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Early look at 2012: What team will unseat Penn State?
By Roger Moore
Name the last program other than Iowa, Oklahoma State, Minnesota or Iowa State to win back-to-back Division I wrestling titles.
The University of Oklahoma, under legendary coach Port Robertson, led the Sooners to consecutive championships in 1951 and ’52.
When the 2011-12 campaign kicks off Penn State will try and become the first program other than the “Big Four” to repeat as team champions since the Joseph Stalin era in Russia was coming to a close.
Why will Penn State be favored to repeat in 2012? The Nittany Lions lose just one half of a point from a team that scored 107.5 points in Philadelphia. All five of PSU’s All-Americans return, including 184-pound champion Quentin Wright and finalists Frank Molinaro (149) and David Taylor (157).
Also back for head coach Cael Sanderson are two-time All-American Andrew Long (133) and Ed Ruth, a third-place finisher at 174 pounds as a first-year starter. Throw in Andrew Alton, a 30-match winner as a freshman 141-pounder, and veteran heavyweight Cameron Wade and starting spots in the line-up will be hard to come by.
“(The NCAA Championships) are tough, there is no doubt about it,” said Sanderson after the 2011 tournament. “I’m really proud of the way our young guys competed this year. We had our ups and our downs but they kept bouncing back.
“We aren’t going to think about next year just yet, we are going to enjoy this one.”
Wright (21-6) was one of those “ups-and-downs” Sanderson speaks of. A No. 9 seed in Philadelphia, Wright had four decisions and a dramatic pin in the semifinals. Taylor was one match from perfection, finishing 38-1; Molinaro (32-3) is now a three-time All-American; Ruth (38-2) won six of seven matches in his first NCAA meet. Long (20-2) has now finished second and third in two NCAA appearances.
In other words, it’s going to be tough to beat the Nittany Lions in St. Louis.
Iowa, third after winning three straight titles entering 2011, returns four All-Americans led by 2010 champion and 2011 runner-up Matt McDonough (27-2).
Iowa sophomore Grant Gambrall was part of that wild 184-pound bracket in 2011. Gambrall (25-8) was pinned by Wright in the semifinals but came back to take third. Montell Marion (13-5) lost in overtime to eventual champion Kellen Russell in the 141-pound semifinals and was fourth, with Derek St. John (24-6) taking fourth at 157 pounds. 133-pounder Tony Ramos won a pair of matches in Philly and the Hawkeyes could get a boost from George Mason transfer Cayle Byers, a 197-pounder.
But two-time champion Kyle Dake (31-2) is expected back for his junior season; 197-pounder Cam Simaz (36-2), a two-time All-American, returns; and Steve Bozak (34-5) brings back a fourth-place medal at 184 pounds.
Blair Academy products Chris Villalonga and Jesse Shanaman, plus Marshall Peppelman could factor into the mix next season. Villalonga saw the mat at 141 in 2010-11.
“We’ve got great kids in the room and we are bringing back a champ, a third and a fourth, so we aren’t going anywhere,” said Cornell head coach Rob Koll. “People keep asking me how long it is going to take Cornell to get back to competing for national championships and I tell them next year.
“We didn’t wrestle as well as we could have but we had five All-Americans, the most the program has had in one tournament, and we have a strong group coming back.”
A third Eastern school, Lehigh, brings back a champion, a finalist, and all 58.5 of its points from a seventh-place showing in 2011. Heavyweight Zach Rey (34-1) followed up a third-place showing as a sophomore with a title as a junior. Robert Hamlin (32-3) quietly went about his business and advanced to the 184-pound finals where he lost to Wright. Brandon Hatchett (22-11) was seventh at 165 pounds. Steven Dutton (23-14) was one of the final 12 at 141 pounds as a freshman.
Oklahoma State loses one of its four All-Americans, finalist Clayton Foster (26-1). Back is 133-pound king Jordan Oliver (29-0) and fifth-place finisher Jamal Parks (30-5). 125-pounder Jon Morrison, 165-pounder Dallas Bailey and 184-pounder Chris Perry, all top nine seeds, combined to score two points in Philadelphia. Rookie 141-pounder Josh Kindig will also be back along with heavyweight Alan Gelogaev, who missed 2010-11 due to injury after finishing seventh at 197 in 2010.
“We certainly didn’t wrestle as well as we would have liked,” said OSU head coach John Smith, whose club was fourth in Philadelphia. “But we also brought a lot of young guys to this tournament for the first time. It was a learning experience for some of them and there are things we are going to have to do better in order to win another championship.
“But you look at what we have coming back, some NCAA tournament experience, and we’ll get to work again.”
After winning four straight titles from 2003-06, the Cowboys had finished fifth, fifth, 16th and sixth before 2011.
“It was nice to bring home a trophy,” admitted Smith. “We hadn’t done that in awhile. Fourth is not what we are looking for but the days of us just showing up and expecting a trophy are over. This tournament continues to get tougher and tougher.”
Minnesota brings back four of five All-Americans including three-time medalist Zach Sanders (34-6), fifth at 125 pounds in 2011. Heavyweight Tony Nelson (34-8) was seventh as a freshman; Kevin Steinhaus (34-12) was eighth at 184 and 197-pounder Sonny Yohn (18-7) battled his way to a second straight All-America finish. Two other starters return and J Robinson will welcome Dylan Ness into the fold.
The surprise team of 2011 was American University, which totaled three All-Americans and finished fifth. The Eagles, looking to replace new Oklahoma coach Mark Cody, returns two of those All-Americans — Ganbayar Sanjaa (26-8), fourth at 149, and heavyweight runner-up Ryan Flores (26-6) — plus Round of 12 wrestler Matt Mariacher at 141.
Central Michigan returns three All-Americans, including fourth-place finishers Scotti Sentes (35-8) and Jarod Trice (30-5) from a team that tied for 12th.
Wisconsin may return three of four All-Americans including 2010 champ Andrew Howe (27-3, but could take Olympic redshirt), third in 2011, and two-time place winner Tyler Graff (37-5) at 141.
Stanford brings back two All-Americans: Nick Amuchastegui (31-4), a finalist at 174, and 125-pounder Ryan Mango (26-7).
Although Michigan returns just one All-American — champion Kellen Russell (38-0) — the Wolverines bring back seven qualifiers from a 14th-place squad.
The Sooners, with a new coach, will start the season with a pair of returning All-Americans in Jarrod Patterson (29-9) and Tyler Caldwell (32-6). Caldwell beat Howe in the NCAA semifinals and will be ranked in the top two at the start of next season at 165 after losing to Nebraska’s Jordan Burroughs in the finals.
Another Big 12 squad, Missouri, returns eight qualifiers including third-place finisher Dom Bradley (30-4). Rookie 125-pounder Alan Waters went 1-2 in Philly to finish 39-7.
Among other notable programs, Boise State finished ninth in Philadelphia but returns just one All-American, 149-pounder Jason Chamberlain (29-2).
Meanwhile, Virginia Tech, headline-makers at the NWCA National Duals in January, did not have an All-American in 2011 and totaled just 16 points. Six qualifiers return including 133-pounder Devin Carter, who finished 35-7 and one match from the final eight as a rookie.
Iowa State finished 20th in Philly with senior Jon Reader, the champion at 174, scoring 25 of the Cyclones’ 31.5 points.
With 2012 being an Olympic year there is also the possibility of a number of top D-I wrestlers taking that infamous “Olympic redshirt” season. Some are capable of making plenty of noise during the freestyle qualification process while others use the time simply to improve their collegiate game.
Regardless, heading into the season Penn State will be the team to beat. Of course that was the same prognostication given to Cornell this time last year.