Contrast of Champions: Three-time finalists Dake and McDonough face final NCAA on different paths

Updated: March 20, 2013

By Mike Finn, WIN Editor

There are two wrestlers, entered in this week’s NCAA national wrestling tournament in Des Moines, Iowa, who have reached the finals in each of the last three years.

One is Kyle Dake, Cornell’s 165-pound senior, who is shooting to become sport’s third four-time champion and first to win four titles at four different weights in four straight years after graduating from Lansing High School in Ithaca.

When Cornell's Kyle Dake (right) defeated Iowa's Derek St. John for the 2012 NCAA championship last March, it marked the Big Red wrestler's third title at three different weights in three straight years.

When Cornell’s Kyle Dake (right) defeated Iowa’s Derek St. John for the 2012 NCAA championship last March, it marked the Big Red wrestler’s third title at three different weights in three straight years.

“I think the most important thing for me to recognize is that I got to first get there before I can make history,” who NCAA titles at 141 pounds in 2010 as a true freshman (when he defeated Iowa’s Montell Marion), at 149 pounds in 2012 (when he beat Penn State’s Frank Molinaro) and 157 pounds when he defeated another Iowa wrestler, Derek St. John in the NCAA final).

“I got to take it once match at a time really, and if I just go out and do my job then I’m good [enough] to where I need to be. I’ve been working real hard this season; putting in the time both physically and mentally, and really pushing myself to the limit and hopefully pushing myself over the edge to get that fourth national title.”

The other three-time finalist is Iowa’s Matt McDonough, a 125-pound senior from Marion, Iowa, who has nearly been as successful as Dake in the Saturday night finals since 2010. The only difference is that the Hawkeye has won two championships — beating former Iowa State wrestler Andrew Long in 2012 and Penn State’s Matt Megaludis last March, but losing to Arizona State’s Anthony Robles in the finals of the 2011 nationals.

Three of two-time champion Matt's McDonough's seven career losses have been to Illinois' Jesse Delgado, the last coming in the 2013 Big Ten finals.

Three of two-time champion Matt’s McDonough’s seven career losses have been to Illinois’ Jesse Delgado, the last coming in the 2013 Big Ten finals.

There is another difference between the two three-time All-Americans, who begin action Thursday morning in Wells Fargo Arena. While Dake (132-4 in his career) is red-hot and has won 72 straight college match since falling to former Bucknell star Kevin LeValley in 2011 EIWA finals, McDonough (120-7) has lost nearly has many matches (three) since February 8 than he did in his first three seasons as a Hawkeye.

The most recent setback for McDonough came at the Big Ten Championships where he lost (for a second time this season) to Illinois’ Jesse Delgado, 10-4, in the conference finals. (McDonough has now lost three bouts to the Illini, including a Dec. 2, 2011 meeting in Iowa City and at this year’s Feb. 8 dual between the two teams in Champaign, Ill.)

“I just have to go out there and wrestle my match,” said McDonough, who is seeded No. 3 in this year’s Nationals behind No. 1 Alan Waters of Missouri — whom the Hawkeye lost to in the Feb. 24 — and No. 2 Delgado, a sophomore, who finished seventh in last year’s national tournament.

“The work has been done and the technique is there and the ability is there. He’s a tough competitor; we’ve wrestled five times or so. I’ve done what I needed to do to win that match in the past, in order to do that in the future I have to be in the positions that I’m strongest at. It’s just a matter of wrestling a smart match where you’re having fun, but you’re scoring a lot of points. Scoring points is always what you have to do to win, but scoring offensive points is going to make the difference.”

The biggest problem that McDonough has in the past month is allowing many opponents to score first-period takedowns against him, including by foes (like Minnesota’s David Thorn and Cornell’s Nahshon Garrett) the Hawkeye rallied to beat.

Does a three-time finalist and two-time NCAA champion have to start from scratch to regain his throne of the lightest weight class?

“I didn’t have to go back to the drawing board but obviously when you don’t get what you want, you have to work hard to step it up,” said McDonough, who found himself in a similar position in 2010 when he lost the Big Ten final but captured his first national championship at the NCAAs in Omaha, Neb.

“I wouldn’t say that it’s nice (that this has happened before). It’s good to already have been in this position and know that you can improve upon it two weeks later. I didn’t win the Big Tens as a freshman, but won the nationals two weeks later. I’ve done it once before. I can do it again.

“I can take myself back to that year and remember some of the things that went though my head and some of the things that I had to do to get myself ready to go out there and attack that NCAA tournament has helped me this time around to prepare for this event.”

For Iowa head coach Tom Brands, who has been in his corner in each of the NCAA finals, it’s up to McDonough to follow the game plan and learn from the past.

“It’s not that simple because (McDonough has been) working on it since December of 2011,” said Brands. “We have to execute some things that are going to make sense in his head.”

Brands said it has to do with more than McDonough improving his technique.

“Just get tough and be smart,” Brands said. “We can talk about technical skill and positioning. That’s what you do in the wrestling room. Just go out and do what you know what you need to do and execute the game plan.”