Big Ten Preview: Plenty of star power and improved depth should lead Penn State to third-straight championship

Updated: October 24, 2012


This is the final part of WIN’s on-going preseason look at all ten NCAA-qualifying conferences/tournaments.

Click here to read WIN’s other conference previews.

Big Ten Qualifying Tournament for the NCAA:

March 9-10 @ University of Illinois in Champaign, Ill.

Last Year’s Big Ten Finish in West Lafayette, Ind.:

1. Penn State 149; 2. Minnesota, 134; 3. Iowa, 126; 4. Illinois, 105.5; 5. Ohio State, 91; 6. Northwestern, 75; 7. Nebraska, 66; 8. Michigan, 65; 9. Purdue, 51.5; 10 (tie). Indiana and Michigan State, 41; 11. Wisconsin 9.

Last Year’s Big Ten Performance in the NCAA Tournament:

All 12 schools sent 80 wrestlers to St. Louis, which was 10 more than in 2011. In the end, all but three schools produced seven champions and 34 All-Americans.

Penn State, in capturing a second straight team title, led the way with three champs — Frank Molinaro (149), David Taylor (165) and Ed Ruth (174) — and three more All-Americans in Nico Megaludis (2nd at 125), Dylan Alton (3rd at 157) and Quentin Wright (2nd at 184). All six return in 2012-13.

Minnesota, which finished second in the team race, actually produced the most All-Americans (7) and was led by champion Anthony Nelson (Hwt). Also finishing in the Top 8 were Dylan Ness (2nd at 149), Zach Sanders (3rd at 125), Chris Dardanes (4th at 133), Kevin Steinhaus and Sonny Yohn (both 5th at 184 and 197) and Logan Storley (6th at 174).

Iowa, third in the team race and ten points behind the Gophers, featured six All-Americans, led by two-time champion Matt McDonough (125). He was joined on the medal stand by a pair of runner-ups in Montell Marion (141) and Derek St. John (157) and a third-place finisher in Tony Ramos (133). Also earning AA honors were Bobby Telford (5th at heavyweight) and Ethen Lofthouse (7th at 174).

Both Ohio State (5th in the team race) and Illinois (7th) each left St. Louis with four All-Americans. The Buckeyes produced one champion in Logan Stieber (133) while fellow freshman Cam Tessari (149) claimed fourth, sophomore Nick Heflin claimed fifth at 174 and Hunter Stieber (141) finished sixth. The Illini were led by fourth-place finisher Jordan Blanton (174), followed by B.J Futrell (6th at 133), Jesse Delgado (7th at 125) and Conrad Polz (8th at 165).

Meanwhile, a trio of schools earned two All-Americans each. While Northwestern (9th) finished two spots ahead of Michigan, the Wolverines featured a champion in Kellen Russell (141) while Zach Stevens (133) claimed seventh. The Wildcats, meanwhile, saw heavyweight Michael McMullen finish third and Jason Welch (157) claimed fourth place. The other school with two All-Americans was Nebraska, which finished 21st as a team and were led by freshman James Green (7th at 157) and Josh Ihnen (8th at 184).

While Wisconsin finished with the Big Ten’s lowest finish (41st) as a team, the Badgers did feature an All-American in Ben Jordan (7th at 165).

Three Big Ten schools — Purdue (28th), Indiana and Michigan State (tied at 37th place) — did not earn an All-American.


1. Penn State — Is this the best team that the Nittany Lions have ever had?

Not only does coach Cael Sanderson return all six All-American from 2012 — Nico Megaludis (125), Dylan Alton (157), champ David Taylor (165), champ Ed Ruth (moving up to 184) and 2011 champ Quentin Wright (moving up to 197) — but also he has added depth. That includes 149-pound Andrew Alton (twin of Dylan), who won the Schalles Award for pinning two years ago before redshirting last winter and will replace 2012 champion Frank Molinaro, and fellow sophomore Matt Brown (174), who was a talented sub for the Nittany Lions last winter.

The only question is who fills 133, 141 and heavyweight?

Junior Frank Martellotti qualified at 133 for the Lions and could be challenged by talented freshman Jimmy Gulibon from Latrobe, Pa. Senior Bryan Pearsall (141) was the only starter not to qualify for the NCAAs. Meanwhile at heavyweight, Jimmy Lawson, an NHSCA champ from Toms River, N.J., gave up Division III college football to return to the college mat in State College.

2. Iowa — The Hawkeyes’ three-highest ranked wrestlers — Matt McDonough (125), Tony Ramos (133) and Derek St. John (157) — could be the key considering they are wrestling at weights which are very competitive within the Big Ten.

McDonough, who will be shooting for his third national championship and fourth NCAA final, must again get by the likes of national runner-up Megaludis of Penn State and Illinois’ Jesse Delgado, the only wrestler to beat the Hawkeye last winter.

Not only must Ramos beat NCAA champ Logan Stieber, but he also has Wisconsin’s returning Olympic redshirt Tyler Graff ahead of him in the rankings.

St. John, who many considered a surprise finalist last March, is ranked No. 1 at that weight, but also has No. 2 Dylan Alton of Penn State and No. 3 Jason Welch of Northwestern on his heels.

Meanwhile, coach Tom Brands is counting on three of the other returning starters — Ethen Lofthouse (174), Grant Gambrall (184) and Bobby Telford (Hwt) — who are looking to take a step further this season. Meanwhile, sophomore Mike Evans (165) learned how tough the postseason is when he failed to place in St. Louis despite earning a No. 5 seed. The Hawks will look for him to place.

3. Minnesota — The Gophers, who won last year’s National Duals championship and beat Penn State in a dual, feature perhaps the most veteran coach in J Robinson, who has been in Minneapolis for over a quarter of a century.

But he got plenty of new life from youngsters like junior heavyweight Anthony Nelson, who won the NCAA championship last March, and surprising national runner-up Dylan Ness (149), who becomes the man to beat in the conference with the graduation of Penn State’s Molinaro.

In fact, there is only one senior on the Minnesota team this year — Cody Yohn at 165 — and he should get plenty of help from returning All-Americans Logan Storley (174) and Kevin Steinhaus (184).

And then there are three more sophomores who could all step on the All-American stand: twins Chris (133) and Nick (141) Dardanes (Chris finished fourth nationally as a freshman in 2012); and sophomore Scott Schiller, who backed up former All-American Sonny Yohn at 197 and proved he could be competitive at the Southern Scuffle.

4. Illlinois — Coach Jim Heffernan, who is in his fourth year as the head man, features his most talented team considering he returns four All-Americans:

• 125-pound sophomore Jesse Delgado, who was the only man to beat 2012 champion McDonough from Iowa;

• Senior B.J. Futrell, who is moving up to 141 after garnering two All-American honors in 2011 (eighth) and 2012 (sixth);

• 165-pound junior Conrad Polz, who finished eighth after competing in his first national tournament;

• 174-pound junior Jordan Blanton, who is the highest-ranked Big Ten wrestler at that weight with 2012 champ Ed Ruth of Penn State moving up to 184.

And don’t forget 197-pound sophomore Mario Gonzales, who was the only Illini to win a Big Ten championship last March. He also clinched a National Duals win over Cornell after moving up to heavyweight for that dual.

5. Ohio State — Head coach Tom Ryan has just one concern as he begins his seventh season in Columbus: avoiding a sophomore slump.

That’s because no NCAA Division I team featured more talented freshmen than the Buckeyes last winter; led by Logan Stieber, who won a Big Ten championship and defeated 2011 NCAA champ Jordan Oliver of Oklahoma State at the Nationals.

And of Ohio State’s three other returning starters, only one — junior Nick Heflin (who finished fifth at 174) is an upperclassman. The other two will be sophomores this season: former Monroeville (Ohio) High School teammates of Stieber — his brother Hunter Stieber (who finished sixth at 141) and Cam Tessari (who claimed fourth place at 149 last March).

And rounding out this sophomore-laden team are returning national qualifiers: Johnni DiJulius (125), Josh Demas (157) and Andrew Campolattano (197).

6. Northwestern — Senior Jason Welch, the former Junior Hodge Trophy winner from California, has the most experience considering the 157-pounder has competed in three national tournaments and placed twice: sixth in 2011 and fourth last March. But the Midlands champion also has yet to win a Big Ten title for the Wildcats.

Meanwhile, coach Drew Pariano has at least four other wrestlers who will make the Cats more than competitive in 2013, especially sophomore heavyweight Mike McMullen, who was seeded No. 10 in St. Louis, but finished third nationally. His only loss at the NCAAs was to Minnesota’s Nelson, who also handed McMullen a close semifinal loss in the Big Tens.

The other wrestlers, with NCAA experience, to keep an eye on are 125-pound senior Levi Mele and sophomores Pierce Harger (165) and Lee Munster (174). Munster captured a Midlands championship last March.

7. Nebraska — Competing in their first Big Ten season, the Huskers were led by current 184-pound senior Josh Ihnen, who finished eighth at the NCAAs … but only after he upset 2011 national champion Wright of Penn State and finished second in the conference meet.

And coach Mark Manning, who was matside last summer in London where his former Husker Jordan Burroughs won an Olympic gold medal, may have a similar look this season with the return of 157-pound sophomore James Green, who finished fifth in the Big Ten and seventh nationally.

Manning also returns two other national qualifiers, who are swapping weights this season: senior Tyler Koehn, who is dropping down to 165 after compiling a 19-14 mark at 174, and sophomore Robert Kokesh, who is moving up to 174 after he finished third in the Big Ten and won 30 matches at 165.

The remaining returning national qualifier is sophomore Jake Sueflohn, who earned a 25-11 record and finished fifth in his first conference tournament.

8. Wisconsin — At first glance, it would be easy to feel sorry for coach Barry Davis, who is beginning his 19th year in Madison. After all, he is missing much of the talent which helped Wisconsin finish fourth, nationally, in 2010 and tenth in 2011 … but fell to last in the Big Ten and 41st nationally in 2012.

He also lost his only 2012 All-American Ben Jordan, who graduated after claiming seventh at 165 in St. Louis. And then there was the loss of All-Americans Andrew Howe (165) and Travis Rutt (184), who took an Olympic redshirt last winter and are now wrestling for Oklahoma.

But Davis does return a possible national finalist in 133-pound junior Tyler Graff, who also took an Olympic redshirt in 2012, after earning a pair of fifth-place finishes at the 2010 and 2011 national tournaments.

Meanwhile, there are two youngsters to keep an eye on: redshirt freshman Connor Medbury at heavyweight and 141-pound true freshman Jesse Thielke. Medbury finished seventh in last year’s Midlands while competing unattached. Thielke is a nationally-ranked Greco-Roman wrestler on the Senior level.

9. Michigan — Coach Joe McFarland lost his two-time national champion Kellen Russell (141), but does feature four wrestlers with national tournament experience.

They include one senior in heavyweight Ben Apland, two juniors Eric Grajales (149) and Dan Yates (174) and one sophomore Max Huntley (197).

Of these, Grajales (who came to Michigan from the heralded Brandon, Fla., program) finished third in last year’s Big Ten tournament. Meanwhile, Yates is moving up from 165 after finishing 24-10 overall.

One youngster to keep an eye on this season is 165-pound true freshman Taylor Massa, the former four-time Michigan state champion from St. Johns who represented the U.S. in this past summer’s Junior Worlds in freestyle.

10. Purdue — Coach Scott Hinkel faced an uphill battle when he became the Boilermakers’ coach in 2007. But he also is the first Purdue coach to post a winning dual meet record in his first three years.

Hinkel also features several wrestlers who could make an impact in the Big Ten and around the nation this winter: lightweight juniors Camden Eppert (125) and Cashe Quiroga (133), who both competed in last year’s national tournament; and sophomore Braden Atwood, who is expected to move up to 197 this winter after finishing 22-15 his freshman season.

11. Indiana  — In the past, most of coach Duane Goldman’s best wrestlers were lightweight wrestlers like former All-Americans like Joe Dubuque and Angel Hernandez.

That has changed recently considering two of his higher-ranked wrestlers are 174-pound Ryan LeBlanc and heavyweight Adam Chalfant, who each qualified for the Nationals as sophomores last winter.

And then there is 149-pound Taylor Walsh, who finished fourth in the Big Tens as a redshirt freshman.

12. Michigan State

Coach Tom Minkel is starting his 21st season in East Lansing but does not have a lot of firepower considering only two of his six national qualifiers return this winter:  149-pound Dan Osterman and 157-pound David Cheza, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility last summer after injuries cost him a season in the past.

Minkel also has strength at heavyweight in junior Mike McClure, who has waited the past two years to represent the Spartans after winning a Michigan state title and finishing second at the NHSCA Nationals in 2010.