Five years ago it all began.
Penn State started a string of four straight NCAA titles. It was also the last time that the wrestling championships were held on the East Coast in Philadelphia.
Thursday, the championships are once again in the east. This time it comes on a much bigger stage. When things open up inside Madison Square Garden in New York City, there will be plenty of fans in attendance. Not just Nittany Lion fans but others from all over the country.
“I think it’s great, and I think over time when the tournament is on the East Coast, at least the last two, it’s been the toughest ticket to get,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said. “Philadelphia, that was a tough ticket to get. That was the first time I remember people actually struggling to get a ticket. This ticket has been a nightmare for us. We requested about 2,000 tickets and we got about 700. Everybody wants a ticket to the tournament.”
Sanderson brought up not only Penn State fans but the strength of Cornell’s program. With the fan bases of Lehigh and Rutgers also so close to the Big Apple, that might be just another reason why it is so hard.
“We’ve been scrambling trying to get tickets from other schools,” Sanderson said. “It’s a great ticket. There are just so many wrestling fans on this side of the country. Hopefully, the sport of wrestling can start hosting more events on this side of the country.”
With the sport on such a big stage, ESPN has ramped up its coverage of the championships. The network has been running commercials with actor Billy Baldwin narrating and promoting the event. For the first time this year, the network’s smaller station ESPNU will air all sessions — except the semifinals and finals — live. The semifinals and finals will air on ESPN 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Like in the previous years, fans can catch a glimpse of all the mats online too on WatchESPN.
“The TV coverage has been fantastic, and it keeps growing each year,” Sanderson said. “We are very appreciative of ESPN for what they’re doing, but they wouldn’t be expanding if people weren’t watching it. The Big Ten Network has been tremendous for our sport, just the exposure that the sport has been getting and the story. You have to have stories and you have to have action. That’s one thing that we’re proud of.”
Sanderson feels that this tournament can turn anyone into a wrestling fan in their first time experiencing the sport on this stage.
“If you’re flipping through the channels and see somebody with a Penn State singlet,” he said, “it’s going to catch your attention and hopefully it’ll hook you as a wrestling fan. If you go to this tournament for the first time, and maybe you’re not a wrestling fan, you’re going to leave a wrestling fan. It’s just incredible energy, and the atmosphere and the intensity with that individual title race, coupled with the team race, it’s the best thing in wrestling. It’s not as prestigious as the world championships or the Olympic games but as far as pure energy, it’s pretty amazing.”
Some of Sanderson’s wrestlers are having their first ever trip to the tournament and also New York City. Others have been to the NCAA championships before.
Matt McCutcheon recalled watching the USA Olympic team in “The Rumble on the Rails” inside New York’s Grand Central Station in 2013. The United States, Russia and Iran competed in the event to draw more interest to the sport and to help keep it in the Olympics. It will be McCutcheon’s first trip to the big city and he is focused on wrestling.
“I’m very excited,” he said. “It’s awesome to be competing there. (It’s going to) be cool to get a chance to go out there and wrestle. (I’ll) take time after to go walk around the city, but right now I’m just going out there to compete.”
Freshman Jason Nolf is making his first trip to New York and the NCAA Championships, but feels he won’t be fazed by the surroundings.
“I don’t think I’ll be that surprised from the atmosphere,” he said. “I think it will be awesome. I go to Penn State University. We wrestle at the BJC with 16,000 fans. I went to the Big Tens and there were a lot of people there at Iowa. I got a feel of how it’s gonna be out at Iowa, because not everybody’s rooting for you like they are here. It doesn’t affect the way that I’m gonna wrestle.”
Another freshman, Bo Nickal, hasn’t missed a NCAA Championship since he was in seventh grade. He said that he and his father would go to the events together. It will be his first as a competitor but he feels the experience he had as a spectator will help him to a degree.
“I kind of know what the atmosphere is like,” Nickal said. “Obviously not down on the mats, that’s going to be a little bit different but at least knowing some background on what it’s going to be like is good. I’m excited to get out there and wrestle.”
Seniors Nico Megaludis and Morgan McIntosh will be making their final trips to the NCAA tournament. The pair hope to cap off their collegiate careers with titles after being so close in previous years. None more than Megaludis, who has finished as a runner-up twice and third once.
“I think Nico is in a great state of mind,” Sanderson said. “He’s very relaxed. He’s focused. This has been his intention all year long. His goal is to be a national champion.”
Megaludis came up just short in his freshman and sophomore years. He fell to Iowa’s Matt McDonough in 2011. The following year he made it again, but fell to Illinois’ Jesse Delgado. In the 2013-2014 season, he lost to Cornell’s Nashon Garrett in the semifinals but beat Virginia Tech’s Joey Dance for third.
“For him, it’s just looking at it with a grateful mind and heart to say I’ve got another shot to win a national title,” Sanderson said. “He’s had such tremendous success already to this point that most wrestlers would give anything to be in the position that he’s in. Nico has always wrestled his best tournament at nationals.”
Throughout the year, fans have seen McIntosh be a dominant wrestler, deserving of the No. 1 seed. Other times, like his match with Nebraska’s Aaron Studebaker, he was just standing and waiting for the action instead of causing it. He still won 2-1 in overtime, but it didn’t have to come to that.
“Last year, he was in the quarters and he was just standing around,” Sanderson said, “and lost to a tough kid in a scramble and it came down to a one-point match. You can’t let it come down to one situation. He’s too good for that. He’s got to go wrestle. He can’t go stand around and let the match be decided by one takedown.”
McIntosh doesn’t think about this being his last tournament. Instead, he is taking it just like every other tournament. He feels the knowledge he has gained going to three NCAA Championships will help him get over the hurdle and become a national champion.
“I think it’s just your experiences and the fact that you have those experiences,” he said. “I think that’s the biggest thing. It helps you going into these tournaments. The experience that I’ve learned going to these tournaments three times already is the biggest fact I think that helps me, knowing how it’s going to go, how you’re going to feel and what it takes to win those big matches.”
Penn State is a heavy favorite to win its fifth title in six years. In order to do that, the Nittany Lions will have to go through some tough draws.
McCutcheon received a No. 16 seed at 184 pounds. If he wins his first-round match, he could face Cornell’s Gabe Dean in the second round. Dean is the reigning NCAA champion.
Jordan Conaway got a No. 5 seed at 133 pounds, and he could face Wisconsin’s Ryan Taylor in the second round. Taylor beat Conaway twice in the Big Ten tournament.
If Geno Morelli, who received an at-large bid, can make it to the quarterfinals, he would more than likely face Ohio State’s Bo Jordan. Morelli nearly upset Jordan in Penn State’s dual victory with the Buckeyes but Jordan used a late takedown for the 3-2 win.
“I think it was like this a couple years ago when we went into Oklahoma City and had kind of some strange matchups,” Sanderson said. “I think we got some strange seeds this year. What are you going to do about it? You’ve got to go wrestle and take that seed. Things change really fast in a tournament. Regardless of where you are, you do the best, focus and you wrestle hard and do everything that you can. But we’re not too worried about it. Everybody’s got some tough seeds for the most part because we’re in the national tournament.”