NCAA Wrestling Championships: March Madness On The Mat

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David Taylor of Penn State wrestles Derek St. John of the University of Iowa during the 2011 NCAA Wrestling Championships.

In office pools around the country, people are obsessing about their picks for the Final Four. But this weekend, a smaller, yet equally devoted group of sports fans will descend on St. Louis, armed with their own brackets: one for each of the 10 weight classes in the NCAA wrestling championships.

Over three days, 330 competitors will fight for their own one shining moment: becoming a national champion. There are several matchups worth watching, but first, if you’re new to the sport, we’ll give you a quick history lesson.

For most of the past half-century, the state of Iowa has owned college wrestling.  After going undefeated in high school in Waterloo, Iowa, the legendary Dan Gable won two national championships at Iowa State, in 1968 and 1969. On the eve of the 1970 national finals, Gable’s record stood at a mind-boggling 181-0 through high school and college. (In this match, however, Washington sophomore Larry Owings pulled off one of the biggest upsets in the sport’s history, and spoiled Gable’s perfect record). At the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Gable won the freestyle gold medal without surrendering a single point. Six years after that victory, Gable brought his maniacal work ethic to the University of Iowa, where he coached a dynasty that won 15 national team titles, including nine straight from 1978 to 1986.

In the late 1990s, Cael Sanderson, who won four high school state titles in Utah, became a star college wrestler at Gable’s alma mater, Iowa State. He was the first freshman to be named Outstanding Wrestler in the national championships, and he finished his career with 159 wins, no losses and four national titles, a feat that landed him on a Wheaties box.

Sanderson then enjoyed a stellar international career. He won gold at the 2004 Olympics. After three seasons coaching at Iowa State, he moved the sport’s power center east, out of the Hawkeye state. He took the head-coaching job at Penn State, hoping to attract recruits from Pennsylvania and New Jersey high schools. Last year, in only his second season, Sanderson led the Nittany Lions to the Big Ten and NCAA championships.

This year in St. Louis, Sanderson’s Nittany Lions come in as the favorites after winning the Big Ten title, edging Iowa by a single point. The Hawkeyes are coached by a Gable protégé, three time national champion and Olympic Gold Medalist Tom Brands. Yes, the wrestling establishment is a bit incestuous–it’s a smaller sport than basketball at the college level, and the connections can often seem like one big family.

At 125 pounds, Iowa has Matt McDonough, who won the 2010 title and was runner up last year. He’s a smart tactician who last year lost in the finals to Arizona State’s Anthony Robles, an inspiring athlete with one leg. That was a feel good story for everyone but McDonough, who’ll be looking for another title. The Hawkeyes also return All-Americans Montell Marion (141), Derek St. John (157) and Tony Ramos (133), as well as Grant Gambrall, an All-American last year at 184 pounds. Gambrall wrestled up a weight class this year and posted a 10-10 mark, but dropped back to his normal weight class for the national tournament.

But Penn State can tout three top-seeds, all who were 2011 All-Americans: Frank Molinaro (149), David Taylor (165) and Ed Ruth (174). Taylor was one of the most touted recruits in the past five years, and last year, he went into the finals as an undefeated freshman. There was early talk that he might equal Sanderson’s feats; but during a tight match, Taylor was pinned. He’ll be out for revenge this weekend. And don’t count out another eastern team, Cornell. The Big Red, runners up at last years championships, have at least four potential All-American and two undefeated tops seeds in Kyle Dake (157) and Cam Simaz (197). Dake is one of the purest athletes in the sport, and has the chance to make history even as a junior–if he wins, he’ll be the first wrestler to win three national titles at three different weight classes (141 in 2010, 149 last year and 157 this year).

Wrestling is a scored as a team sport. But no individual can blame a teammate for a screw-up. Each match features one athlete from each team alone on the mat, but his actions add to the team’s score. Pins and winning by a wide margin mean more team points, so look for teammates to rally around their wrestler on the mat.

The 2012 wrestling championships will be streamed on ESPN 3 all weekend, and Saturday’s finals will be on ESPN at 7:30 pm Eastern time. Take a break from basketball. There’s March Madness on the mat as well.