After Penn State won its fourth consecutive national championship in 2014, coach Cael Sanderson announced that All-Americans Nico Megaludis and Zain Retherford, and highly touted freshmen Jason Nolf and Bo Nickal, would all be taking redshirt years for the 2014-15 wrestling season. Hearts of all Penn State fans, who had become accustomed to wrestling dominance, sank. But Sanderson wasn’t worried; he had a plan. And now Penn State is poised to take home its fifth title in six years on Saturday at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
With six wrestlers ranked in the top five of their respective weight classes, including three No. 1 seeds, three Big Ten champions and the team sitting comfortably atop the USA Today/NWCA Division I Coaches Poll, the question going into this weekend is not so much about whether the Nittany Lions win the team title but how many individual titles they will secure.
“I believe they have the capability to actually win five individual titles, which would be an incredible accomplishment,” said ESPN wrestling analyst Tim Johnson, who has called more than 350 college wrestling meets. Seniors Megaludis (125) and Morgan McIntosh (197), sophomore Retherford (149) and freshmen Nolf (157) and Nickal (174) are all expected to go deep in the tournament.
“But you can’t do that without the numbers game that they have. Not only in the lineup but in the room,” Johnson said. “And that’s what separates Penn State right now.”
Retherford and Nolf lead the NCAA’s most dominant rankings with 4.93 average team points apiece. McIntosh averages 4.68 and Nickal averages 4.37.
“But if Penn State does stumble, and the reason they could is because three of their top five are so young, yet they haven’t acted young and they don’t wrestle young, but if they did, Iowa has a numbers thing going on and probably has the ability to have six All-Americans,” Johnson said.
Iowa’s Thomas Gilman (125), Cory Clark (133) and Brandon Sorenson (149) all have a shot at making it to the finals. And, Johnson said, defending national champion Ohio State has two favorites to win titles in Nathan Tomasello (125) and Kyle Snyder (285).
“So my prediction, will the Big Ten win its 10th straight NCAA championship? Yeah, it will be one of those three,” he said.
But for either Iowa or Ohio State to pull off the upset, it would take a “meltdown” by one of Penn State’s top five wrestlers, Johnson said. “And that’s not going to happen.”
In addition to those top five wrestlers, senior Jordan Conaway (133), junior Jimmy Guilibon (141), junior transfer Geno Morelli (166) and sophomore Matt McCutcheon (184) also will be looking to pick up points for Penn State.
Those wrestlers have a tougher lot. McCutcheon could face defending national champion Gabe Dean, of Cornell, as early as the second round. Johnson says that doesn’t matter.
“Penn State has a little more margin for error,” he said. “And if those other guys (Conaway, Guilibon, Morelli or McCutcheon) go at all deep, that’s just putting the cherry on top of the ice cream cone.”
The NCAA tournament is always bittersweet, as each year it marks the end of some extraordinary collegiate wrestling careers.
This year’s tournament will play host to the final matches of Oklahoma State’s Alex Dieringer (165) and North Carolina State’s Nick Gwiazdowski (285), both vying for their third national championship titles. But in doing so, both will face tough challenges.
“Isaac Jordan is really hitting his stride,” Johnson said of the Big Ten’s 165-pound champion from Wisconsin.
And Gwiazdowski will likely face world champion Snyder in the championship match. It’s a scenario similar to, as Johnson pointed out, what Gwiazdowski faced in 2014, when the then-sophomore defeated two-time defending national champion Tony Nelson, of Minnesota, for the title. But this time, Gwiazdowski is on the other side of the equation. Snyder, a sophomore, had his Olympic redshirt lifted about midway through this season. Since then, he has notched some impressive wins, including over Michigan’s Adam Coon for the Big Ten title.
“That’s the match everyone is waiting for,” Johnson said.
Other highly anticipated potential matchups include defending national champion Isaiah Martinez, of Illinois, against Penn State’s Nolf at 157, and McIntosh versus Missouri’s J’Den Cox at 197.
“Either one of those are a coin flip,” Johnson said.
Nolf pinned the previously undefeated sophomore at Illinois on Jan. 23.
“Nolf woke up Martinez at Illinois,” Johnson said. “But it is very evident that ‘IMar’ was woken up.” Martinez then defeated Nolf 4-3 on riding time at the end of the second overtime period at the Big Ten Championship.
“That was the best no-takedown match I’ve ever seen,” Johnson said. “No takedowns and yet, there wasn’t a second there wasn’t action.”
This weekend will also determine who is named this year’s Hodge Trophy winner. The Dan Hodge Trophy is awarded each season to the nation’s best collegiate wrestler. The equivalent of football’s Heisman, past winners include Sanderson at Iowa State (2000, ’01 and ’02) and Penn State’s David Taylor (’12 and ’14) and Kerry McCoy (1997).
Going into the tournament, Penn State’s Retherford and Oklahoma State’s Dieringer look to be the favorites.
“If Retherford decides he doesn’t want anybody to score points on him, nobody will,” Johnson said. “Unless he decides he wants to give up an escape, I don’t think anyone’s going to score on him in the whole tournament. He’s that dominant.”
Although Retherford edges Deiringer in dominance — 4.93 to 4.77 average team points — with at least two national championships under his belt, the senior’s past credentials could put him on top if the two wrestlers have equally dominant tournament performances.
“But if Gwiazdowski beats Snyder, I don’t see how you can’t give it to him,” Johnson said.
This year’s NCAA Wrestling Championship will be held at Madison Square Garden for the first time. The timing of an East Coast championship venue could not be more perfect.
The season has seen the resurgence of ACC teams such as No. 2 N.C. State and No. 3 Virginia Tech. No. 10 Rutgers also had a breakout season, with the Big Ten’s 141-pound champion Anthony Ashnault eying a deep tournament run.
And then there’s Penn State and Cornell, each looking to pick up a few individual titles.
“Having it at Madison Square Garden is going to be a different look,” Johnson said. “A lot of Midwest people are probably not going to come because of cost, but because of Rutgers, because of the ACC and because of Penn State, it’s going to be filled with a different look.”
The NCAA tournament has been held at Midwest venues 12 of the past 13 years, the lone exception being Philadelphia in 2011, where Penn State picked up its first title under Sanderson.
Lauren Muthler is the assistant news editor at the CDT.
What: Division I National Championship
Where: Madison Square Garden, New York
Radio: WRSC 1390
TV: Early-round matches online on ESPN3 and ESPNU, finals on ESPN