The college wrestling season passed the halfway point not too long ago, so I thought it was a good time to take stock of things -- what we've seen so far (upsets!) and we think is going to happen in the second half of the season (more upsets!). I enlisted bscaff from BSD and oldocho, our Cornell friend, to help out by providing their perspectives on the season so far. So grab a drink and kick back -- we've got a lot to say about the season so far.
1) So... just a run of the mill, everything-as-expected wrestling season so far, right? Uh... or not. Upsets have been the story of this season, with (by my count) seven of the thirteen returning NCAA finalists from last year going down already this season. But it's more than that, it's the fact that these guys haven't just been losing to established rivals (although that was the case in Tony Nelson's recent loss to Mike McMullan), but to much-less celebrated (although still very good, as we've come to find out) contenders. Which upset has shocked you the most? And do you think this trend will continue all season, especially at the big tournaments coming in March?
BSCAFF: If you gave me even money odds on Kendric Maple vs. Bryce Busler, I'd have shunned my fellow PA native and bet the family farm on Maple. I'd have sold blood and semen just to slap a few more bucks on the Sooner. And I'd now be below the poverty line, bloodless, and - well - let's just leave it at poor and bloodless. I had convinced myself this pre-season that Maple would not only repeat up a weight at 149, but that he wouldn't get pushed all that hard.
Will the trend continue? I hope so. It's been great for the sport. Nearly every week we've had a stunning result to discuss.
ROSS: Maple losing to a dude I'd never heard of before (and who's proceeded to lose to the likes of Caleb Ervin and David Habat) was definitely unexpected, but with Maple moving up a weight, it wasn't totally insane to think that he might have a few bumps in the road. Steiber losing to anyone, let alone a true freshman, was also really surprising, although he too was moving up a weight -- and facing one of last year's very best recruits, no less. No, the upset that really threw me for a loop was Mr. So Fresh, So Clean losing -- and losing to a freshman that he'd pinned earlier in the season.
Now, obviously, as we've come to find out, Gabe Dean is pretty darn good. But Ed Ruth seemed like he was on another level from everyone else, like teammate David Taylor. Entering the season, I had very little doubt that he would keep his insane, 80+ match winning streak chugging along, through the dual meet season, through the Big Ten Tournament, and right on through the finals of the NCAA Tournament. This was a guy who looked like he was faster and stronger than everyone who stepped on the mat with him -- how could he lose? And then he lost. And with that 2013-14 truly became The Year of the Upset.
Will the upset trend continue? Well, let me put it this way: we started writing this mid-year summary last week and since then Minnesota went down to Michigan (highlighted by 2-time defending national champion Tony Nelson becoming true freshman stud Adam Coon's latest victim), Oklahoma State went down to Pitt (highlighted by former #3 Josh Kindig getting pinned), and Oklahoma went down to UNI (highlighted by impressive UNI wins at 125, 133, and 141). There's something in the water this year -- maybe the NCAA got a hold of some of Roger Goodell's top-secret Parity Juice -- and it's leading to a slew of upsets and a wild, chaotic, and totally fun college wrestling season. I don't see any reason it's going to let up now.
OLDOCHO: Wait, there's still college wrestling? I assumed that the sport had ceased with the ascension of Kyle Dake to Mount Olympus, as it was so glorious that all future competition would seem hopelessly empty. Was that not the case?
I kid. The season's been exciting thanks to all the upsets. While I thoroughly enjoyed Gabe Dean putting an end to Ed Ruth's two-and-a-half year win streak, I was more surprised by Thomas Gilman beating Jesse Delgado. Delgado had been thoroughly dominant last season during his championship run, and he handled Nahshon Garrett at MSG in early December. Imagine my surprise when I tune into BTN for the Midlands finals and find out that he was taken out in the semis by Iowa's (at the time) backup. The upsets have been great, but I don't expect many more, at least not until the NCAA championships.
2) That said, despite all the upsets and upheaval in the rankings that we've seen, Penn State seems like an even heavier favorite to four-peat as national champions (thanks in no small part to the emergence of one of those less-celebrated contenders, Zain Retherford at 141) and David Taylor seems like a prohibitively heavy favorite to take home the Dan Hodge Trophy. What odds would you give on someone sneaking past PSU to claim the national title this year? Or someone nipping Taylor for the Hodge?
ROSS: The margin between Penn State and the field seems to get bigger with each passing week in InterMat's tournament team rankings and while those aren't gospel by any means, it's hard to see someone tripping up the Nittany Lions unless there's an outbreak of rubella in State College. Taylor, Ruth, and Brown are bonus-point machines and Ruth and Taylor are locks to make the finals at their respective weights. Nico's a good bet to make a deep run himself and when you toss in emerging stars like Zain Retherford (141) and Morgan McIntosh (197), then they start to seem pretty damn formidable.
I suppose the chink in their armor is that outside of those six weights, there are some definite question marks in their lineup. Jimmy Gulibon has been very up and down at 133 and there's no telling what they might get out of him at the NCAA Tournament, while Jimmy Lawson's season is up in the air after the knee injury he suffered last weekend, leaving their heavyweight situation cloudy. And of course there's the ever-mysterious Altons, who have been slowly returning to the lineup after off-season shoulder surgeries; on form, they could be additional All-Americans (especially Dylan Alton at 157) to pad PSU's lead in the title race. That said, "on form" is a key caveat there and no one knows what PSU is going to get out of them this season.
Penn State won a title last year with just five All-Americans (largely because they had five NCAA finalists and because they scored enough bonus points to place another All-American), but that's a dicey game to play. But that's probably the only way they lose (barring a spate of injuries): "only" placing 5-6 All-Americans, while a team like Iowa or Minnesota manages to put nearly their entire lineup on the podium. No team can match the quality at the top of Penn State's lineup, but Iowa and Minnesota might be able to even things up with quantity.
As far as David Taylor... haha no. He has that trophy in the bag. The only way he loses it this year is if he gets Bubba Jenkins'd again at NCAAs and either Logan Stieber or Ed Ruth goes on a tear on their way to titles at 141 and 184. Considering they might have to go through guys they've already lost to in order to do that, while the Sainted Unicorn will probably face no serious threats at 165 and, well, you do the math...
OLDOCHO: Minnesota on paper is a contender to steal the title from Penn State, but at the Southern Scuffle, they had a collapse of Cornellian proportions and finished third. No team will pip them to the title and no person will take the Hodge from Danny Tanner. I will say that I am of the opinion that in sports, everything reverts to the mean over the long term. Because Penn State wrestlers have out-performed their seeds at so many tournaments over the past three years, it means one of two things: Either the Lions are overdue for a bad tournament, or the laws of math don't apply to Cael Sanderson. At this point, I'm leaning towards B.
(Ed. Note: Bad news on that front -- I heard Cael Sanderson took math down with a slick ankle pick and pinned it in the first period. -- Ross)
OLDOCHO: Where's Brian Muir when you need him? I'll take the easy one first: Taylor's winning the Hodge. He's so likeable it's borderline disgusting. Everyone watches every match, and they're all effortless wins. Plus Kyle Dake graduated, and with Ruth's loss to Dean, I'd make Taylor a heavy favorite versus the field. When you hang bonus on everyone in your weight class, you deserve it, too.
Penn State's team odds aren't nearly as great as Taylor's. This 2014 squad is probably the Lions' best of the recent bunch, top to bottom - I expect more All-Americans this year than in any of the prior three seasons. But it'll take a great tournament to match their five finalists (and 140+ points) from 2012. With Minnesota and Iowa right on their heels, one bad round in Oklahoma City - like the Gophers had at the Southern Scuffle - is all it takes. I'd only make them a slight favorite.
3) The brilliant performances by several precocious freshmen has been a major storyline this year, with guys like Adam Coon (Michigan, 285), Zain Retherford (Penn State, 141), Thomas Gilman (Iowa, 125), and Gabe Dean (Cornell, 184) all posting head-turning results in the first half of the season. Gilman and (I believe) Dean are redshirt freshmen, while Coon and Retherford are true freshmen, making their accomplishments perhaps even more surprising and impressive. What do you think the emergence of so many stud freshmen this year? And is it a bit of a fluke or a trend likely to continue in the years to come?
OLDOCHO: How dare you! Gabe Dean is most certainly NOT a redshirt freshman. The Ivy League doesn't allow red-shirting, as it is an improper practice. Dean did not enroll at Cornell until this year. He just happened to spend the prior year in Ithaca, and thus just happened to spend some time training with some people who just happened to be former Cornell wrestlers. Completely different from red-shirting! It's as different as fireflies and lightning bugs.
The emergence of so many stud freshmen this year makes sense once you think about it. Most of these guys will have been born in 1997. The prior year was the Atlanta Summer Olympics. Coincidence? I think not. Clearly, Tom Brands' gold medal performance induced pregnancy in hundreds of women across the country. I don't think we'll see another freshman class like this for another four years, though, and then those kids will be better-suited for Greco-Roman.
BSCAFF: I wouldn't have thought that the guy to knock off Logi-bear was actually in high school last year. But welcome to the innernets age, I suppose. Gather round, kids, as I regale you with tales of wrestling pre-internet, when your first look at your opponent came as you checked in at the scorers' table. Louden Swain and Brian Shute had to travel to each other's high school meets, in between running everywhere in a rubber suit, bedding Linda Fiorentino in a tent, and passing on carrots. Our local newspaper had an old guy who compiled his own rankings of the kids in our district, and our coach could teach us to sprawl and high crotch. That's it. It was uphill in both directions, through snow.
All of that has changed for the better. Intermat follows everyone, at every level. Flo and YouTube allow you to scout everyone at your convenience. And more importantly, the coaching is so much better, and so much more available. Online videos, camps, and clubs abound - and those club teams wrestle year-round, and are coached by All-Americans, National Champs, and World Team members. It's crazy. That's all before we even get to nutrition and weight certification rules, which have to appeal to parents more than 'the old days', when it was a badge of honor if you could dehydrate yourself more than the next guy. The medical concerns that football struggles with today? We had those in the 1990s, survived them, and are so much better for it.
Sorry for rambling - but it's an exciting topic. Freshmen are far more better prepared today than just 10 years ago. I love the trend, I think it continues, and I'm convinced it grows the sport.
ROSS: I agree -- this trend isn't slowing down anytime soon. Guys now are entering college so much better-equipped to compete at a high level that there isn't any reason that they can't hit the ground running. The number of off-season events (many of them freestyle, but still) that today's high school kids get to compete in is staggering and that allows the best guys to wrestle other really good wrestlers very frequently -- and nothing makes you better than quality competition to tussle with. During the course of their high school seasons, elite high school wrestlers might see 2-3 really good opponents (depending on where exactly they are), with the rest of their matches coming against wildly overmatched opponents. Those overmatched opponents are great for padding stats, but they don't do much to get you ready for top competition or wrestling at the NCAA level.
That extra experience young wrestlers get today is of huge value to them when they get to the NCAA level because the adjustment period isn't nearly as long as it once was. Throw in the fact that everything is video taped now, making it immeasurably easier to a) scout opponents and b) train new techniques, and advances in nutrition and weight-cutting and it's not quite as surprising that freshmen are showing up ready to compete at such a high level.
It's interesting to see coaches adapt to this new paradigm, too. Tom Brands and Cael Sanderson were two of the most steadfast proponents of redshirting wrestlers -- I mean, Brands redshirted Brent Metcalf and Cael redshirted David freaking Taylor -- and yet we've seen both guys start true freshmen in recent years. Granted, there's an asterisk attached to Nathan Burak's "true freshman" status, but the dam is cracking. I can imagine a day not too far in the future when a Zain Retherford-type arrives in Iowa City and is ready to rock and roll from day one.
4) What matches are you most looking forward to seeing over the next few weeks/months? Let's limit it to announced dual meets or events like National Duals that have announced fields. We all know the conference tournaments and the NCAA Tournament are going to be loaded with great matches, but it's hard to know exactly what those might end up being at this point.
OLDOCHO: It's the Ivy League dual season, so all the competitive matches for Cornell are pretty much done until National Duals. Outside of Ithaca, I'm most looking forward to Delgado-Megaludis IV on January 24th. It will have huge implications on seeding at 125, as all of the top 4 have beaten each other. There should also be a bunch of top quality matches at National Duals at 197: Scott Schiller, Kyben Gadson, Travis Rutt, Mario Gonzalez, and Richard Perry should all be there.
ROSS: As I said, we started writing this last week; at that time, my answer likely would have included Derek St. John's showdown with Nebraska's James Green and, well, we know that turned out last weekend. (/haz a sad) Other than that... Delgado-Megaludis IV is a good call. I'm curious to see what happens when Missouri has back-to-back road dates against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State at the end of January, mainly to see #1 Drake Houdashelt take on #2 Kendric Maple (OU) and #9 Josh Kindig (OKST)... y'know, if he's not held out of competition. Those two matches are our best shot at some more nuttiness at 149.
The order of things seems pretty well set at 174, but there are a few matches coming up that could shake things up: #1 Andrew Howe (OU) vs. #2 Chris Perry (OKST), #2 Chris Perry (OKST) vs. #3 Matt Brown (PSU), #3 Matt Brown (PSU) vs. #5 Logan Storley (MINN), and of course from an Iowa perspective, #6 Mike Evans vs. #5 Logan Storley (MINN), Evans' last chance before the Big Ten Tournament to claim a win over one of the top-5 guys at 174 this year.
And, finally, from a homer perspective, I'm really curious to see how Brody Grothus and Derek St. John handle the next few weeks at 149 and 157, respectively, because they're in the midst of a murderer's row of opponents. St. John just faced #3 Alex Dieringer (OKST) and new #1 James Green (NU) and he's still got #7 Isaac Jordan (WIS), #10 Joey Napoli (LEH), and #14 Dylan Ness (MINN), who was ranked in the top 10 not too long ago. Grothus has it even harder, with #3 Nick Dardanes (MINN), #4 Jason Tsirtsis (jNW), #7 Eric Grajales (MICH), and #11 Mitch Minotti (LEH). We'll definitely find out where Grothus stands among the big guns at 149 after the end of that stretch.
BSCAFF: How great is wrestling, that Iowa, Minnesota, Penn State, and Oklahoma State all wrestle each other in duals? Imagine the top 4 in college football having a round-robin.
I'm going to cash in my homer card and take Penn State vs. Oklahoma State. It'll be another sellout crowd at Rec Hall, and the Lions - after wrestling OSU nearly every year between 1985 - 2005 or so - finally get the Pokes back in PA. I'm dying to see a couple of rematches from the Scuffle: Gulibon vs Morrison, Lawson vs Marsden, and Hulk Hands vs Perry. Those three matches will either set my mind at ease, or put me into frantic mode for NCAAs. Plus, I get a PIAA rematch with Alton vs. Kindig. Oh - and Dylan Alton vs. Dieringer, plus Taylor vs. Caldwell part 3. Am I missing any? McIntosh vs. Rosholt, too, for good measure. And who doesn't want to watch Nico, Retherford, or Ed mutha f'ing Ruth? There you go - 10 weights, all of which should be a blast.
5) OK, time for some predictions. Quick and dirty, no in-depth explanations needed, just give me finalists -- and a winner -- at each weight.
125: #1 Nahshon Garrett over #2 Nico Megaludis (cries softly)
133: #3 Tony Ramos over #6 Tyler Graff (I'm going down with this ship despite Joe Colon's mustache)
141: wow......#2 Logan Stieber over #1 Zain Retherford (this is the Jeff Jaggers Memorial pick)
149: Pick any two from Intermat's top 20. Not good enough? Alright: #2 Kendric Maple over #1 Drake Houdashelt.
157: #3 DSJ over #1 Green. Boom. Please excuse me while I commit seppuku.
165: #1 David Taylor over #5 Tyler Caldwell
174: please don't let it be #1 Andrew Howe over #2 Chris Perry. (it's probably Howe over Perry).
184: So Fresh, So Clean (#1 Ed Ruth) over The Bear Jew (#9 Kevin Steinhaus)
197: whew....#3 Travis Rutt over #1 Scott Schiller
285: Spiral Ride of Doom (#2 Tony Nelson) over #1 Adam Coon, though I'm pulling for Coon or McMullen, since they take shots.
125: Garrett over Megaludis
133: Ramos over Schopp
141: Stieber over Retherford
149: Person A (Houdashelt) over Person B (Andrew Alton)
157: Green over St. John
165: Taylor over Sulzer
174: Howe over Perry
184: over Ruth (fuck it)
197: Schiller over Gadsen
HWT: Nelson over Coon (and the match over my ability to stay awake)
125: Garrett over Delgado
133: Ramos over Colon (I still believe in ya, Tony!)
141: Stieber over Retherford
149: Hoobastank over Dardanes
157: Green over St. John (welp)
165: Sainted Unicorn over Moore (cashing in my homer points)
174: Howe over Perry (in sixteen OTs)
184: Ruth over Steinhaus
197: Rutt over Cox (a nutty prediction for the nuttiest weight class)
285: Coon over Nelson (say hello to your next 4-timer, folks)
Drop your own predictions -- as well as your reflections on the season so far -- in the comments!