Most of the three-day NCAA Wrestling Championships were an exercise in frustration for Iowa fans. Nick Moore lost in his very first match. Returning All-American Bobby Telford injured his knee in his first match was unable to continue. Iowa wrestlers went 2-4 in the quarterfinals on Friday morning. Iowa wrestlers went 2-3 in the Round of 12 matches on Friday night, ending three Iowa wrestlers' seasons without All-America honors -- including three-time All-American and two-time NCAA champion Matt McDonough. Iowa finished with just four All-Americans, their lowest total in seven years. Mike Evans, one of the bright spots in the line-up all year, slumped to a 6th place finish. In the championship round, Tony Ramos again failed to solve the Logan Stieber puzzle, dropping his fifth straight match against the Buckeye.
But Iowa had one last wrestler in the championship round, one last chance to salvage a bit of glory from this bitter pill of a tournament. That wrestler? Derek St. John, wrestling in his second-straight NCAA Tournament final at 157 lbs. Like Ramos, St. John was facing a longtime rival in Northwestern's Jason Welch. Like Ramos-Stieber, the St. John-Welch rivalry was wholly one-sided, with one wrestler holding a 5-0 advantage over the other. Unlike Ramos-Stieber, the Iowa wrestler was the one with the upper hand here. But despite that gaudy 5-0 lifetime advantage versus Welch, victory for St. John was by no means assured. Welch the #1-seeded wrestler in the tournament and had been on a tear all season, wrestling as well as he ever had. St. John, meanwhile, endured nervy moments in every match of this tournament -- his most lopsided win was a 9-3 decision in the first round. In the semifinal round, he ground out a 3-2 win in the second round of tiebreakers by managing to build a slim riding time advantage over Dieringer -- and block a deep Dieringer shot in the final seconds.
But the Derek St. John that took the mat Saturday night in the final round's penultimate match was a much better, much sharper wrestler than the one that wriggled by Dieringer by the slenderest of margins. For a 3-2 match that featured all of one takedown, it was an awfully exciting match. The first period ended 0-0, but not without some fierce defense from both Welch and St. John, who skillfully fended off one another's shots. Each wrestler was cagey, not wanting to expose himself too much and give his opponent a cheap scoring opportunity, but they were also quite aggressive, constantly poking and prodding and looking for chinks in each other's armor.
In the second period, Welch took down and while he can be brilliant from that position, able to turn the tables on his opponent and get reversals and nearfall points of his own, he was unable to do anything against St. John, who put on a masterful ride, controlling Welch for the entire period. Welch twisted and turned on bottom, constantly trying to find a hole that would allow him to get an escape or a reversal against St. John, to no avail. He was able to pull St. John out-of-bounds several times and earn fresh re-starts, but every time St. John was able to maintain control from top, building up a full two minutes of riding time entering the third period.
St. John took bottom in the third period, intent on getting an escape and building what would be in effect a 2-0 lead (with the riding time advantage). Welch almost made him pay dearly for that decision, coming very close to getting nearfall points on a wild roll-through on the mat. The referees determined that Welch hadn't been able to keep St. John's shoulder down long enough to award nearfall points (It looked like he only got a 1-count) and though the Northwestern coaches challenged the decision, the call stood. Welch was then dinged for locked hands, giving St. John a 1-0 lead. St. John then escaped a few seconds later, going up 2-0 and still holding his riding time advantage with just over a minute to go in the match. Unfortunately, things took a turn for the worse then St. John stumbled and Welch pounced on him, getting a takedown (the only one in the match, as it turned out). During this ride, Welch eliminated the riding time advantage, meaning the match was tied 2-2 and heading to overtime unless St. John could get an escape. With under thirty seconds to go, St. John did just that, shaking Welch loose and going up 3-2. He then dove in on a shot of his own, getting deep on Welch's leg. He wasn't able to finish the takedown, but he was able to run out the clock, securing the 3-2 victory and his first national championship.
It wasn't always pretty, but with St. John it rarely is. Astoundingly, he won his final two matches of this tournament without picking up a single takedown of his own. That isn't exactly the most "Iowa" way to win, but St. John has always been a different breed. He's a master counter-wrestler with extremely strong defense and an incredible ability to maneuver out of danger when other wrestlers get to his legs. He can also put on a brutally effective ride from the top position at times, as he showed in the second round against Welch. St. John also excels at finding ways to win, especially at the NCAA Tournament. He's now a three-time All-American (and he's finished 4th or better all three years), a two-time NCAA finalist, and - finally - an NCAA Champion. He becomes Iowa's 52nd individual national champion, a magnificent achievement. And he managed to end Iowa's miserable NCAA Tournament on a high note, giving us a moment of triumph that had been a long time coming. Thank you, Derek, and congratulations. You're a champion now -- well done.
As noted earlier, Iowa's other national finalist, Tony Ramos, came up short in his latest bid to topple the kingpin of the 133 lb. weight class, Logan Stieber. Unlike his match with Stieber at the Big Ten Tournament, a lack of aggression wasn't Ramos' problem in this match; indeed, the opposite may have been true in this match -- Ramos' aggressive approach in the first match backfired when it allowed Stieber to get a pair of first-period takedowns and build a 4-1 lead. Stieber was also able to build up a good amount of riding time, a return of Tony's old problem with Stieber. Ramos was able to turn the tables in the second period, earning a takedown (his first-ever against Stieber) and even putting Stieber on his back for a moment.
That proved to be the most controversial moment of the match -- the refs determined that he wasn't able to get both of Stieber's shoulders down for a pin, nor was he able to get even one shoulder down for a two-count. Tom Brands sprinted to the mat and challenged that call and while it was very, very, very close, the original call stood: no nearfall points (whether or not it was a pin was not reviewed, because pinfall decisions cannot be reviewed) Tony wasn't able to counter Stieber's immense strength and penetrate Stieber's defense for the remainder of the match, though he came close in the final seconds. Unfortunately, coming close is becoming the theme of Ramos' matches with Stieber. In every match, he seems to inch closer to beating Stieber, but he still hasn't been able to get over that hump. Hopefully next year. Ramos had a wonderful season, emerging as a fiery and emotional team leader, as well as becoming Iowa's best wrestler -- it's just a shame that it had to end with such a bitter taste.
Kudos to Tony for bettering his third-place finish from a year ago and a hearty congratulations to Derek St. John, Iowa's newest national champion. We'll discuss Iowa's NCAA Tournament performance more in the next few days, but for now we'll just doff our caps in honor of Ramos and, especially, St .John.