I have been a fan of wrestling since 1997, not professional wrestling, but what most people call “high school” for “college” wrestling, but the term is actually “folk style” wrestling. Wrestling is one of the world’s oldest sports, and has the most diehard fans.
My journey to watching collegiate wrestling started in 2009, when Virginia Tech hosted the ACC tournament. Tech, at that time, was led by second year coach Kevin Dresser. Dresser had been head coach at national high school wrestling powerhouse Grundy and led them to 8 straight state titles before moving to Christiansburg and turning them into a national power with 5 consecutive state titles. While at the tournament I was able to watch what was the beginning of a resurgence of ACC wrestling. The 2009 tournament featured the 149 lbs. National Champion Darrion Caldwell, the Heavyweight runner-up Konrad Dudziak of Duke, and several other All-Americans. Two weeks later, I would record and re-watch numerous times the NCAA Wrestling Tournament on ESPN. Since than I have not missed watching a tournament, and for the past three years ESPN has outdone themselves and covered every round and match of the tournament (Which I have enjoyed thoroughly and much to the annoyance of my family).
This year’s tournament brought heartbreak and joy. It was one of the most entertaining NCAA tournaments and it was all under the lights of the most famous arena in the world, Madison Square Garden. Here are my final thoughts:
I don’t ever remember a tournament with so many upsets. In the first round of the 174 lbs. bracket there were 5 upsets in the first round, and one was the #2 seed. Several other weight classes had #3,#4,#5, and #6 seeds losing, and that really does not even scratch the surface. Returning All-Americans were knocked out after the first night. It kept you on the edge of your seat.
#15 David Terao at 125 lbs. from American University and #14 Bryce Meredith at 141 lbs. from Wyoming kept everyone entertained. Terao knocked off the #2 and #10 seed on his way to the semifinals and putting on some of the most exciting matches of recent memory. His third place match with Nathan Tomasello was one for the ages, and at the outset both were given a standing ovation by the crowd.
Meredith would use his counter wrestling style to knock off the # 3, #6, and #2 seeds on his way to the finals and almost earning Wyoming its first champ in 20 years. His second round match with former teammate Kevin Jack of N.C. State was truly a site to see as limbs were flying and intertwined by the two lanky wrestlers.
Underclassmen made more impact on the event than in the past. At 174 lbs. true Freshman Myles Martin of Ohio State knocked off number #1 Bo Nickal of Penn State, whom had beaten him 3 times already. Several other Freshmen and Sophomores were able to work their way to 29 of the 80 All-American spots.
The ACC and other conferences are starting to make big gains on the upper echelons of competition. The Big Ten got 31 of the All American spots, but the Big 12 had 13, ACC 11, with the EWIA and the MAC both getting 10. Getting to double digits is a big step for many of these conferences. Oklahoma St. finished second in team points with 97.5, Virginia Tech finished 4th with 82.0 (Both were records for Tech), Missouri was 6th with 74.5, and Cornell was 7thj with 67.0. These schools are slowly gaining ground on the BigTen.
Penn State! Last year, Penn St. redshirted a lot of talent and finished 6th, but this year they unleashed it. I thought their dominate period was over, but I was wrong. The way they have talent spread out, they are going to be tough to beat for many years to come. And Cael Sanderson may give Dan Gable a run for his money as the greatest coach of all-time. There is one thing that separated them from the rest of the pack: bonus points. Bonus points are when you beat someone by more than 7 points. A major decision is 8-14 point win, Technical fall is by 15 points, and a pin is self-explanatory. Penn State is the best at putting up bonus points. They are aggressive and always looking for the pin or back points. Zain Retherford was a bonus point machine, following in the steps of David Taylor and Ed Ruth, picking up a Technical Fall, 3 pins, and a Major Decision on his way to the National Title. That is impressive on this level. At least 25 of their points came from the bonus. If you take those away, Oklahoma St. is within a point.
The Finals were amazing. I think Dan Gable described it best when he said there were 20 wrestlers competing for a National Championship. In the past there has been someone who was clearly going to be the winner, but this year every match was close. Here are a couple of the highlights from the finals.
1. Nico Megaludis finally got his title. He had been to the finals two other times and always walked out with second place. This time he got it and his post-match celebration is priceless.
2. Nahshon Garrett from Cornell also got his title. Garrett bumped up a weight class, came in undefeated, and pinned the returning National Champ on his way to the finals. He gave a dominate performance and was relentless in pursuit of his dream.
3. Isaiah Martinez vs. Jason Nolf at 157 lbs. Martinez suffered his only loss of his short career against Nolf earlier in the year. Martinez won in overtime in the rubber match and it exceeded expectations.
4. Bo Nickal vs. Myles Martin. The Nickal looked like a lock to walk his way through the tournament, but the true freshman had other plans, and it was explosive.
5. Nick Gwiazdowski vs. Kyle Snyder. The two time NCAA Champ vs. the reigning Freestyle World Champ. The greatest heavyweight match of all time.
The Garden made this tournament one that many will never forget, I am already counting down the day till next year in St. Louis.
If you want to check out the best matches of the tournament check out this FloWrestling article.