By Roger Moore
In 1872, P.T. Barnum coined the phrase “the greatest show on earth” in reference to the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus.
With all due respect to Mr. Barnum, three days in Philadelphia this March might challenge that claim.
The 2011 NCAA Wrestling Championships are set for March 17-19 at the Wells Fargo Center. And, as usual, plenty of top-eight finishers will come from Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Entering the postseason, two wrestlers from Pennsylvania and four from New Jersey are ranked No. 1 in their respective weight classes. Throw in a team race, which is expected to include a young and exciting Penn State squad, and you have the makings for a spectacular weekend.
Picking out who has home-mat advantage won’t be easy.
“It’s going to be a great show,” said Pennsylvanian Jordan Oliver, ranked No. 1 at 133 pounds entering the Big 12 Championships. “To be able to wrestle that close to home in the national championships is going to be something to remember. I don’t get a chance to wrestle in front of a Pennsylvania crowd very often, and I know, like a lot of other guys from that area, I am really excited about it.”
Oliver, like others, has had trouble finding tickets for everyone who wants to attend the championships.
“I’ve told most of them that if you are still waiting you are too late,” said the Easton native.
Sicklerville, N.J., is barely 30 minutes from Philadelphia. Expect a noisy contingent for Nebraska senior 165-pounder Jordan Burroughs, a national champion two seasons ago.
“It’s going to be amazing, wrestling that close to home,” he said. “The only problem I’m having right now is trying to find enough tickets so everyone can go. Having the tournament in Philly, it will be a great way to finish my college career. It would be great to go out with another national title.”
Without question, Burroughs’ powerful double-leg attack will bring many onlookers to their feet. Expect another New Jersey native, top-ranked 149-pounder Darrion Caldwell, to do the same with his repertoire of offensive tricks.
“It’s going to be something to remember,” said the native of Rahway, less than two hours from Philadelphia. “Winning my first title was something I’ll never forget. But if I was able to do it in front of my home fans it would be a little extra. There are so many good wrestlers in the tournament, so many from that area, that I bet it’s going to be loud all week.”
Michigan’s Kellen Russell sat out last year during a difficult season for the Wolverines. Entering the Big Ten tournament, March 5-6, Russell, at 30-0, has led a Michigan resurgence. He also happens to be from High Bridge, N.J., just a stone’s throw from Philly.
“There’s a buzz about the tournament,” said Russell, an All-American two seasons ago. “And there are so many wrestlers from that area, so many good wrestlers. I know a lot of people are looking for tickets.”
There are pros and cons of wrestling in front of home fans in such a big event. The pressure to perform at a high level … a team race … old coaches and friends expecting a show … there are a number of factors which can certainly influence an athlete’s body.
Seven minutes doesn’t sound like much. But considering all the elements, it can seem like an eternity.
“I’m really excited about the tournament,” added Oliver, who was fourth a year ago. “But at the same time I have to kind of step back. There is going to be a lot going on, a lot of distractions that can take you out of your game. (Oklahoma State) is going there to win a championship; I’m going there to win a championship. It’s going to be fun but it’s important to really stay focused all week.”
“I really think going into a tournament like this experience is very important,” said Russell. “It’s not my first time at a national tournament, so going in I know what to expect. There are distractions but you can’t let that take away from why you are there.”
Middletown, in central Pennsylvania, is just under two hours from Philadelphia. Located less than 30 minutes from Harrisburg — site of the 1979 Three-Mile Island accident — Middletown isn’t exactly known for its Division I All-Americans.
Tyler Nauman, a junior 141-pounder for Pittsburgh, wants to change that.
“It would be a pretty big deal,” Nauman said. “I don’t know how many people have asked about tickets but it’s a lot. My dad is calling me every day. A couple of old roommates are getting a suite. My mom doesn’t get to come to many matches (she lives in Florida) but she’s going to be (in Philadelphia) and is talking about making up some shirts.
“With all the people coming there might be a little more pressure on me to perform. But I’m not looking at it that way. I’m looking forward to having fun with it.”
Nauman was a bit under the radar at the 2010 Championships. He finished high on the radar, completing a 36-5 sophomore campaign with a fifth-place medal. Going into the EWL Championships Nauman was 21-3.
“It doesn’t bother me, I’ve seen most of the top guys,” Nauman said. “I’ve been to two NCAA Tournaments and at this point everybody pretty much knows everybody. There are so many good guys, it doesn’t matter … you have to be ready every match.”
Nauman is like much of the Pennsylvania talent: dangerous and always with a trick up their sleeve.
“I don’t know if we are more creative or have more imagination,” he said. “It comes down to good coaches and good wrestlers always working on things. Some guys have some special moves but then somebody will come up with a counter to that move. It just seems like kids from (Pennsylvania) are always looking to improve.”
Russell had the advantage of the Blair Academy workout room before entering Michigan.
“I think part of the reason there are so many good wrestlers from that area is because we start maybe a little earlier,” said Russell. “There are so many good coaches and good programs … the competition is probably better than a lot of places.”
There’s a chance after two-plus days of competition the final bout of the tournament could include another local. Three of the top five heavyweights hail from either Pennsylvania or New Jersey led by Lehigh junior Zach Rey, who is unbeaten at 26-0 and ranked No. 1 entering the postseason.
“I’m actually a (New York) Giants fan, so I’m not a huge fan of Philly,” admits Rey, a native of Hopatcong, N.J. “It’s going to be a good show. It’s nice to have it close to home, though, as opposed to the Midwest.
“I’ve had a bunch of friends contact me about tickets. They’ve been on Facebook looking for some way to get tickets. I keep telling them that I can’t help them, that they need to find a way to get to Philly and to get tickets. There’s definitely a buzz about the tournament this year, maybe a little more than the last couple.”
So, who will have the Darrion Caldwell moment in 2011? Or the Rob Rohn “I-can’t-believe-what-I-just-saw move” on the big stage that he showed in 2002 when the 184-pound Lehigh wrestled rallied from a big deficit to pin Oklahoma’s Josh Lambrecht with 15 seconds left?
Will it be a local? Perhaps the semifinal moment will come from a student-athlete from a small town far away from the City of Brotherly Love.
One thing is certain. It’s going to be a great show in a wrestling-rich area that will truly appreciate it.
(Roger Moore is an author and freelance journalist who lives in Stillwater, Oklahoma. He has been part of the Oklahoma State wrestling radio broadcast since 1997 and was named WIN and the National Wrestling Media Association’s Journalist of the Year in 2005. He contributes weekly wrestling stories to NCAA.com.) n