No. 1 Penn State ready to reclaim hold on wrestling world
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) Portraits of past NCAA wrestling champions line a far wall inside Penn State's practice facility, where Bo Nickal has spent a majority of his last two years hoping to add his own.
The redshirt freshman now has his chance. He'll also have an opportunity to help the No. 1 Nittany Lions (16-0, 9-0 Big Ten) reclaim their hold on the college wrestling world when the NCAA Wrestling Championships begin Thursday at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Fresh off its fifth Big Ten title in six years, Penn State will be vying for its fifth NCAA title in the same span and leads the field with three No. 1 seeds and qualifiers in nine of 10 weight classes.
''Your past is important, I guess, as it's the best predictor of the future,'' Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said. ''But if we want to go win this tournament we have to go score points.''
It's how the Nittany Lions have gotten it done year after year since Sanderson arrived. Most of those past champions Nickal has admired helped Penn State dominate over a four-year run with bonus-point wins in nearly every session of the tournament.
That run ended last year.
Coupled with the graduations of David Taylor and Ed Ruth, bonus points were harder to come by with All-Americans Nico Megaludis (125 pounds) and Zain Retherford (149 pounds) redshirting. Sanderson decided to sit out his two vaunted lightweights in order to maximize his lineup's potential for this season and beyond.
But Nickal, the top-seeded 174-pounder, and fellow newcomer Jason Nolf, the No. 3 seed at 157, have stepped up to replace the production of Taylor and Ruth.
Together, the pair have earned bonus points in 49 of 60 matches. Meanwhile, No. 1 seeds at 149 and 197, Retherford and Morgan McIntosh are both unbeaten and have added another 46 bonus-point wins this season.
''There's always five or six guys in each weight class that can probably win it,'' McIntosh said.
TEAM CHALLENGERS: Ohio State's title defense will start with eight qualifiers and the No. 7 Buckeyes (11-3, 7-2) will send five wrestlers to the mats who contributed to last season's team championship. Nathan Tomasello (125) leads the Buckeyes as their lone No. 1 seed.
Perennial contender No. 5 Oklahoma State (13-3, 6-0 Big 12) qualified 10 wrestlers. Eight are seeded including top seeds Dean Heil and Alex Dieringer at 141 and 165, respectively.
No. 4 Iowa (16-1, 9-0) qualified nine wrestlers and No. 2 N.C. State (23-1, 4-1 ACC) will send eight to the mats. The Wolfpack's Nick Gwiazdowski is the No. 1 seed at 285.
PAST CHAMPS RETURN: Six wrestlers will defend their individual titles and two more will look to return to the podium two years removed from championship runs.
Back at the same weights after winning last season are Ohio State's Tomasello (125), Oklahoma's Cody Brewer (133), Illinois' Isaiah Martinez (157), Oklahoma State's Dieringer (165), Cornell's Gabe Dean (184) and N.C. State's Gwiazdowski (285).
Martinez is 157's top seed while Brewer, who stormed to the finals from the 13 seed last season, is the No. 4 at 133.
Northwestern's Jason Tsirtsis won at 149 two years ago and is seeded sixth. Missouri's J'Den Cox is the No. 2 seed at 197 and finished fifth last season after winning the title as a freshman.
MAT HAT TRICK: Only 24 wrestlers have won three individual titles and Dieringer and Gwiazdowski will try to join that club in their final tournament appearances.
FULL COVERAGE: ESPN will cover every match. The semifinals and finals will air on ESPN in prime time and ESPNU will have full coverage of the first and second rounds, quarterfinals and medal round.
Individual mat feeds can be found on ESPN3 and the network will again offer simultaneous viewing of up to four different mats at a time.