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Fresh & True: how rookies win NCAA championships
By Katie Finn
Young college wrestlers have been lighting up the mat all season long, upsetting the nation’s top-ranked wrestlers and making a name for themselves at the very start of their college careers.
Three first-year wrestlers, particularly — heavyweight Adam Coon of Michigan, 197-pound J’den Cox of Missouri and 141-pound Zain Retherford of Penn State — were all ranked among the top three in their weight class before the NCAA qualifying tournaments after knocking off highly-rated veterans this winter.
And this trio of rookies accomplished those feats … less than one year after graduating from high school.
Of course, winning in the regular season is much different than the postseason as Coon discovered at the Big Tens, where he went 0-2 as a No. 1 seed, while Cox and Retherford were wrestling for MAC and Big Ten championships, respectively.
But if any of this trio wins a national title in Oklahoma City, March 22, it will put them in a very rare class of wrestlers who have won as true freshman. Only 13 wrestlers in the 83 years of the event have won a national title as a true freshman.
The most recent of those was Cornell’s Kyle Dake, who won the 141-pound championship as a true freshman in 2010 and went on to win national championships each of the next four years. (With the exception of 1946 and ‘47, freshmen were ineligible to compete in college wrestling until 1968.)
Making the immediate transition from high school wrestling to success at the high-pressure collegiate level requires more than just wrestling ability. Having been big fish in a small pond, many top high school wrestlers take advantage of by redshirting their freshman year in order to grow mentally and physically. This eases the transition into the intense and often turbulent world of college wrestling.
Wrestlers who choose to make a go at it as true freshmen must overcome the steady pressure that starts from day one. Less than one year earlier, many of these young men were wrestling in small high school gymnasiums in front of local crowds filled with close friends and family.
For Dake, the quick transition didn’t seem rushed.
“Sure it was only a year after I was wrestling in high school,” Dake said. “But 365 days is a long time, especially when you’re working hard day in and day out.”
The decision to wrestle as a true freshman is one thing. Succeeding as a true freshman is another. With Dake, the formula for winning a national title as a freshman balanced intense physical training and focused mental preparation.
“I never really had nerves about wrestling for a national title as a true freshman,” he said. “I didn’t see it as me as a true freshmen versus a redshirt senior. I didn’t think about his experience as being that far ahead of me. I had been wrestling for so long that I didn’t feel like I was behind him at all,” said Dake of his mindset going into his final match against a better-known wrestler. “Plus, I had great workout partners at Cornell. Thanks to them, I felt like there was nothing I hadn’t see before.”
For Dustin Schlatter, a 149-pound champion at Minnesota in 2006, he knew that he wanted to wrestle immediately when he was earning prep All-American honors at St. Paris Graham High School in Ohio.
“I knew from probably my junior year in high school that I didn’t want to redshirt, even though everyone else did,” the former Gopher who defeated Iowa senior Ty Eustice in the NCAA final his rookie year. “I knew years before that I didn’t want to sit out. The coaches at Minnesota were on the same page as me.”
(The rest of this story can be found in WIN’s 2014 NCAA Preview issue. To subscribe to WIN, call 888-305-0606 or to to WIN-Magazine.com)