Battle for No. 1
It’s been Penn State’s world with everyone else just living in it for most of the last decade. Ohio State, with a powerful squad top-to-bottom, won the Big Ten Championship two weekends ago and is the only other program to win a national title other than the Nittany Lions over the last seven years. Three days in Cleveland could rival Godzilla-King Kong or Ali-Frazier as far as hype, drama, and everything involved in an epic battle between two superpowers. They say anything is possible at NCAA Wrestling Championships, but someone other than Penn State or Ohio State hoisting the trophy this Saturday is highly unlikely.
NOTES! Nittany Lions head to Cleveland for 2018 NCAA Championships, seeking seventh NCAA title in last eight years! Get the scoop and the brackets and GET READY! https://t.co/YJfmZJcJf1 #PSUwr pic.twitter.com/gRjIXTlbb1— Penn State WRESTLING (@pennstateWREST) March 12, 2018
Battle for No. 1, Part II
Ohio State’s Kyle Snyder is one of the best wrestlers on the planet. He is a two-time NCAA champion, a two-time World champion in freestyle, and won Olympic gold in freestyle in 2016. With regularity, Snyder has beaten, by large margins, much bigger men in the 285-pound class. One of those “much bigger men” is Michigan senior Adam Coon, who missed the 2016-17 season due to injury. In a dual meet during the regular season Coon did the unthinkable … he beat Snyder. At the Big Ten’s two weekend ago, Snyder returned the favor with a razor-thin overtime decision. Might Cleveland provide a third meeting? Winning three titles at heavyweight is not an easy task. The last man to do it is Pittsburgh-Johnstown’s Carlton Haselrig from 1987-89, who also won DII titles those same years.
Wild ride at 141
Two times Oklahoma State’s Dean Heil has been champion at 141 pounds. The senior took a 55-match win streak to Cheyenne, Wyo., back in December where Cheyenne native Bryce Meredith ended Heil’s run. The two met again in the Big 12 finals, this time a 6-5 Meredith victory. Meredith (29-1) took a loss to Cornell’s talented rookie Yianni Diakomihalis (29-1), who lost to Missouri’s high-scoring Jaydin Eierman (28-1), who beat Meredith. Throw in North Carolina State veteran Kevin Jack (18-3), Ohio State’s Joey McKenna (16-1), the Big Ten champion, and a few others, and you have the makings of a loaded bracket. Heil was a four-time Ohio state champion.
Wild ride, part II
Like 141 pounds, the 165-pound field is deep with talent. Illinois senior Isaiah Martinez (14-0) won back-to-back titles to start his career, but was shocked by Penn State freshman Vincenzo Joseph (20-2) in the 2017 NCAA final. Martinez has been chomping at the bit since that Saturday night a year ago. Second-seeded David McFadden of Virginia Tech is 31-0 and seeded second with Rider’s always dangerous Chad Walsh (24-1) seeded fourth. Iowa’s Alex Marinelli (16-3) and Michigan’s Logan Massa (16-6) are two more Big Ten bears with Lock Haven’s Chance Marsteller (40-2) trying to battle back from a not-so-stellar start to his career at Oklahoma State. This weight is good enough that Rutgers’ Richie Lewis (18-4), an U23 World champion in freestyle last November is seeded sixth.
Bonus points, bonus points
Cael Sanderson’s Nittany Lions have made a living off major decisions, technical falls, and pins in winning six of the last seven team trophies. PSU needed just five last March, but those five accounted for five titles and 18 bonus-point victories over the three days. Zain Retherford (26-0), Jason Nolf (16-1), Vincenzo Joseph (20-2), Mark Hall (28-0), and Bo Nickal (26-0) are back and, most likely, have a few bonus-point wins in then. The question is: will their supporting cast provide enough help to get the team to the estimated 120 points needed to best the Buckeyes.
Best of the rest
Yes, Penn State and Ohio State are the two favorites heading into Thursday’s wrestling. But what about those knocking on the door? That list is long and includes Missouri, Lehigh, Michigan, North Carolina State, Oklahoma State, Iowa, Arizona State, and Cornell. The Cowboys traditionally wrestle well in March, winning 34 national titles but none since 2006. Iowa, with 23 NCAA championships, also, traditionally, wrestles well at the end. However, DI’s top dogs will have to be much better this weekend to finish in the top four. North Carolina State continues to climb and Eastern powers Lehigh and Cornell always have a handful of All-Americans between them. Missouri and Michigan have plenty of potential top finishers. Arizona State, champions in 1988, are rising fast under head coach Zeke Jones. Throw this group in a hat and any of them could finish third or, with something crazy, shock the wrestling community.
@_NA_T0 on competing in his home town: (Cleveland's) where I grew up wrestling. It's my last college match, so it's going to be awesome having a lot of family, friends and people who supported me throughout my career.#GoBucks pic.twitter.com/XYFFLmbV5N— Ohio State Buckeyes (@OhioStAthletics) March 12, 2018
Race for the Hodge
Wrestling’s Heisman Trophy, the Hodge Award, is given to the top wrestler each season. The list is long and includes PSU’s Retherford, Hall, and Nickal, who are a combined 80-0 with a ton of majors, techs, and pins in 2017-18. Retherford, a senior and two-time NCAA champ, won the award last season. Add Arizona State’s Zahid Valencia (27-0), who could battle Hall for 174-pound honors, and possibly South Dakota State’s Seth Gross (24-1), whose one loss is to Wyoming’s Bryce Meredith at 141 pounds. There are a handful with limited matches this season, but worthy of consideration: Ohio State’s Nathan Tomasello (11-1), Illinois’ Isaiah Martinez (14-0), and Ohio State’s Kyle Snyder (12-1).
PSU’s Jason Nolf and Rutgers’ Nick Suriano each wrestled a pair of matches at the Big Ten Championships, the injury defaulted to sixth place. Nolf, a champion in 2017 and runner-up in 2016, is seeded third at 157 pounds. Another injured party, Iowa’s Michael Kemerer, is seeded sixth and could square off with Nolf in the quarterfinals if they get that far. Suriano (21-0) was injured late last season while wrestling for Penn State. He transferred to Rutgers during the off-season and is seeded fourth at 125 pounds this week. Fans will find out Suriano’s health quickly as the sophomore meets a dangerous JR Wert of Rider in the opening round and could get 2015 NCAA finalist Zeke Moisey of West Virginia Thursday night. Oklahoma State 197-pounder Preston Weigel (11-2) has missed much of the second semester, but the All-American, seeded ninth, could be one to watch.
Ohio and NCAA wrestling
The NCAA Championships return to Ohio for the first time since 1998 when Cleveland hosted the tournament. Iowa, under Jim Zalesky, won a fourth team title a year after legendary Dan Gable retired. Kent State has hosted the tournament twice, in 1963 and 1967. The ’67 meet saw Michigan State and Grady Peninger edge Michigan for top honors. The Spartans’ 74 points would have been sixth in 2017. Scoring, of course, was different with only those losing to finalists brought back into the consolations. Freshmen were also not eligible to wrestle in 1967. In 1963, Oklahoma, under head coach Tommy Evans, outpointed Iowa State, 48-45.
Football, Hall of Fames, and Ohio
The National Wrestling Hall of Fame & Museum is partnering with the Pro Football Hall of Fame for an exhibit, “Wrestling and Football,” at the NCAA Wrestling Fan Fest in the Huntington Convention Center of Cleveland. There will be a roundtable discussion Thursday from 5:15-6 p.m. with Pro Football Hall of Fame members Curly Culp, Bob Golic, Carlton Haselrig, and Stephen Neal. Football’s Hall of Fame is located in Canton, about one hour from downtown Cleveland, which is home to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, one mile from Quicken Loans Arena, the site of the 2018 Wrestling Championships.