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Penn State’s Suriano became the latest of injured wrestlers to withdraw from NCAAs
By Mike Finn
ST. LOUIS — Every March, the better college programs show up at the NCAA Division I Nationals with some of the better, if not best, wrestlers in the country at their weight class.
And every March, it seems like many of those top programs also show up without many of their stars — because of injuries — which in turn jeopardizes those teams’ hopes of winning the national team championship.
Such is the same dilemma in 2017, when Penn State — once considered a prohibitive favorite to win a championship this Saturday night in the Scottrade Center after dominating its top competition in dual competition — announced today that Nick Suriano, the No. 3 seed at 125 pounds, would not be able to compete in this year’s tournament because of an injury the freshman suffered in February.
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With Suriano, the Nittany Lions went undefeated (14-0) during the regular season and won road meets at Iowa (26-11 on Jan. 20), Ohio State (32-12 on Feb. 3) and Oklahoma State (27-13 on Feb. 19). The season finale in Stillwater, Okla., earned the Nittany Lion the NWCA National Dual Team championship, but also at the expense of Suriano, who injured his ankle in a match with Oklahoma State’s Nick Piccininni.
And without Suriano, the Nittany Lions were forced to settle for second place behind Ohio State at the Big Ten Championships two weeks ago … and now will have a much tougher time if the Nittany Lions wish to repeat as national team champions and earn a six title in seven years. Action begins Thursday at 11 a.m. CDT.
“It was going to be a day-before type of decision,” said Penn State coach Cael Sanderson. “We were trying to get him to a point where he would be competitive enough to compete and to protect himself. And I don’t feel like he’s in that position. So he’s not going to wrestle.”
Suriano, a native of Paramus, N.J., compiled a 16-3 record, but only one of those losses — a 3-2 setback to top-ranked Thomas Gilman of Iowa — was determined on the mat. The other two came against Piccininni and in the first round of the Big Ten tournament, which Suriano was forced to injury default. Despite, not being able to compete in the conference tournament, Suriano earned an at-large bid to his first national tournament.
If Suriano had matched his tournament seed, the Nittany Lions would have received at least 13.5 points, 10 for a third-place finish and 3.5 for advancement points. (The bracket will not be redrawn, earning Buffalo’s Kyle Akins, Suriano’s first-round opponent, a bye into the second round.)
Sanderson downplayed the loss of Suriano and expects his team to pick up the slack.
“It’s tough for him. Tough for his family. Tough for the team, because we’re a close team and we feel bad for each other,” Sanderson said. “We want to see each other to be successful. It’s also a chance for the rest of the guys to step up and score additional points. I don’t think we wrestled terribly at the Big Ten. We just got beat. Ohio State wrestled great. And to win this tournament you’ve got to wrestle great. That’s the way it should be. It’s a national tournament. You want to be national champions. You’ve got to wrestle great the weekend of the national championships.”
Suriano became the third wrestlers forced to withdraw from this year’s nationals because of injury. The others were Michigan’s Brian Murphy at 157 pounds and West Virginia’s Jacob Smith at 197.
A year ago, Oklahoma State faced a similar dilemma when 2015 All-American Kyle Crutchmer was unable to wrestle in the NCAAs because of an injury, as was the case with then freshmen Kaid Brock, who also suffered a season-ending injury after pinning a defending national champion (Cody Brewer of Oklahoma) in December.
When it came to last year’s nationals, Oklahoma State settled for a second-place finish behind the Nittany Lions. But neither Cowboy coach John Smith, nor any of the other coaches attending the NCAA pre-nationals press conference on Wednesday, was feeling sorry for themselves.
“Sometimes we might think that our sport’s grueling,” said Smith. “There are a lot of sports that are grueling and tough. We’ve all lost guys in February that didn’t wrestle at nationals. And it’s unfortunate. But it’s what Cael said, as far as the sport, life is good, keep going.”
“This sport is certainly growing and the season is long, but as long as I’ve been in this sport we’ve had student-athletes get injured the first day of practice,” said Ohio State coach Tom Ryan, whose team finished third in last year’s NCAAs in New York City. “We’ve had athletes get injured in competition, midway through the season. We dealt with it last year with (former All-American) Hunter Stieber (who could not compete because of injuries). It’s hard on the individual. It’s hard on the family. You feel for them. But he’s a winner, I’m sure, and it’s a tough situation.”
That was a similar thought of the five wrestlers who also attended the press conference at a time when some leaders in the sport have considered shortening the season to a one-semester sport.
“If you’re truly loving the sport and wrestling out of passion, there’s no need to limit yourself on how many matches,” said Penn State junior Zain Retherford (23-0), the two-time All-American shooting to repeat at 149 pounds.
“I think the way our society is going, people maybe want to change it,” said Gilman (27-0), who is shooting for his first national title after finishing fourth and second the last two years. “People are getting a little soft. They want to say you shouldn’t do this, shouldn’t do that, but we’re wrestlers. We’re tough. I mean, we should be wrestling maybe more.
“The season’s long and hard. The sport’s hard. The matches aren’t necessarily what are mentally draining and physically draining. It’s the training. But that’s what we embrace and that’s why we wrestle.”
Meanwhile, another returning champion is Ohio State junior Kyle Snyder, the World and Olympic freestyle gold medalist who has competed in just 12 college matches this season after skipping several dual meets and regular-season tournaments to also focus on international freestyle. A year ago, the Buckeye followed a similar competitive schedule and wrestled just 11 matches in winning his first NCAA championship at heavyweight.
“NCAA wrestling is a long season,” said Snyder who competed in 12 matches — going 9-3 — in three international events this winter. “I could definitely see how it could wear you down. But I think most of that is probably mentally how you approach the sport rather than physically, because we wrestle a lot all year. So but just the mental aspects probably wear you down if you value the wrong things.”
J’den Cox, who will be shooting for his third individual championship at 197 pounds competed all season at Missouri and enters the NCAAs with a 23-0 record. The Tiger senior, who surprised many by claiming a bronze medal in last summer’s Rio Olympics, was not interested in following the same road as Snyder.
“I wrestled for myself,” said Cox, who sandwiched his two NCAA title in 2014 and 2016 around a fifth-place finish in 2015, the last time the NCAAs were held in St. Louis. “I wrestled because I love to do what I do. And more so than anything I’m going to wrestle the way I want to wrestle, and I’m going to wrestle when I want to wrestle.
“I know for sure though that the way I train now and the way I’ve been wrestling with the folkstyle and freestyle background that I have, I got a bronze medal. So you can’t change the fact.”