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2017 NCAA D1 Championship

NCAA Wrestling Signs Off with History, Magic, and Mayhem

The greatest three days in sports have come and gone once again giving us moments we’ll never forget.  Many great matches, controversial moments, and indelible images will be overshadowed by the incredible performance put on by the team champions, Penn State.  However, the team that tied the all-time record with five individual titleists on their way to a school-record 146.5 points was, remarkably, just part of the story.  Through six sessions and 640 matches across three days, the best wrestlers in Division I put on a show. Five undefeated top seeds completed perfect seasons, but five more lost for the first time all year.  Three teams scored more than 100 points, a point total that was not reached by the team champion seven times since 1975.  We saw a pair of two-time NCAA champions lose.  Four prior champions stood on the top step once again.

Wednesday seems like a distant memory now, but that was when we learned that Nick Suriano (Penn State) would not be able to compete, one day before the tournament was to begin.  While the true freshman’s health had been in question for a month, the final answer left the team race in question as the Nittany Lions limped into the tournament.  However, as every Cael Sanderson team has done, going back to his time at Iowa State, Penn State turned it on at the national tournament, virtually locking up the team title after pushing five wrestlers into the finals on Friday night, equaling their school record from 2012 and 2013.  The tournament wasn’t officially over until Micah Jordan (Ohio State) fell to Brandon Sorensen (Iowa) in the consolation semi-finals, but that was mere trivia in the face of a dominant performance from the Happy Valley crew.

Though their sixth team title in seven seasons was clinched, the best was yet to come when the blue and white delighted their fans with a furious finish to the 2017 season on Saturday night.  With the finals starting at 197, Nittany Lions would take the mat in the final five matches of the year.  They wouldn’t lose any.  When Zain Retherford completed his destruction of the field at 149 pounds for his second title, no one was surprised.  When Jason Nolf produced a major decision to win his first crown at 157, it seemed almost disappointing that he didn’t get a pin or tech fall.  However, when Vincenzo Joseph not only went toe-to-toe with two-time NCAA champion Isaiah Martinez (Illinois) but won an upper body battle in the third period, putting Martinez on his back and getting an electrifying fall, it was clear this was a special night.

The final two matches of the tournament also featured Penn State wrestlers and, like Joseph, Mark Hall and Bo Nickal were underdogs.  Neither won a Big 10 title this season, Hall was up against the man that beat him there, Bo Jordan (Ohio State), while Nickal was set to clash with two-time defending 184-pound champion Gabe Dean (Cornell).  Surely Penn State’s magical night couldn’t end flawlessly, right? Wrong! Hall, displaying the preternatural calm and well round wrestling that makes him seem much more seasoned than a true freshman, emerged from a controversial exchange on the edge with a takedown of his own, then sealed the match late, finding a clean shot as the arena screamed for a second stalling call.  

Even after all that, Penn State wasn’t done.  Nickal versus Dean was one of the most anticipated matches all season long and we finally got to see it in the grand finale.  When Dean opened the scoring with a first-period takedown, it appeared the ecstatic Nittany Lion crowd might have to settle for four individual champions.  However, Nickal snuck a leg in during a scramble late in the first period to secure a takedown of his own and the short ride out would prove to be the difference.  After what had just transpired, the shock of watching Dean fall in his final college match was somewhat muted.  This was Penn State’s night and it was only fitting that it ended this way.  Nickal’s 4-3 win put Penn State 36.5 points clear of Ohio State with the highest team total since Oklahoma State scored 153 in 2005.

Penn State’s ridiculous final five matches overshadowed a tremendous tournament and first half of the finals.  The night began with the home crowd saluting Olympic bronze medalist and now three-time NCAA champion J’den Cox (Missouri) after a comprehensive 8-2 win over Brett Pfarr (Minnesota) in which he was never in danger.  In what many would have expected to be the most memorable moment of the night, not knowing what was to come, Kyle Snyder (Ohio State) lifted the 265 pound Connor Medbery (Wisconsin) completely off the mat in what seemed like slow-motion to finish one of his takedowns, sending shock waves through the crowd.  The Olympic gold medalist added his second NCAA title with a 6-3 victory.  

Darian Cruz (Lehigh) topped Ethan Lizak (Minnesota), 6-3, to win the title at 125 pounds in a battle of two wrestlers few believed would reach the Saturday night stage.  At 133 pounds, former teammates Cory Clark (Iowa) and Seth Gross (South Dakota State) tangled with Clark, now a three-time finalist and four-time All-American, looking for his first title and Gross trying to win the Jackrabbits’ first title.  The will to win Clark displayed was inspiring, no matter who you root for, as he found a way, despite a season spent battling injury, to eek out a 4-3 win and finally ascend to the top step of the podium.  When he launched Terry Brands in celebration, an already roaring Hawkeye crowd exploded.  Defending champion Dean Heil (Oklahoma State) then completed his first perfect season, winning his second title by defeating George DiCamillo (Virginia) at 141 before the Penn State madness began.

The finals were incredible and will be rightly remembered for a long time, but the lead up was spectacular in its own right.  We saw Campbell’s first ever All-American when Nathan Kraisser (125), a senior who had been to the national tournament four times and never made the podium, beat Freddie Rodriguez (SIU-Edwardsville) in the round of 12.  While Rodriguez came up just short, his teammate, Jake Residori (174), earned the program’s first D1 All-American honors since 1987 and the first since SIU-E became a full-time D1 member.  Residori took out seventh-seeded Kyle Crutchmer (Oklahoma State) in the first round but lost to him for seventh place after Crutchmer became the only round one loser to come all the way back through the consolations to make the top eight.

Gross came up short of becoming South Dakota State’s first Division I champion, but he was their first finalist and along with Alex Kocer (149) helped the program have two D1 All-Americans in the same year for the very first time.  The Jackrabbits finished 16th as the Big 12 put more wrestlers in the top eight, with 11, than any conference aside from the Big 10.  However, the nation’s preeminent wrestling conference more than tripled their closest rival, putting 36 wrestlers on the podium, crowning seven champions, and taking three of the four team trophies.

Oklahoma State finished third to take the other team award after placing eight grapplers, the most they’ve had since 1990.  However, with one finalist and the least number of bonus points of any top five team, the Cowboys did not have the firepower to top Ohio State, much less the Nittany Lions.  The host school, Missouri, was a surprising fifth with three finalists putting a nice cap on a difficult, injury-riddled season.  Michigan cracked the top 10 with three freshmen placing in the top four.  Considering they redshirted Adam Coon, Alec Pantaleo, Dom Abounader, and Garrett Sutton this season, the future looks extremely bright in Ann Arbor.

While there were many fascinating facts and figures to digest, the bigger takeaway from the 2017 national tournament was the on the mat product which was exciting and fun to watch.  While the out of bounds stalling rules can be confounding at times, they have helped usher in an era of action.  That combined with the natural cycle back to more aggression after more conservative wrestling was the rage in the late 00s has left us with better matches to enjoy than we have had in many years.  Penn State is a big part of that, but it seems as if every team has at least a few wrestlers who you must watch when they take the mat.  When so many of them were wrestling across three mats on Saturday morning, the action never seemed to stop.

Penn State returns 142 tournament points, should have Nick Suriano back and Jared Cortez in the mix.  The scoring record, which belongs to the 1997 Iowa team that put up 170 points, is in play, however, we should keep in mind that the last team to win five titles in a year, 2005 Oklahoma State, returned four champions only to see two of them fall and their point total drop to 122.5 a year after posting 153.  They still won, of course, and that seems to be the story for Penn State entering 2017-18.  If they continue to excel, they’ll push the limits of what is possible in NCAA wrestling.  If they don’t, they’ll still almost certainly win their seventh title in eight years, which has only been done by Iowa and Oklahoma State.  It was last accomplished when the Hawkeyes won nine of 10 from 1991 to 2000.  A lot can happen in a year, but after that performance, who is betting against Penn State to do anything?