Is hype the biggest foe for Cornell and Penn State?

Updated: March 11, 2011

By Mike Finn

How long is 57 years — the amount of time it’s been since a school east of Michigan has won the NCAA Division I wrestling championships?

Well, neither Cornell head coach Rob Koll, 45, nor Penn State mentor Cael Sanderson, 29, were even alive when a Penn State team won the NCAA championship on its home mat in 1953. (For a complete listing of all past NCAA championships, turn to page 52.)

And now both men are heads of programs that many believe have the best chance of ending the stranglehold of Iowa, Oklahoma State and Minnesota, which have topped the team standings of every national tournament since 1988, when Arizona State ended Iowa’s nine-year run as team champions.

Coach Rob Koll saw his Cornell team finish second in last year's NCAA tournament.

“No one expected Arizona State to win it and they found a way to do it,” said Koll, who is in his 17th year at the helm of the Big Red. “At some point in time, a school other than a Big Ten or Big 12 school will win the darn thing again.

“I just hope it’s our time.”

And according to most prognosticators, Cornell is favored to win the 2011 NCAA Championships in Philadelphia, Pa., on March 19.

Prior to the start of the national qualifying tournaments, WIN ranked Cornell No. 1 in its Tournament Power Index (TPI), which is based primarily on how individual wrestlers are expected to perform at the national tournament where potential All-American points are awarded according to their national rankings.

As of March 1, the Big Red had 87.5 TPI points, followed by Oklahoma State with 74.5 and Penn State with 72.5. Iowa, the three-time defending national champions, were rated No. 5 with 52.5 points; just behind Boise State’s 61.5.

And considering the Big Red finished second last year and returned the most former All-Americans —149-pound Kyle Dake, a returning champion at 141, and teammates Mike Grey (133), Mack Lewnes (174) and Cam Simaz (197) —  and the fact that the national tournament is being held in the Northeast for the first time since 2002, it’s easy to understand why many in the wrestling community are looking at Ithaca, N.Y. as the possible home of the next team champion.

“It’s hard to ignore the fact that we are doing something pretty special this year. Unfortunately, there are a few teams that would like to spoil our party,” said Koll, whose team was nearly perfect in dual competition; losing only to Lehigh.

“Early in the year, we thought we just had to wrestle up to our ability, now with Penn State adding (2010 national runner-up) Long to its line-up and Iowa coming on strong and who knows who else, we might have to wrestle over our heads in Philadelphia.”

And both Cornell and Penn State must deal with something unique this year: the hype that comes with high expectations from a fan following that has grown immensely this season in up-state New York and central Pennsylvania.

Koll believes this group of Big Red wrestlers are ready for the hype after coming close the past few years.

“We’ve been in this situation where if all things went right, we could have won it the last couple years,” he said. “This didn’t just happen overnight.”

In fact, Koll believes his 2009 team also had a good chance to win the team championship, but was hurt when Lewnes, then the top-ranked 165-pounder, lost both of his matches in St. Louis.

“Had he won the weight and scored a bonus point, we would have won it,” said Koll, whose team finished fifth and 23 points behind Iowa. “We were much closer to winning than we were last year when we took second.”

(Last year in Omaha, Iowa scored 134.5 points, which was 44.5 more than Cornell’s runner-up total of 90.)

In two years at the Penn State helm, coach Cael Sanderson led the Nittany Lions to the school's first Big Ten championship

Meanwhile, Sanderson also believes his Nittany Lions — including three All-Americans in Long, who transferred from Iowa State, Frank Molinaro and Quentin Wright — have the personal experience to overcome the hype.

“We have a team of guys who’ve all had a ton of success growing up. It’s not anything new to them,” Sanderson said. “One of the keys is being consistent. And being consistent means that you try to be at your best all the time.

“We’re not expecting anything magical. We want to go into the Nationals with some passion and some fire and some fun. If our guys are having fun, they are very talented and going to do well.”

This has been a fun year for the Nittany Lions, who set a record for average home attendance by following a relatively young team that had four freshmen in the line-up. The headliner was 157-pounder David Taylor, who was unbeaten (31-0) after the regular season and earned at least a technical fall in 21 matches, and 174-pound Ed Ruth, who defeated the two highest-rated returning All-Americans (Lewnes and Virginia’s Chris Henrich) at this weight.

Among the traditional powers, Oklahoma State appears to have the best chance of returning to the top. The Cowboys, which have won 32 all-time team championships, have not won a championship trophy since 2006, when OSU completed a four-year sweep.

As of March 1, coach John Smith’s team had six wrestlers rated in the top eight, including returning All-Americans in 133-pound Jordan Oliver (fourth last year) and 197-pound Clayton Foster (sixth at 184).

“Jordan’s really matured,” said Smith before the Big 12s. He’s done a great job handling his diet and managing his weight.

“He’s been attack, attack, attack all year with his wrestling. He’s added to his skills over the summer and he’s constantly looking to get better. He’s been very, very devastating. You don’t see many sophomores dominate a weight class like 133, but he’s done that this year.”

Meanwhile, the Hawkeyes (whose only blemish to another perfect dual meet season came in the tie with Oklahoma State) have two returning All-Americans. Sophomore Matt McDonough will defend his crown at 125 pounds, and 141-pound national runner-up Montell Marion, who was dropped from the team last spring for breaking team rules, was reinstated this second semester.

But this year’s tournament is being held a long way from either Stillwater or Iowa City. Ironically, the last time an “Eastern” city hosted the annual event was 2002, when Sanderson — then an Iowa State wrestler — became the sport’s first four-time unbeaten national champion in Albany, N.Y.

“I have to think back where were the nationals even a year ago because it doesn’t really matter where they are,” Sanderson said. “It’s the same tournament, whether it’s in Albany or Philadelphia or St. Louis.

“It’s nice for our fans and speaks volumes for the East. This will show that the tournament probably should bounce around and should be on this side of the country because it is so hard to get a ticket. That shows great strength for our sport.

“But it doesn’t matter where it happens because the tournament happens inside the building and once you are in a building it’s all the same.”

Koll, whose late father Bill coached at Penn State, admitted he expected this moment to be different than it is.

“You look at these things from the outside in and think it’s going to be so different,” he said. “Then all of a sudden you are there and you realize it’s exactly the same thing.

“I thought it was going to be this life-changing feeling and it’s simply not. I have the same kind of nerves and we’re getting the guy’s ready. Maybe when we’re there and hopefully if we win the darn thing I will feel different.”