn State won the 2016 team title, their fifth in six seasons, and enters Thursday as one of three programs to battle for the 2017 trophy. Ohio State, NCAA champions in 2015, won the Big Ten title, while Oklahoma State had a record-setting two days at the Big 12 conference Championships. Here are 10 things to watch for in St. Louis.
Ohio State’s Kyle Snyder has been making headlines since he was 16-years-old. In 2016, the Maryland product won an NCAA title as a sophomore 285-pounder and followed that up by winning a gold medal in Rio at the 2016 Summer Olympics, the youngest United States freestyler to do so. He has wrestled part of his junior campaign overseas and enters the 2017 Championships unbeaten and as the top seed at 285.
✔ Vote ✔ Vote ✔ Vote https://t.co/0PzLxu4pNW— Ohio State Wrestling (@wrestlingbucks) March 12, 2017
Missouri’s J’Den Cox, a senior and winner of two NCAA titles, won a bronze medal at the 2016 Olympics. The undefeated native of Columbia, Mo., has a diversified resumé that includes an infectious smile and attitude wrestlers, fans, and coaches should emulate. Two seasons ago, Cox lost to Snyder in the 197-pound NCAA semifinals. Both could represent the U.S. – at different weight classes – for years to come.
The two OSU’s
Penn State has won five of the last six NCAA Championships. Head coach Cael Sanderson’s Nittany Lions started the year with some question marks, but another cast of talented freshmen put PSU back on top – until the Big Ten Championships.
Ohio State took advantage of an injury to one of those freshmen, 125-pounder Nick Suriano, and claimed top honors in Bloomington, Ind. The Buckeyes head to St. Louis with national champions Nathan Tomasello (133), Myles Martin (184), and Snyder (285), plus the two Jordans, Micah (149) and Bo (174), and 197-pound stud Kolin Moore. Those six are formidable and give head coach Tom Ryan plenty of firepower.
Oklahoma State routed the field at the Big 12 Championships and goes into Thursday looking for its first team title since 2006 and 35th overall. The Cowboys have 141-pounder Dean Heil, champion in 2016, and a loaded lineup with potential All-Americans in all 10 brackets. If head coach John Smith and Co. can put one or two in the finals and throw in another six or seven All-Americans, they will be tough to beat.
Penn State scores points and has fun while doing it. Zain Retherford (149), Jason Nolf (157), and Bo Nickal (184) could finish in the top eight in the team race by themselves. If the supporting cast has a good tournament, it might not matter what either OSU does.
The Hodge race
Wrestling’s Heisman Trophy, the Hodge, has never had so many nominees. Every weight class has a worthy candidate with Cornell’s Gabe Dean, looking for his third NCAA title, undefeated and with scoring bonus points to boot. Retherford is a junior for PSU with a 59-match win streak, while Nolf, just a sophomore, as dominant as anybody in the country. Illinois’ Isaiah Martinez goes for his third NCAA title in three years; the junior has one collegiate loss, that coming to Nolf a year ago. Arizona State rookie Zahid Valencia is 33-0 this season and worthy of attention. You cannot leave out Iowa’s Thomas Gilman, Ohio State’s Nathan Tomasello, Oklahoma State’s Dean Heil, Cox, or Snyder.
The Hodge goes to the most dominant wrestler and someone representative of a student-athlete. This season’s vote will be close and could come down to who is this season's NCAA Tournament Outstanding Wrestler recipient.
A perfect 10
Not often does each weight class include one unbeaten wrestler. But that is the case in 2017.
● Iowa’s Thomas Gilman is 27-0 at 125 pounds. A senior this season, he lost in the 2016 NCAA finals to Penn State senior Nico Megaludis.
● Ohio State’s Nathan Tomasello (19-0) was a national champion as a freshman 125-pounder in 2015. He was pinned by Gilman in the 2016 NCAA semifinals and came back to finish third.
● Oklahoma State junior Dean Heil (27-0) has won 36-straight matches which includes his run to the 2016 national title at 141 pounds.
● Penn State’s Zain Retherford (23-0) takes a 59-match win streak to St. Louis. The 2016 NCAA champion took a redshirt season after finishing fifth at 141 in 2014.
● Another Nittany Lion, sophomore Jason Nolf (22-0), has been unstoppable in 2016-17 after falling in the 2016 NCAA final to Illinois’ Isaiah Martinez.
● Illinois junior Isaiah Martinez (27-0) is already a two-time champion. The Californian won two titles at 157 and is now the top dog at 165 pounds.
● Arizona State redshirt-freshman Zahid Valencia (33-0) has rolled through a good schedule and will have to hold off a good group of 174-pounders.
● Cornell’s Gabe Dean (30-0) has been dominant, this season and for much of his impressive career. The Big Red senior goes for his third NCAA title.
● J’Den Cox of Missouri is 23-0: See Olympian.
● Ohio State junior Kyle Snyder (12-0): See Olympian.
All dramas need a villain
Former Iowa Hawkeye Tony Ramos relished the role of villain, somewhat like former Oklahoma State star Johny Hendricks. Ramos won the 2014 NCAA title at 133 pounds, while Hendricks was a two-time titleist. Gilman, a senior 125-pounder for head coach Tom Brands’ Hawkeyes, has given sound-bite after sound bite during the 2016-17 campaign. None of that matters to the Council Bluffs, Iowa, product.
“I’m not a people person,” Gilman said in February. “I’ve always been kind of an outcast, but it’s because I’ve made myself that way. I just don’t want to be caught up in bogus stuff.”
There are three guarantees in the state of Iowa: death, taxes, and wrestling.
“People that don’t like Thomas Gilman and are consumed with trying to bring him down just don’t understand his mentality,” Iowa associate head coach Terry Brands told Chris Cuellar. “They’re not elite-level thinkers. They’re not consumed by being the very, very, very best they can be in their particular discipline. Why are you going to belittle a guy who has been relatively successful and is growing by the day?
“I see a guy that approaches the sport very seriously in a unique way. Everybody says that we’re robots (at Iowa), but that’s not true. Iowa style is your style. Thomas Gilman’s style is Iowa’s style.”
Taking a page from Division II
Every so often, especially in March, there is a HOLY COW moment in collegiate championships. An unseeded or unheralded wrestler making it to Saturday night’s big stage or that first round shocker. Last weekend in Birmingham, Ala., Limestone College’s DeAndre’ Johnson provided one such script. The 157-pound bracket had two “favorites” in Pittsburgh-Johnstown’s unbeaten Cody Law and Nebraska-Kearney’s Destin McCauley, a national champion in 2016. But Johnson, whose credentials included two seasons in the junior college ranks, took out Law 12-10 in sudden victory, then hammered McCauley in the finals, 14-5.
Might Johnson be inspiration for someone under the radar in St. Louis?
It has been an interesting month for Virginia Tech after longtime head coach Kevin Dresser announced he would take over as head coach at Iowa State. With the Cyclones limping to a 1-12 dual campaign, Dresser, a national champion for Iowa during his competitive days, became ISU’s target. Meanwhile, the Hokies finished an 18-1 dual season by beating a good Nebraska team, then rolled to the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship by outdistancing a good North Carolina State squad.
With assistant coach Tony Robie at the helm, the Hokies head to St. Louis as a team to watch with a number of All-America threats, including Joey Dance (25-1 at 125), Zack Epperly (19-1 at 174), Zack Zavatsky (24-2 at 184), Jared Haight (24-2 at 197), and Ty Walz (22-2 at 285). There is no reason to believe the Hokies will not be among the top five when all is said and done. Last March, the Hokies edged Iowa by one point for fourth behind Penn State, Oklahoma State, and Ohio State.
The last time the NCAA Wrestling Championships were in St. Louis, in 2015, a record 113,013 attended the six sessions inside the Scottrade Center. The second highest total for an NCAA Tournament was 112,393 – in St. Louis in 2012. Four times – 2016, 2015, 2012, 2011 – wrestling’s showcase has brought over 100,000 with St. Louis holding the top two spots. New York City’s Madison Square Garden drew 110,194 last March with Philadelphia bringing 104,260 in 2011.
Freshmen, true and redshirt, always draw attention at the NCAA Championships. Some battle their way to Saturday, while others melt under the pressure. This season’s crop of rookies is deep and talented led by Arizona State’s Zahid Valencia (33-0), the top seed at 174 pounds. That same bracket includes Penn State’s Mark Hall (26-3), who, as the fifth seed, could see the Sun Devil in Friday night’s semifinals.
Others to watch include:
● Michigan’s Logan Massa (27-2), whose two losses are to top-seeded Isaiah Martinez at 165 pounds; Massa is the No. 2 man in seedings. Another at 165 is PSU’s Vincenzo Joseph (17-4), seeded third.
● Oklahoma State 133-pounder Kaid Brock (25-2) has lost twice to South Dakota State’s Seth Gross and is seeded third; Brock beat Iowa’s Cory Clark during the regular season and opened his career with a pin of 2015 NCAA champion Cody Brewer last season before an injury sent Brock to the sidelines.
● Northern Iowa’s Max Thomsen (27-5) is seeded seventh at 149 pounds, while Arizona State’s Josh Shields (32-7) is No. 9 at 157 pounds. Edinboro’s Dakota Geer (29-8) is a rookie 184-pounder and seeded 14th. A Thursday night match with Iowa’s Sammy Brooks, the third seed, could be fun.
● Iowa’s Michael Kemerer (27-2) has lost twice to PSU’s Nolf and may be the only one within five points of the Nittany Lion.
Is Edinboro this year’s Edinboro?
The “mid-majors” as many like to call them include plenty of tournament-ready teams. Edinboro and head coach Tim Flynn always seem to put wrestlers on the podium and climbed all the way to third in 2015. American, under Mark Cody, used a small group to climb the final standings and take fifth in 2011. Central Michigan tied for seventh in 2008. Although the post-World War II landscape was much different, tiny Cornell College of Iowa was the 1949 national champions.
Is there a surprise top-10 run from someone in 2017? South Dakota State perhaps? Maybe Northern Iowa, second to Cornell College in 1949?