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What Dual teams will make up wrestling’s first Final Four?
By Mike Finn
In college basketball, there is no bigger goal than to be part of the Final Four, representing the four schools which have one final weekend to win a national championship.
College wrestling hopes to create the same feeling the next two weeks with the NWCA/Cliff Keen National Duals. Promoted as “Mat Mayhem” by the National Wrestling Coaches Association, a champion — for the first time in the 24-year history of the event — must first go through one of four regional tournaments.
Stillwater, Okla., Ames, Iowa, Piscataway, N.J., and Ithaca, N.Y., will each play host to six team this Saturday or Sunday. The winners of each regional will then compete for the championship, Feb. 19, at a site to be determined after the regionals are done.
In the future, the NWCA would like teams to actually earn a spot in this tournament, depending primarily on their placement in their conferences. But for this year, the 24 teams competing were invited by the NWCA and all but one of WIN’s Top-10 dual teams accepted the invite.
So what schools will emerge from the regional tournaments and make up the first Final Four of the national dual tournament?
The remaining four schools — No. 1 Oklahoma State, No. 3 Iowa, No. 4 Minnesota and No. 5 Cornell — have all been separated and should be the favorites to win this weekend.
But what schools could provide the upset and join the Final Four party?
The following is a breakdown on each regional tournament that includes special storylines and potential match-ups of ranked wrestlers.
Stillwater, Okla., Regional, Feb. 12
Action begins at 1 p.m. in Gallagher-Iba Arena with the final slated for 5 p.m.
Major Storyline — Are the Oklahoma State Cowboys this good, especially against upstarts like Ohio State and Wyoming?
#1 Oklahoma State — The unbeaten Cowboys (11-0), whose closest victory this season was a 17-16 criteria win at Iowa, features eight ranked wrestlers, including defending national champion Jordan Oliver (133) and three wrestlers ranked in the top three: #2 Jamal Parks (149), #3 Chris Perry (174) and #2 Alan Gelogaev (Hwt).
But there may be some chinks in the Cowboys’ armor as Josh Kindig (No. 14 at 141) has been suspended by OSU coach John Smith and Blake Rosholt (No. 10 at 197) has struggled recently, had an injury the weekend of Feb. 4 and may be replaced by George Mason-transfer Cayle Byers who started the year before being replaced by Rosholt.
#7 Ohio State — Coach Tom Ryan features seven freshmen in his Buckeye line-up that upset Iowa, 21-9, this winter. Of those youngsters, four came to Columbus from the small town of Monroeville, Ohio, including the Stieber brothers — Logan is ranked No. 2 at 133 and Hunter (a true freshman) is rated No. 6 at 141 — and Cam Tessari (No. 18 at 149).
#8 Nebraska — The Huskers — competing in their first season in the Big Ten —feature three notable wrestlers in the middle of their line-up who are ranked: Jake Sueflohn (#8 at 141), James Green (#8 at 157) and Robert Kokesh (#6 at 165). Green reminds many Husker fans of the man he has replaced in the line-up this season: Jordan Burroughs, the Hodge Trophy winner, two-time NCAA champion and 2011 World freestyle champion, who like Green also hailed from New Jersey.
#9 Wyoming — It has been nearly 50 years since the Cowboys of Laramie, Wyom., have been this good. And coach Mark Branch — who is in his fourth year at Wyoming and returns to his alma mater on Sunday — features six ranked wrestlers, including two who could be NCAA finalists: Joe LeBlanc (#1 at 184) and Shane Onufer (#3 at 165).
Boise State — Coach Greg Randall lost nearly his entire 2011 team to graduation and one of the few returning All-Americans, 149-pound Jason Chamberlain, is taking an Olympic redshirt. The most notable of the Broncos is 157-pound junior George Ivanov, who was part of the NCAA Div. II national championship program at Nebraska-Omaha that was dropped last March.
Chattanooga — As the only Division I program in Tennessee — and one of few schools south of the Mason-Dixon line that feature wrestling — the Mocs have an uphill battle, especially after Appalachian State ended their 39-match Southern Conference streak last weekend. Chattanooga has just one ranked wrestler: freshman Nick Soto (#17 at 133).
KEY POTENTIAL MATCH-UPS IN THIS REGION:
• At 133 pounds — #1 Jordan Oliver (Oklahoma State) vs. #2 Logan Stieber (Ohio State)
• At 141 pounds — #6 Hunter Stieber (Ohio State) vs. #8 Jake Sueflohn (Nebraska) in a battle of ranked freshmen.
• At 165 pounds — #3 Shane Onufer (Wyoming) vs. #6 Robert Kokesh (Nebraska)
Ames, Iowa, Regional, Feb. 12
Action begins at 11 a.m. at Hilton Coliseum with the final slated for 3 p.m.
Major Storyline — Will Iowa emerge from a region where five of the six teams are coached by former Hawkeyes? Those former Iowa stand-outs are Iowa’s Tom Brands, Oregon State’s Jim Zalesky (who led the Iowa program to three NCAA titles before being replaced by Brands), Northern Iowa’s Doug Schwab, Virginia Tech’s Kevin Dresser and Wisconsin’s Barry Davis.
#3 Iowa — Have the Hawkeyes, ranked No. 1 earlier this year, overcome the January thaw, when they lost matches to Oklahoma State, Ohio State and Penn State? Coach Tom Brands does not want to hear that Iowa has dealt with injuries, including those that sidelined 2011 All-Americans Derek St. John (157) and Grant Gambrell (who has moved up to 197 this season, but is looking to come back down to 184). The Hawkeye coach wants his stars to provide better leadership, especially 125-pound Matt McDonough (the 2010 national champion and 2011 runner-up) and 141-pound Montell Marion (NCAA runner-up in 2010 and third-place finisher in 2011).
#18 Oregon State — Coach Jim Zalesky — who led Iowa to the 1998, 1999 and 2000 NCAA titles before arriving in Corvallis, Ore., on April 14, 2006 — has his finest Beaver team yet as five OSU wrestlers are ranked. Of those, the most notable are Mike Mangrum (#3 at 141) and Clayton Jack (#5 at Hwt), who each won championships at this season’s Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational in December.
Iowa State — Patience is the No. 1 thing being preached by Cyclone coach Kevin Jackson, who is still rebuilding the program that finished third two years ago in the NCAAs when he was coaching many of the wrestlers recruited by former ISU coach Cael Sanderson. While the Cyclones have suffered the most dual losses in the history of the program, Jackson does feature a probable All-American in Andrew Sorenson (#4 at 165) who missed the 2011 postseason when he suffered an elbow injury prior to last year’s Big 12 tournament. Speaking of injuries, ISU should return Chris Spangler (#8 at 174) and former All-American Jerome Ward, who has missed the entire season because of a past injury but is expected to compete this Sunday at 197 pounds.
Northern Iowa — Doug Schwab, now in his second year in Cedar Falls, is slowly rebuilding the talent in his wrestling room. The most notable Panthers are sophomores Ryan Loder (#6 at 184) and Joe Colon (#12 at 133).
Virginia Tech — Kevin Dresser, whose Hokies finished second to Cornell in last year’s NWCA National Duals, features three ranked wrestlers … and none have been more impressive than sophomore Devin Carter (#3 at 133) who defeated Iowa’s Tony Ramos in this season’s Midlands final; just a day after his father suffered a heart attack.
Wisconsin — Barry Davis, who is in his 19th season in Madison, is just two years removed from seeing his Wisconsin team finish fourth nationally. Unfortunately, Davis is suffering through perhaps his toughest season. After winning their first five duals this season, the Badgers have lost ten straight prior to the National Duals. But then again, Davis is without two 2011 All-Americans — 133-pound Tyler Graff and 165-pound Andrew Howe — who are taking Olympic redshirts this season.
KEY POSSIBLE INDIVIDUAL MATCH-UPS:
• At 133 pounds — #3 Devin Carter (Virginia Tech) vs. #4 Tony Ramos (Iowa)
• At 141 pounds — #3 Mike Mangrum (Oregon State) vs. #5 Montell Marion (Iowa)
• At 165 pounds — #4 Andrew Sorenson (Iowa State) vs. #8 Mike Evans (Iowa)
Piscataway, N.J, Regional, Feb. 11
Action begins at 2 p.m. at Rutgers Athletic Arena with the final slated for 6 p.m.
Major Storyline — Will the champion have an “M” in its name — Minnesota, Missouri or Michigan — or will the upstarts from Kent State provide an even bigger surprise?
#4 Minnesota — Coach J Robinson — now in his 26th year in Minneapolis — has perhaps his best Gopher team since Minnesota won the 2007 NCAA championship, especially considering his team is the only one to beat Big Ten co-champs Penn State in November.
And while the veteran coach features a pair of senior leaders in Zach Sanders (#2 at 125) and Sonny Yohn (#6 at 197), Robinson also features six underclassmen, including four freshmen who are ranked: the Dardanes twins (Chris, #7 at 133, and Nick, #13 at 141), Dylan Ness (#10 at 149), the younger brother of 2010 Hodge Trophy winner Jayson Ness, and Logan Storley (#5 at 174) who is one year removed from winning the Junior Hodge Trophy last winter.
#10 Missouri — Coach Brian Smith’s Tigers recently defeated Oklahoma, 25-12, after losing to the Sooners, 19-18, in November. The best Tiger is sophomore Alan Waters (#3 at 125) but now many of Missouri’s wrestlers are starting to emerge as All-American threats, including Nathan McCormick (#8 at 133) and Brent Haynes (#9 at 197).
#14 Michigan — Coach Joe McFarland’s Wolverines have not fared that well in dual competition — 6-5 entering the National Duals — but there is no question he has a strong individual tournament team as Michigan finished second at the Las Vegas Invite and won the Mat Town in January.
But the Wolverines have the talent to be tough in dual competition now that defending national champion and senior Kellen Russell (#1 at 141) has regained his top spot at that weight — after losing to Ohio State’s Hunter Stieber in Vegas. Then there are three other probable All-Americans in sophomore Eric Grajales (#6 at 149), senior Justin Zeerip (#6 at 174) and junior Ben Apland (#8 at HWT).
#16 Kent State — Perhaps no dual team is hotter than the Golden Flashes. After his team opened the season with a 1-4 record, coach Jim Andrassy has seen his squad win ten straight dual meets: highlighted by an 18-14 victory against Missouri (which beat Kent State earlier 34-12) and Central Michigan, 22-13, to help KSU capture its second MAC duals title in four years.
What is surprising about this Kent State team is that many thought the Flashes would be weaker after the Ohio school’s first national champion Dustin Kilgore (197) chose to take an Olympic redshirt this year. But in his absence are five nationally-ranked wrestlers, including senior Nic Bedelyon (#4 at 125) and freshman Ian Miller (#4 at 149).
Cal Poly — The Mustangs have not enjoyed a banner dual season but individuals like seniors Boris Novachkov (#2 at 141) and Ryan DesRoches (#4 at 174) are in line to earn at least All-American honors this March.
Rutgers — The region’s host school hopes the home mat advantage will help the Scarlett Knights, who have lost four of its last five duals to Lehigh, Hofstra, West Virginia and Virginia. But remember this Rutgers team, which lost in the opening round at the Virginia Duals, came back to win three straight duals. The most notable Knight is Mario Mason, a former Minnesota wrestler, who transferred back to his home state two years ago and is ranked #8 at 149.
KEY POSSIBLE INDIVIDUAL MATCH-UPS:
• At 125 pounds — #2 Zach Sanders (Minnesota) vs. #3 Alan Waters (Missouri) vs. #4 Nic Bedelyon (Kent State)
• At 141 pounds — #1 Kellen Russell (Michigan) vs. #2 Boris Novachkov (Cal Poly) — This would be a rematch of last year’s NCAA final, won by Russell, and a meeting from the Las Vegas tourney that the Wolverine also won in double overtime.
• At 149 pounds — #8 Mario Mason (Rutgers), a former Minnesota wrestler, vs. #10 Dylan Ness (Minnesota).
• At 174 pounds — #5 Logan Storley (Minnesota) vs. #6 Justin Zeerip (Michigan)
Ithaca, N.Y, Regional, Feb. 12
Action begins at 10 a.m. at Newman Arena with the final slated for 2 p.m.
Major Storyline — Can Cornell stay unbeaten against improved Illinois and Oklahoma teams?
#5 Cornell — The Big Red (9-0) is one of just two undefeated teams in this year’s National Duals. And while the first of those wins was against Minnesota, 21-16, in November, the rest of the duals have been against primarily Ivy League competition; giving coach Rob Koll his tenth Ivy League crown.
But don’t ignore the national power of this line-up that includes two-time defending national champion Kyle Dake (now up to 157 after winning NCAAs at 141 and 149 the last two years) and seniors Steve Bosak (#5 at 184) and Cam Simaz (#1 at 197).
#6 Illinois — Coach Jim Heffernan’s Illini have recorded the most dual victories (14-2) in the history of its program, thanks primarily to the opening 1-2 punch of freshman Jesse Delgado (#5 at 125) — who defeated Iowa’s Matt McDonough in Iowa City this winter — and junior B.J. Futrell (#5 at 133). There are at least four other ranked wrestlers in Blue and Orange, including a pair of juniors in Conrad Polz (#9 at 165) and Jordan Blanton (#12 at 174).
#11 Oklahoma — In his first year in Norman after recreating an American University program, coach Mark Cody has enjoy a “rookie” campaign with seven ranked wrestlers.
Leading this group is sophomore Kendric Maple (#4 at 141), who defeated Iowa’s Montell Marion for the Midlands championship. Then there is junior Jarrod Patterson (#7 at 125) and the Lester brothers (Nick, #13 at 149, and Matt, #15 at 157) who make this Sooner bunch pretty stiff competition.
#20 American University — While ranked, the Eagles (6-6) have an interesting team with a lot of talent at some select weights. They’re led by senior Ryan Flores (#1 at Hwt), who finishes second nationally last March, and senior Ganbayar Sanjaa (#3 at 157), who finished second in this year’s Midlands.
Central Michigan — One reason coach Tom Borrelli’s Chippewas are not as dominant as they’ve been in the past is that two All-Americans — Scott Sentes (141) and heavyweight Jarrod Trice — are taking Olympic redshirts. Picking up the pace is junior Ben Bennett (#4 at 184) and senior Peter Sturgeon (#12 at Hwt), who transferred to CMU after UNC-Greensboro dropped its program last year.
Purdue — Another former UNC-Greensboro alum — Ivan Lopouchanski (#15 at 149) —has provided punch to the Boilermakers who did beat American U, 24-22, in November.
KEY POSSIBLE INDIVIDUAL MATCH-UPS:
• At 125 pounds — #5 Jesse Delgado (Illinois) vs. #6 Frank Perrelli (Cornell) vs. #7 Jarrod Patterson (Oklahoma)
• At 157 pounds — #1 Kyle Dake (Cornell) vs. #3 Ganbayar Sanjaa (American) in what may also be an EIWA final