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Previewing the 2012 NWCA National Duals Final Four
By Mike Finn, WIN Editor
Oklahoma State — with eight titles — has won more NWCA National Duals championships than any other Division I program in the 24-year history of the annual event.
None of them have happened in the state of Oklahoma, much less on their home campus of Stillwater.
That could change this Sunday as the lone unbeaten Division I program will play host to the 2012 NWCA National Duals at Gallagher-Iba Arena in what has become the Final Four of Mat Mayhem.
The No. 1-ranked Cowboys (13-0) must first out-dual No. 5 Illinois (16-2) in a 2 p.m. semifinal before reaching a 6 p.m. championship final against the winner of the other NWCA National Dual semi between Big Ten-rivals No. 3 Iowa (13-3) and No. 4 Minnesota (12-3), which rank second and third, respectively, with six and four National Duals championships.
All four schools advanced to Stillwater — chosen last Sunday by the NWCA to host this year’s Final Four — by winning one of four regionals held last weekend. (Oddly, OSU must also face rival Oklahoma, this Thursday in Norman, Okla., in the second match-up of their Bedlam series.)
Breaking down the Final Four teams
Three of the Final Four squads were seeded No. 1. The lone exception was Illinois, which upset Cornell, 19-16, on the Big Red’s home mat in Ithaca, N.Y.
The Illini will need an even bigger upset if coach Jim Heffernan’s squad hopes to beat John Smith’s Cowboys. (Oklahoma State leads the all-time series 12-1. The last time they met were in the finals of the 2008 Virginia Duals — the precursor of the NWCA National Duals — and one of the Cowboy wins against the Illini came in the finals of the 2005 National Duals, the last time OSU won the duals crown, in Cleveland, Ohio.)
Based on WIN’s rankings, Oklahoma State should be favored to win seven of the individual match-ups. But one of those “sure” wins for the Cowboys nearly turned into a season-opening upset at the NWCA All-Star Classic, Nov. 21, in Tempe, Ariz., where OSU’s defending national champion, Jordan Oliver, need a riding-time advantage to win 8-7 over Illinois’ B.J. Futrell, who scored three takedowns in the final period to overcome a 6-2 deficit.
(This team dual also features somewhat of a reunion for Illinois assistant coach Mark Perry, the two-time NCAA champion from Iowa, who is a native of Stillwater and the nephew of OSU’s head coach John Smith. Perry’s younger brother, Chris, a sophomore, is the Cowboy starter at 174 pounds.)
In the other semifinal, the Hawkeyes and Gophers meet for a second time this season and just 21 days after Iowa defeated Minnesota, 19-17. In that meeting in Iowa City, both schools won five matches. The Gophers actually won the final four matches but that could not overcome bonus points scored by the Hawkeyes, including Mike Evans’ pin against Cody Yohn at 165 pounds.
If coach J Robinson, whose last National Duals championship came in 2007, wants his Gophers to reach this year’s finals, his 125-pounder, No. 2-ranked Zach Sanders, must find a way to beat Iowa’s top-rated Matt McDonough, who has won all five of the wrestlers’ past meetings, including a 7-1 victory this winter.
Iowa coach Tom Brands, who saw his Hawkeyes win three straight National Duals championships (2008-10) when the event was held in Cedar Falls, Iowa, is still trying to solidify his line-up.
That includes the 157- and 184-pound weight classes where 2011 All-Americans Derek St. John and Grant Gambrall are trying to overcome past physical ailments. St. John, battling a knee injury, wrestled just once last weekend and lost by a 9-1 major decision to Oregon State’s R.J. Pena. Gambrall, who dealt with a concussion since last summer, is expected to return to 184 pounds — where he finished third nationally last March — after wrestling primarily at 197 this winter.
Neither Iowa nor Minnesota beat the Cowboys this winter. OSU defeated Minnesota, 23-14, on Dec. 4 in Stillwater, and later edged Iowa, 17-16 (on criteria), on Jan. 7 in Iowa City.
In the OSU-Minnesota match-up, which increased OSU’s all-time series lead over the Gophers to 21-10, three Cowboys — Jamal Parks (149), Albert White (157) and Chris Perry (then at 184) — won by one-point margins.
If Oklahoma State and Iowa meet for the 46th time — the Cowboys lead the all-time series, 26-18-2 — it will be hard to match the drama that 15,400 fans witnessed in Carver-Hawkeye in January when both schools each won five weight classes and the final outcome was decided by the NCAA’s No. 3 criteria: most individual points (OSU’s squad tallied 54 points to 51 by Iowa.)
The most dramatic matches in that first meeting came at 133 pounds, where Iowa’s Tony Ramos handed Jordan Oliver his only loss this season (by a 4-3 overtime margin), and at 174 pounds, where OSU’s Chris Perry also needed overtime to edge Ethen Lofthouse, 3-2. The wrestlers needed to be separated at the end of that hotly-contested match.
If Illinois is able to upset the host school, it would give the Illini a chance to avenge earlier-season losses to the Hawkeyes and Gophers. If there is a second meeting between these Big Ten schools, the most notable individual match-ups will come at 125, where Illinois’ Jesse Delgado handed Matt McDonough his only loss of the season. Meanwhile, Delgado would try to avenge a 14-13 loss to Minnesota’s Zach Sanders.