WIN’s Top 10 Post-High School Wrestling Stories of 2011

Updated: December 20, 2011

By Mike Finn

The following were chosen Wrestling Insider Newsmagazine as the Top-10 post-high school wrestling stories of 2011.

1. Penn State leads Eastern resurgence with NCAA championship

When Penn State lured Cael Sanderson away from coaching his alma mater Iowa State in 2009, many of the Nittany Lion faithful hoped Penn State would once again lead the NCAA Division I field; something the Lions had not done since winning the 1953 crown.

Penn State coach hugged Quentin Wright after the 184-pound captured the Lions' only individual championship.

But not many expected Sanderson’s second team in the Blue-and-White singlets to put Penn State back on top in 2011, considering Sanderson featured many underclassmen and three freshmen: Andrew Alton (at 141 pounds), David Taylor (157) and Ed Ruth (174).

In fact, if any team east of the Mississippi River — the last being Michigan State in 1967 — was expected to challenge the likes of three-time defending champion Iowa and perennial titlist Oklahoma State, it would have been Cornell. After all, Rob Koll — the son of former Penn State coach Bill Koll — featured perhaps his finest Big Red line-up and won the NWCA National Duals in January; one year after finisheing second in the 2010 NCAA tournament.

But in the end, Taylor and Ruth were two of five Penn State All-Americans that held off Cornell by a 14-point margin (107.5-93.5) in Philadelphia, March 19, not to mention an equally young-and-talented Iowa team that not only came within one point of beating Penn State in the Big Ten tournament, but also handed the Lions their only loss (22-13) on Jan. 30 before a packed home crowd in PSU’s Rec Hall.

One of the Lions who lost that night was 184-pound Quentin Wright, who missed two months of the season, struggled throughout much of the regular season and entered the Big Tens with a 12-6 season record in early March. Two weeks later, Wright won all four Big Ten matches and all five bouts at the NCAAs — as a No. 9 seed — to claim Penn State’s lone individual championship.

Also claiming NCAA hardware was Andrew Long (third at 133), Frank Molinaro (second at 149), Taylor (second) and Ruth (third).

Later, Wright, a native of Wingate, Pa., and Sanderson said the team’s loss to Iowa was the turning point for the Lions.

“Quentin was blaming things that were not necessarily the truth,” Sanderson said. “We had to make sure he faced that. Once he did, he was able to move on.”

“After that, we just said, ‘hey, our goals are still the same, we’re going to win national titles,’ ” Wright said. “I think everybody personally stepped it up because we thought we were better.”


2. Jordan Burroughs wins NCAAs, Hodge Trophy and World gold medal

No American wrestlers had a better year than Jordan Burroughs … period.

In less than six months, Jordan Burroughs captured his second NCAA title, the Dan Hodge Trophy and his first World gold medal in freestyle

That’s because the native of Sicklerville, N.J., never lost on the mat … either in college folkstyle or international freestyle.

Burroughs already had earned an NCAA championship for Nebraska in 2010 — a season that saw him overcome a knee injury — but the Husker was expected to be challenged by the likes of 2010 NCAA champion Andrew Howe of Wisconsin once Burroughs moved up to 165 pounds.

But Burroughs — utilizing his dominating double-leg takedown — beat Howe for the Midlands title — then continued his domination of the college scene in 2011, especially at the NCAA tournament where he majored Big 12-rival Tyler Caldwell of Oklahoma, 11-3, to go unbeaten (36-0) and become Nebraska’s first two-time national champion with a career mark of 128-20.

With his college efforts, Burroughs eventually earned WIN’s Dan Hodge Trophy, considered the Heisman Trophy of college wrestling … but that came at just the halfway mark of a remarkable season.

First, less than a month after the NCAAs, Burroughs won the U.S. Open, April 8-9 in Cleveland, at 163 pounds in freestyle. This was a style that Burroughs had not wrestled since he was in high school in New Jersey.

Then in June, Burroughs earned a spot on the 2011 United States national team at the World Team Trials in Oklahoma City, where he once again defeated Howe in two straight matches of the Championship Series on June 10-11.

Finally, Burroughs made Istanbul, Turkey, his wrestling stage in September as he won all five freestyle matches, including a second-round win over former World champion Denis Tsargush of Russia — after losing the first period of their bout — before eventually defeating Sadegh Goudarzi of Iran to claim the United States’ first World championship since 2006.

“I was preparing for the season this time last year,” said Burroughs. “I was just happy to be back on the mat. People didn’t think I was going to beat (2010 champion) Andrew Howe at this point last year and now I’m a World champion.

“This is just a stepping stone from where I want to be in 2012 in London,” he added. “A lot of people didn’t think I would even make the team, but I’m here, I did it.”


3. Cael Sanderson returns to the mat for the first time since 2004 and earns a spot on the U.S. World team.

It began as a way for Cael Sanderson, the 31-year-old head coach of Penn State, to pay back a bet he had with his Nittany Lion team if they won both the Big Ten and NCAA team championships.

Cael Sanderson went eight years between World championships when he competed at 185 pounds in Istanbul, Turkey last September.

And when both goals were met, Sanderson entered — and easily won — the Northeast World Team Trials qualifier in Brockport, N.Y., at 211.5 pounds.

Eventually, the wrestling world soon realized that returning to competition meant more than paying off a wager for Sanderson, who last competed in a true freestyle match in 2004 when the former four-time undefeated college wrestler from Iowa State won the Olympic gold medal in Athens, Greece.

But no one knew for sure until the World Team Trials in Oklahoma City. He cut down to 185 pounds and entered the tournament one day after he was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in nearby Stillwater, Okla.

In the mini-tournament he actually lost a period. Former Missouri wrestler Raymond Jordan beat him one period before the PSU head man eliminated Jordan and eventually Chris Pendleton and Jon Reader, one of his former wrestlers at Iowa State.

Then in the Championship Series, Sanderson defeated former World silver medalist Jake Herbert in consecutive matches, 4-1, 2-0 and 5-2, 2-0.

“It’s a little weird, a little different,” Sanderson said. “It’s something you can’t prepare for until you get out there to compete. You go win a period and then you have to start all over again. You have to get out there and experience it. That’s the only way to prepare for it.”

Unfortunately at the World Championships in September, Sanderson wasn’t able to medal when he settled for fifth place in Istanbul, Turkey.

“I was a little hit and miss,” said Sanderson, who lost to Russia’s Albert Saritov, 3-0, 1-0 in the bronze medal match. “I was sloppy and not finishing shots and not sprawling; some bad habits that are going to catch with you at the top level. With the performance, I want to go climb in a hole somewhere. But going through this experience this summer will help me be a better coach and get a feel for this system.”

Sanderson would not commit to competing again for another shot at Olympic gold in 2012.


4. Contrasting teammate Anthony Robles and Bubba Jenkins both win NCAA gold for Arizona State

Arizona State was the only school that produced two NCAA champions in Philadelphia on March 19 … and the duo — Anthony Robles at 125 pounds and 157-pound Bubba Jenkins — couldn’t have had more contrasting backgrounds and personalities.

Anthony Robles' third All-American honor gave him a national championship at 125 pounds and a hug from Arizona State coach Shawn Charles last March in Philadelphia.

Robles, who had wrestled without a right leg since he was youngster growing up in Mesa, Ariz., was always a crowd favorite; not just because he had already earned two All-American honors with a physical disability, but because he was such a gentleman on and off the mat.

At the 2011 NCAAs, Robles finally ended his career on top when he dominated Iowa’s defending national champion Matt McDonough, 7-1, and later earned ESPN’s Jimmy V Award for Perseverance and Best Male Athlete with a Disability ESPY award.

“I didn’t get into the sport for the attention,” Robles said. “I wrestle because I love wrestling. But it inspires me when I get kids, even adults, who write me on Facebook or send me letters in the mail just saying that I’ve inspired them and they look up to me and they’re motivated to do things that other people wouldn’t have thought possible.”

Jenkins, meanwhile, finished second nationally for Penn State in 2008 as a sophomore. But he was soon forgotten by some in the college wrestling community, especially at Penn State, which released the Virginia Beach, Va., native from the team soon after Sanderson arrived in State College.

Bubba Jenkins used this hold to pin Penn State's David Taylor, three years after Jenkins also finished second for the Nittany Lions in the 2008 NCAAs.

But Jenkins found a home in Tempe, Ariz., where he also earned another trip to the NCAA finals … against a former Penn State teammate, David Taylor, the freshman sensation who entered the finals without a loss.

And in the end, Jenkins would benefit at Taylor’s expense when the Sun Devil caught the young Nittany Lion on his back and scored a pin in 4:14.

“I heard a quote it’s better to be lucky than it is to be good,” Jenkins said. “I can tell you right now they should call me Lucky instead of Bubba…”


5. Nebraska-Omaha kills wrestling programs hours after winning a sixth national championship

The date was March 12, 2011, and the wrestling team of the University of Nebraska at Omaha had just won the school’s sixth NCAA Division II national team championship in eight years by holding off St. Cloud State at the national tournament in Kearney, Neb.

Mike Denney coached for 32 years at Nebraska-Omaha, winning six national championships, before UNO discontinued its wrestling program.

And just about the time long-time head coach Mike Denney and his Mavericks were about to celebrate, Denney got what he thought would be a phone call of congratulations from UNO athletic director Trev Alberts.

“We were meeting with our team and their parents and I got this message from our athletic director,” recalled Denney. “The first thing he said was congratulations, which is something he hasn’t done in two years. My wife looked at me and said, ‘What is wrong?’ He had never congratulated us before so we knew something was up.”

Instead, Alberts told Denney that the school would be dropping wrestling and football after the academic year to focus more on making the school Division I in basketball and hockey.

Much of the wrestling world, especially in Omaha, came to Denney’s aide in trying to talk the Board of Regents into changing UNO’s decision.

“We’ve had a tidal wave of support,” said Denney before the March 25 meeting. “From our point of view, the amount of support has been humbling.

“I told my wife when this first happened the only way this would have a chance is if it took on its own life and it has. And why it created its own life is because of how it was done. It was certainly not a shared vision.”

Sadly, the Regents did not change the decision and Denney lost his heralded program.

Fortunately, there was some type of future for Denney and many of his UNO wrestlers. Denney and a number of the grapplers moved to Maryville University in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri, which used these wrestling orphans to start a new program.


6. NWCA changes National Duals format

The National Duals Championship is an event that originated from the Virginia Duals in the early 1990s and is now put on by the National Wrestling Coaches Association, which invited the “top” college wrestling programs to compete in a two-day event that eventually provided competition in all three NCAA divisions as well as the NAIA and NJCAA in the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

After holding the NWCA National Duals in five divisions in the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls, Iowa, the Division I tournament will now be held on a regional basis in February.

That all changed when the NWCA announced in July that the Division I tournament will be separate from the other tournament — called the NWCA/Cliff Keen National Duals Mat Mayhem — and be held in four regional spots, Feb. 11-12, with the four winners advancing to a Final Four location, Feb. 18-19.

“This new concept is one of three critical components of the strategic plan being developed by the NWCA and the NCAA Wrestling Committee,” said Brian Smith, NWCA President and head coach at Missouri.  “We need to create more excitement around regular-season dual meets, especially our conference dual meets.  Every mainstream spectator sport in America has an emphasis on every regular season game/competition, which determines their advancement into the post season.

“Right now the infrastructure of intercollegiate wrestling is geared toward an individual championship at the end of the season and until that changes, we will struggle with growing the spectator and media base on most college campuses.”

Meanwhile, the remaining divisions will compete in separate tournaments in one location: Springfield, Ill., on Jan. 7-8.



7. Mark Cody named head coach at Oklahoma after leading American University to banner year

In April, Oklahoma showed its commitment level to wrestling when it hired Mark Cody as a replacement for long-time mentor Jack Spates who announced his retirement before the NCAAs.

In Cody, the Sooners had a former NCAA All-American from Missouri, who became better known as a coach; first as an assistant at Big 12-rival Oklahoma State and later the head coach at American University, which never had an All-American before Cody’s arrival to the Washington D.C. campus in 2004.

American University produced a school-record fifth place with three wrestlers — Ganbayar Sanjaa (4th at 149), Steve Fittery (3rd at 157) and heavyweight Ryan Flores (2nd) — left Philadelphia with 2011 All-American honors. Oklahoma athletic department officials took note and hired a man who created something out of nothing in nine years.

“The wrestling community has watched Mark Cody do remarkable things with his teams at American,” said Joe Castiglione, Oklahoma’s Vice President for Intercollegiate Athletics and Athletics Director.  “He has maximized limited resources to take a program that was once struggling and transform it into one of the strongest in the country.  Along the way, he has earned the respect of his peers as not only a great program builder, but also an outstanding teacher and leader.

“We have watched Mark’s work and spoken with a number of people in the profession who are familiar with him.  He is held in very high regard and has proven his ability to operate a program at an extremely high level.”


8. Top assistant coaches leave programs for others: Michigan hires Sean Bormet and Donny Pritzlaff while Mark Perry leaves Cal Poly for Illinois

At the start of 2011, Mark Perry was expected to become the head coach at Cal Poly, Donny Pritzlaff would eventually take over his alma mater Wisconsin, and Sean Bormet had created a successful Overtime School of Wrestling near Chicago.

But by the time the 2011-12 college season started, all three had new homes after deciding there was greener coaching pastures … including in locations that were once considered rivalry territory for two of them in the Big Ten Conference.

Pritzlaff, a former two-time Badger national champion who was coaching in Madison for five years, joined Bormet, a former Michigan All-American, in taking new positions with Wolverine head coach Joe McFarland.

“I consider Sean and Donny two of the best coaches in the country and to be able to get both of them in here as part of our coaching staff is just incredible. There’s no question they are going to help elevate this program to new and great heights. Our goal is to win Big Ten and NCAA championships, and I think with these guys on board, we have every intention of doing that.”

Meanwhile, Perry, a two-time NCAA champion from Iowa, who was slated to become Cal Poly’s head coach for the 2011-12 season, opted to join Illinois coach Jim Heffernan in Champaign as associate head coach.

“I’m very excited to be at Illinois,” Perry said. “The main thing that drew me here was the vision of Coach (Jim) Heffernan and Coach (Jeremy) Hunter, which is to win championships both in the Big Ten and nationally. That’s where this program is headed and I’m going to do everything I can to help it get there.”

9. Kyle Dake wins second NCAA title as a true sophomore … and up a weight … halfway to becoming the third wrestler in college history to win four national titles

Cornell's Kyle Dake (left) rode Penn State's Frank Molinaro for over four minutes in the Big Red sophomore's second NCAA championship.

Only two men have won four NCAA championships: Oklahoma State’s Pat Smith who won national titles in 1990, ’91, ’92 and ’94 while compiling a 128-6 career record; and Cael Sanderson, who finished 159-0 while earned NCAA championships for Iowa State in 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002.

Could Cornell’s Kyle Dake become the third man to reach that honor?

The current Big Red junior from Ithaca, N.Y., is halfway there after winning championships as a true freshman at 141 pounds in 2010 and at 149 pounds in 2011.

He is also expected to get bigger as illustrated by competing at 157 pounds in 2011-12.

“Kyle’s grown into 149 and in the future he’s going to be a big 157-pounder and maybe even a 165-pounder,” said Cornell head coach Rob Koll last March. “He’s still a kid and he’s still growing.”

“Next year (2011-12) I can’t win four national titles; I can only win three,” he said. “I take it year by year, match by match, season by season. I’ll just focus on the goals at hand and take it one year at a time.”



10. Zach Rey wins national championship for Lehigh to help reestablish the Mountain Hawks as elite program

When Zach Rey defeated EIWA-rival Ryan Flores of American University to claim the heavyweight’s first NCAA title, it was the first by the Lehigh program since Troy Letters in 2005 and helped Pat Santoro bring back the program to national prominence.

Lehigh's Zach Rey had plenty of fans in Philadelphia last March.

“We had three All-Americans this year, we should have had four or five in my eyes,” said Rey, who was joined on the All-American stand by Lehigh teammates Robert Hamlin (the runner-up at 184 pounds) and Brandon Hatchett (a seventh-place finisher at 165) to help the Mountain Hawks earn their first top-ten finish since 2006.

“That’s great from where we were the last couple of years,” said Rey, whose team finished 28th in 2009 and 17th in 2010 and return all but one weight (125) for 2012. “We’ve got a young freshman coming in ready to win a national championship, so we’re going to have all nine guys plus that guy. We’ll be right up in the title race next year.”