Now that I've had a few weeks of non-adrenalized rem sleep where I didn't dream of getting my ass kicked or worry that Penn State might not earn their fifth national championship this year, I can finally get a few of these thoughts out of my head to share in something a little more cogent than 140 characters.
This is a superlative sporting event.
I'd heard tale. Throughout all of wrestling's scoring and titling debates the past few years, the one truth nobody dared assail was that the end-of-season NCAA tourney was college wrestling's crown jewel. I can now vouch. Structurally, it's the perfect blend of individual challenges and team race thrills. And heartbreaks. Visually, there's action not just on the mat, but in the stands where fan contingents rep their teams and colors. Competitively, there's nothing like it. Grizzled veterans and fresh-faced youths almost all have the same chances. Their season's--and in many cases their life's--hard work culminates here and they'll exert all the blood, sweat and tears they own for a chance to advance.
I had been terrifically excited to see it all. I've been to a few big sporting events and my favorite part has always been experiencing fans' team allegiances. I remember riding the metro to RFK to see a World Cup match between Spain and Switzerland in '94 and beginning to think that DC's demographics would probably make Spain much more fun to root for. In Sydney in 2004, my wife's Aussie buddy gave me one of his prized tickets to a rugby league State of Origin match where players from different professional National Rugby League teams returned to play for their home states of Queensland and New South Wales in a best-of-three all-star series. I saw fans wearing the same pro team's unis barking & swearing at each other that night, all in good fun. When Queensland, with NSW sitting on a tenuous lead, scored a late try, my buddy stood up, alone, and let out a huge roar. Everybody in the NSW section looked on quizzically until he turned and announced that he had won the first & last try-scorer bet, and they all cheered along for him. The USC fans at the Rose Bowl were ok, but they had the sunshine and golf course to help boost their rank and I have fond memories of amazing fan experiences at PSU football games in Lincoln and Tuscaloosa.
This was pretty much the first sporting event tournament I've attended in person. I guess I went to a day of March Madness at Verizon Center once, but Pitt was there, so I don't really count it. And this was the first wrestling tournament of any level I've been to since probably a Christmas tourney at Boiling Springs (hi Rambler!) in twelfth grade. And when I was debriefing with my mom last Sunday and mentioned this, she asked 'but didn't you go last year, to Austin?' Yes, I flew to Austin to watch on TV the wrestling being held in Iowa, with a bunch of dudes gathered there to watch the basketball. I guess you could say I've been building up to this.
Travel is so much different now, post-kids, but prep-wise, I thought I did everything right. Handed in rewards to get a free flight and free hotel. Somehow let enough of my non-combative personality out online to make friends with some nice people on the Penn State wrestling boards, who helped me buy a ticket. Continued to kick ass in the dad department, such that Wifey insisted that I 'needed a break.' But alas, my flights were with United and I was very quickly reminded of a quote from Sir Richard Branson, who, when asked why he thought he could be successful with Virgin Atlantic in the U.S., quipped 'have you ever flown an American airline?' They oversold my Houston to OKC flight and there was just enough of a delay out of DCA to help them feel justified in giving my seat away and call it me missing my connection. So I stayed a night in a smoking room in Houston (which stunk up my hoodie and actually helped me avoid the terribly controversial Penn State Dynasty issues some fans experienced in the arena), flew to Tulsa instead of risking standby on more oversold a.m. OKC flights, rented a car there and booked down the turnpike to try to catch the 11a start.
Highway Oklahomans were my first taste of the natives on this trip and they were just as friendly as I remembered from my bleak days consulting to the Postal Service and traveling to Norman to deliver machine operator training. They actually abide by the once-common courtesy of 'slower traffic keep right.' The 75mph speed limit and 55mph speed minimum didn't hurt, and I made sure to wave to each kind soul who pulled over to let me by. I rode my poor little Ford hard and put her away wet (we had fun, girl!), cabbed it to the hotel to dump the gear and made it to the arena about 11:30, in time to see zPain's first of many NCAA tourney matches. I only missed Nico and Gulibon.
You hard-core fans might know my seat-mates from the Blue White Illustrated or Fight on State wrestling boards. RoarLions is a kind gentleman with whom I share an affinity for data and historical tales. NoVA Lion is an intense talker with a sharp memory and his brother Kevin is a fun conversationalist with a big smile. After three days of long hours crammed in together, I'm happy to now call each of them my friends. Between the four of us, we had our section pretty well covered in the knowledge department, and if we didn't, we had Gregg A Henry, who does the rankings for the Wrestling Report, at the end of our row. I've learned so much more of college wrestling's history over the past five years and followed this season's rankings, wrestlers and results very closely, and being able to talk--and argue--facts and rules and history with my wrestling bros really increased my enjoyment while watching this tourney. Kool Moe Dee knows what I'm talking about.
Day one's eight mats displayed so much multi-colored action it kept the fans' eyes on the move and their allegiances at bay.
We really needed all four of us to spot action, announce results and record the brackets. Penn State's results were easy and fun as they went 9-1 with only Gulibon dropping to Oklahoma State's 4-seed Jon Morrison. The orange-clad corner directly across from us seemed happy enough as well, as their cowboy lads went 9-1 and the maroon-wearing Minnesota fans to our right (we were separated by the huge Iowa State contingent) cheered their way to an 8-1 start as well. The only big section that was visibly disappointed was the black and gold corner occupied by the sad Hawkeye fans, who watched not one, but two of their top-5 finalist hopefuls get bumped to the consolation bracket in the first round.
Exiting the arena after the morning session, I bumped into my high school wrestling coaches, Dave Weber and Dan Ireland. Dave wrestled for Penn State from '70-'72 and his oldest son Dana wrestled for PSU in the mid-nineties. Dave and Dan were just like I remembered them. They're both former lightweight wrestlers, short, and they looked like they were still in pretty good shape. Dave is open and friendly and Dan has a quiet intensity that still scares me. Seeing them brought back some awkward memories of my own wrestling days.
My dad was a wrestler who moved from Conemaugh High in Johnstown in 11th grade to Waynesboro, where he met my mom. His predilections for drinking and fighting kept him from doing much more with wrestling than getting kicked out of a couple college programs, but when my brothers and I were in Elementary School (gawd, I hope I got a couple good playground push-downs of young bscaff in back then), he instilled enough fire in our bellies to be pretty decent. We wrestled in the Y's youth program coached by the older brothers of Waynesboro's only state champion, Kurt Bowman. Darrell & Grayson were good dudes, but I mostly remember my pops barking instructions from mat-side during practices and matches.
When my parents got divorced and pops left, my mom kept taking us if we wanted to go out for the sport each year (and still hauled us all over the 717 to away meets and tourneys), and I remember it still being fun, but also remember my softness setting in. Other kids kept getting better (and some freaks in Junior High even had beards!) and bigger and stronger, and I just kinda kept showing up. By the time High School came around, I only wrestled half a season in 10th grade, skipped all of 11th, and tried to come out to help fill a hole at 145 my Senior year. I wasn't much help, going 0-12 and pinning myself against the one dude I was better than. I remember how quickly I went from ecstatic to deflated as the ref raised the other guy's hand and Weber looked at me pathetically. I had a lot of fun that last year, but I definitely remember feeling guilty that I didn't have the same fire to put into it like some of my teammates, and seeing Dave & Dan Thursday brought some of that back in a weird, embarrassing way.
Between sessions that first day, we went in search of food and headed in the direction of Bricktown, a renovated industrial section of town where old red brick plant buildings have been converted into restaurants and bars. We picked up a few fellow Penn Staters and all the joints were packed, probably with Iowa fans getting a jump start on drowning their sorrows. At the 5th spot, we put our names in and indicated we'd accept smaller group tables, but I hadn't eaten since 5a in Houston, so I split off to find a bar stool and some quick food. The Pink Cadillac had my ticket. Mostly plywood facilities and their wings and quesadillas filled the hole. I started with a few Sierra Nevadas before switching to lights for the session, but they unfortunately didn't have any Future-Seeing Busch Light as prescribed by BSD's resident metaphysician Galen. Their mostly female wait staff was incredibly hot.
It was here I talked to the only Oklahoma State fans I met all weekend, and of course the one dude lives like 5 miles from me in Virginia. They were nice enough, but I was bummed they hadn't been at the Big Twelve 'tourney' because they couldn't answer my questions about Chris Perry. During my stay there (hour and a half, two hours?) I met a nice Iowa State couple, and was then saved by some Penn Staters. On my way out, I noticed a meathead in a Cyclone shirt getting way farther with his cheesy rap on one of the barkeeps than I figured he'd deserved, but hey, what the hell do I know about women?
This was probably the biggest buzz I had going into a wrestling session all weekend, and I was grateful for it as Penn Staters started droppin far sooner than we would have liked. Biggest disappointment was probably a tie between 3-seed McIntosh losing to Va Tech's 14-seed and All-American James English losing to eventual national champ Jason Tsirtsis (back before he had yet to become All-American James English). Dammit, he had him! Up 3-1, he'd leveraged a superior defense. His fluid hips, about the only thing not half-destroyed in his broken body, were carrying him to victory. He was riding well. Didn't give up the escape until late in p3. Then he looked like he had decent position in the scramble that ensued from Tsirtsis' shot, kept scooting those hips. Then, damn. Couldn't quite hang on. In the post-tourney interview, when AA English said once again that his goal coming in was to be a national champion and that he was disappointed he didn't reach that goal, it was the first time I really believed him. That he could have been a champ, I mean. 149's whole bracket was a tossup, seeded carnage was everywhere and he had the champ very wobbly against the ropes. It's insane, but time to admit: he really could have been.
Team-wise, as Session II came to an end, despite the upset of McIntosh, who I thought had a strong chance to make the finals, I was still very comfortable. Averaging the rankings out all year told me Oklahoma State really only had four top-4 wrestlers and Morrison had just been pinned. Minnesota hadn't yet reached their customary choking session but it was coming up. Iowa bounced back a little bit, but they had a long row to hoe to shake off that R1 disappointment. Things were fine.
We went out with a smaller crew that night and found our way to Tapwerks, a spot with 200 brews on tap that I had read about before arriving. Seating was a little light, but we'd been on our asses all day, so we grabbed a standing table. I was a little weary after a long day of travel and sports and wanted something strong, so I started with a local: the Midwest Brewing Company's 12th Round Strong Ale (7.6%). It was nice and earned a 3.5 from my discerning but uneducated palate on Untappd. Despite reading A Blog Named Brew almost every day for 721 days, not much of the Tailgate Ninja's and Tailgate Shogun's taste vocabulary has worn off on me.
As I was sipping my next one, a Wild Turkey Bourbon Barrel Stout by Anderson Valley Brewing Company (a little nicer--got a 4), Roar called Cameron Kelly over for introductions. He shook all our hands with a big smile and we learned that he was the wrestling team's resident jokester. I saw him across the bar later proudly presenting what must be his growing belly now that his wrestling career is over. Dude looked like a happy young lad.
One of the guys in our crew goes by Kingston something or other on the boards and I was not-so-secretly coveting his beer, a dark and smooth looking concoction in a tidy glass. I had trouble hearing the name of it, but he said he had read about it before hand and had been looking forward to trying it when he got there. I ordered one and damn, it was tasty. After some fumbling and repeating (sorry King!) I was finally able to check it in as a Prairie Bomb, an American Imperial Stout from Prairie Artisan Ales out of Tulsa. I gave it a 4.5 extra yum!
I grabbed a nightcap at the hotel bar where I was able to congratulate a Hokie fan on the McIntosh upset, but then it was beddy bye. 10.a.m. felt like it was going to arrive very quickly and I was already excited about the quarterfinals.
Sleep was pretty meh, but I was excited about the prospect of the new Hilton's breakfast buffet. I was also curious who else I might see there. Turned out Oklahoma U was staying there and I caught a close-up of Andrew Howe's huge dome as he boarded a team van. It was 9 a.m. and I was totally sober, so I'm not sure what this was about, but it seemed like every other Iowa fan who came down to breakfast looked just like Dan Gable! Disappointingly, none of them were, but maybe they all looked like him because I was so hopeful I'd get to see him? I had to grab some more gear from the room and as I rode back up, I started realizing how small the elevators were. If its occupants weren't current wrestlers, they were certainly ex-wrestlers and I started becoming even more aware of my flabby out-of-shapedness as I dodged huge guns and broad shoulders.
On the way back down, as I boarded, I peripherally noticed a green and white warm-up suit on a big guy in the corner, but had kept my eyes down. After it emptied out a bit before the ground floor, I looked up to ask 'how'd McClure do yesterday.' As soon as I did, I noticed the destruction across the big guy's forehead and I knew immediately what was up. 'I won both my matches,' he said. I was all dorked and embarrassed and fumbling, so tried to joke it off 'oh, YOU'RE McClure! Here I am trying to ask you about you!' He smiled. As I wondered why he was so late leaving the hotel, I asked him who he had this morning. Like many of us, he didn't try to pronounce Gwiazdowski and said simply 'North Carolina State.' I mumbled something like 'awwww, Gwiz' and wished him luck. He said 'thanks' and was on his way. It took me the whole walk to the arena to settle down from my little brush with wrestling fame. Also, having had the encounter with him, I noticed that I kinda rooted for him a little more each time I saw him wrestling later and I was real happy to see that he earned All-American honors for the first time by placing 5th in his Senior season.
Session III was ok for Penn State. Nico & Zain both won to advance to their shitty semifinal matchups and Taylor and Ruth bonused their way onward. But Mike Evans out-wrestled Matt Brown in their fifth career matchup--and it wasn't pretty. Worse, though, were the consis, where we said goodbye to Gulibon, Gingrich and Dylan in injured or uninspired fashion.
Ok State, which had already lost Rosholt & Boyd early, dropped Marsden to the consis for the first time, but suffered a crippling loss when their 4-seed Jon Morrison pulled a Jamal Parks and dropped a super-tight 5-4 tiebreaker decision to 12-seed Joe Roth from Central Michigan, ending his tournament far short of an All-American placement. I watched the OkSt coaches in the binoculars for the duration of their post-match protests.
Also not pretty.
One assistant coach, who I had incorrectly identified as Eric Guerrerro in the open thread (I now believe it to have been Zach Esposito), was shouting and pointing and gesturing to the ref as he walked backward across the arena toward the tunnel, for about 30 yards. John Smith was less gesticulative but went on and on and on with the ref, for about 4 or 5 minutes after the match had ended. He was apparently either respectful enough or the ref lacked sufficient stones to penalize him in front of the orange masses, because they never received a team point deduction, which I saw later awarded to another coach for what looked like far less egregious behavior. In any event, and despite the success of their remaining four quarterfinalists advancing to the semifinals to favorable match-ups, OkSt's team chances were devastated by the loss.
And Minnesota? Where the hell was their expected choke? Maybe coach J Robinson had been able to fix whatever their problem was. In a pre-tourney press conference with J Rob, Cael Sanderson, Tom Brands, John Smith and OU's Mark Cody, some intrepid reporter brassed up enough to actually ask him about their semifinal implosions at both the Big Ten Tourney the week before and the Southern Scuffle over New Years. To his credit, Robinson answered candidly and noted something like 'when something like that happens once, you can write it off to an anomaly or some performance not to be too concerned about, but when it happened twice, we had to look at it. We changed a few things, some of our prep work, how we approached things. So hopefully, we got whatever it was fixed up.'
Did they ever!
They only lost Nick Dardanes, who finished disappointingly after a pretty nice season. Everybody else just kept winning. They advanced all four in the consis and all four of their quarterfinalists, including the spectacular Dylan Ness, who gave everybody except Nebraska fans something to cheer for when he electrified the arena by pinning 1-seed James Green. I stood and applauded, team race be damned. That performance was entertaining. The team score at the end of that Friday morning session was Penn State 61, Minnesota 59 and Oklahoma State 56. I went home to try to get some rest.
It didn't work.
Maybe it was because I was too excited for the next three sessions, or maybe it was because I decided to bump some Onyx instead of Eryka Badu (oldhead, remember), or maybe it was because I had to catch up on the BSD open threads and the twitter chatter I had been unable to consume on my phone earlier. In any event, I didn't sleep and instead became even more jacked for Friday night's festivities. Only a wee bit hungry, I skipped finding a restaurant and instead headed back early to grab a dog at the arena.
The Chesapeake Energy Arena is home to the NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder, the franchise which had been shadily moved from Seattle a few years back. It was built in 2002 and was pretty comfortable overall. Concessions were pretty standard and the 16,000 people seemed to fit mostly pretty well. Our seats were in the 300 level and had a small obstruction by a section hallway rail that got in the way of one of the far corner mats and forced us to implement a seat rotation among the four of us. We were up pretty high, and I used my binoculars a fair bit--mostly to zoom in on coaches and mat-side action, but I was comfortable with both my seat and my view.
Friday evening's Session IV was probably the best of the six sessions. The championship bracket was showcasing the semifinals, where the match-ups for Saturday night's ultimate event are determined, and the consolation bracket hosts two rounds. The first of which was the Round of 12, or 'blood round.' Winners here have achieved the top-8 in their weight class and have earned precious All-American honors. The four losers of this round at each weight end their tourneys one win shy of AA and miss out on crucial Placement Points for their team. They also rearranged the mats into what my good Hawkeye friend Kara informed me is commonly called the dog-bone:
For each weight class, they held the semifinal matches in the two center mats and the consolation matches on the edge mats. This segregation, along with two fewer mats, made things a little easier to consume, but there was still tons of action. Starting right out of the gates, at 125.
I don't know how many Nico matches I'm going to have to watch before I finally learn my lesson. Two years ago, after he finished 5th at Big Tens and was seeded 10th, I thought I'd be happy if he placed and earned AA. Then he beat two Seniors, who had each beaten him twice that season, en route to a finals appearance and a second place finish in his true freshman season. Last year after Big Tens, I thought Jesse Delgado has developed an unstoppable single leg attack, but in the national finals, Nico neutralized it and looked like he was going to win, until he got caught in a cradle during one of his own attacks. This year, he and Delgado split their two matches, but Delgado's win was in the Big Ten finals, which earned him the 1-seed at Nationals and forced Nico into this semifinal matchup with Cornell's Nahshon Garrett. Nahshon had beaten Nico 6-4 in the Southern Scuffle in January, and here again I had thought he possessed too much of both quickness and strength for Nico to deal with. And for maybe the first five minutes of this match, that seemed to be the case.
But Nico's motor, though!
Nico did what Nico does and kept coming and coming, and it looked like he had worn Nahshon out. He kept attacking, stormed back and so very nearly scored the tying takedown at the buzzer. Alas, the ref didn't hook us up, on a very close call, and he fell to the consis by the same 6-4 score. I was kicking myself for ever having doubted him. Consolation side-mat action was hot too, as two true freshman from the East, Joey Dance of Virginia Tech & Lehigh's Darian Cruz won their matches to become All-Americans.
The 133 semis didn't have much going on in the team race, but it was a brickhouse of a weight all year long and both matches featured the mostly-chalk top four guys. Good, solid, tough matches between UNI's 1-seed Joe Colon & Wiscy's Tyler Graff, and Edinboro's 2-seed A.J. Schoop vs Iowa's 3-seed, but champion hopeful, Tony Ramos. Graff ended Colon's championship run and things got really exciting when at one point Ramos had Schopp on his back where most referees would have called a pin. Iowa's Tom Brands is far and away the most animated coach in any corner and it's amazing he didn't earn a team point deduction, both during the match (he was nearly in the circle, screaming and pounding the mat for the pin) and after Ramos had won. He was as livid as I've ever seen him, and he's got a good body of work in that department. He followed the ref off the mat, was in his ear with his trademark invisible lats pulling his arms back and out wide and his face was red. Dan Gable, probably the person most experienced in the Brandsian triggers, left his seat to come put his hand on Brands' elbow to gently assist him in exiting the arena with the Iowa team score unscathed. It was all very entertaining.
At 141, our World Champion true freshman caught a couple bad breaks. Despite an amazing first season in which he beat at least 11 of the top-20 wrestlers in his weight, scheduling prevented him from ever facing the 1-seed from Edinboro, Mitchell Port. Retherford was perhaps his own worst enemy in the seeding snafu, having defeated the returning 2x Champ Logan Stieber in a December dual meet. Even though Stieber avenged that loss in the Big Ten finals, and despite the fact that Port's season body of work was far less respected, he was undefeated and the seeding committee awarded Port the 1-seed. This forced the third match between Stieber and Retherford to occur in the semifinals.
The match went pretty similarly to the B1G finals, with Stieber dominating in neutral and opting not to go down under Zain's powerful ride when it was his choice. That's something I'm sure Zain will start getting used to, and the only way to avoid it is to develop better takedown attacks himself. He fought hard, though, and earned a p3 reversal and went off to the consis after a 7-3 loss. While it was hard to take our eyes off of Zain's match, Penn Staters managed a small cheer for small-school Franklin & Marshall's Richard Durso, as he earned All-American for the first time.
The middle mats were fairly blah at 149, with OkSt's upstart Pennsylvanian Josh Kindig, an 11-seed, slowly wearing away Lehigh's 15-seed Mitch Minotti, to give the Cowboy fans a little salve from the sting of their Morrison finish. This was fine, though, because all our Penn State eyes were on the 717's 6th-year Senior walk-on chemical engineering grad student, James English, who was wrestling in his first NCAA tournament. After losing to the eventual champ in a R2 squeaker, he had won two consi matches to land here, in the blood round.
I think of all the things I wished for Penn State wrestlers at this whole event, I wanted this win for James English the most. More than I wanted Nico's first title, more than I wanted Retherford to solve Stieber, more than I wanted a fourth-straight and fifth overall team title. Even more than I wanted Taylor & Ruth to bonus Tyler Caldwell and Gabe Dean in their last go rounds. James English was THE story of Penn State's tourney and when he squeaked out a 6-4 sudden victory decision to earn All-American honors, I started by putting my sunglasses on, to hide the dust in my eyes. But that wasn't sufficient and I was forced to retreat to a bathroom stall where I could reflect on dude's long battle through tons of injuries and pain and all his hard work, without making a public scene. I'm mostly an unabashed crybaby, but I do like to take it easy on those around me by not putting them through that mess.
It was really disappointing when then All-American James English got caught and pinned, in a match he was leading, by Edinboro's David Habat in the ensuing consolation quarterfinals, but not nearly enough to dampen my happiness for the gritty Senior.
The next weight's semifinals weren't terribly exciting, or beneficial to Penn State, as Minny's Dylan Ness & OkSt's Alex Dieringer both advanced to the finals. But in a far corner mat, I saw a coach beginning to jump up and down in his corner apparently cheering on his wrestler in orange. Who was this, I thought, as I scanned the arena's scoreboards. As time ticked down, I learned it was Rutgers coach Scott Goodale putting up the hops for his young Anthony Perrotti, who was putting the finishing touches on a Major Decision. I put them in the binocs and was pleased to see a sharply dressed Frank Molinaro in the corner, ready to celebrate with them. Perrotti had lost in the first round and this was his fourth straight consolation win, and Rutgers' first All-American since 2002. Goodale was ecstatic and it was a great sight to take in.
David Taylor kept the good vibrations going with a Major Decision win over North Dakota State's Steven Monk, while Tyler Caldwell kept the OkSt fans happy with a win of his own. The Minnesota & Iowa State fans next to us also cheered as their guys each earned AA on the side mats.
174 was arguably as tough a weight class as 133 (and Heavyweight) this year, and the semifinals were stacked. I was still a little sad that Matt Brown wasn't among them, given his finals appearance last year and how close he is to each of the other top-5 wrestlers. But both semifinals were entertaining. Oklahoma's Andrew Howe, who was the 2010 national champion at 165 when he wrestled for Wisconsin, decisioned Minnesota's Logan Storley to help out Penn State in the team race. And Iowa's Mike Evans got absolutely ripped off by a gutless ref who stared directly at Chris Perry's shoulder blades mashed to the mat and wouldn't call the pin. I'm still a little surprised that Brands was so much more out of his mind after the Ramos pin non-call than the Evans one. And in the Round of 12, my seat-mates got a treat when their best hope in the Unseeded Nationals fantasy tourney, CSU Bakersfield's Bryce Hammond, won a 1-0 squeaker to earn crucial Placement Points as an All-American.
Cornell's Gabe Dean is going to win some national championships, people. The Freshman is really good. He's a little like former Cornell champ Steve Bosak, but seems both more athletic and way more technical. His positioning is very smart, he has good balance, and, hey, he also likes to attack and score. Bonus! Actually, he was just shy of Bonus Points in a few matches in this tourney, but to reach the semifinals, he won by scores of 12-4, 11-4 and 11-4.
And I wanted Ed Ruth to destroy him. He owed him that for despoiling Ed's 84-match win streak at the Southern Scuffle! And Ed Ruth is a bonus machine. With only 3 career losses, there's not a long track record of revenge, but when Ed had a chance to avenge a 2011 loss to Stanford's Nick Amuchastegui in the 2012 national finals, he 'layed it on him' to the tune of a 13-2 Major. This I wanted for young Gabe. This is what he had earned with his precociousness!
Why did I not get this? Why, Ed? I ask rhetorically, and sarcastically of course, but if I had to guess, it's because Ed respects Dean so much. And Ruth may not have scored as many points as we know he can, but he was convincing. He earned an early p1 TD, let him out and then rode Dean for the entire second period. After an escape in the 3rd, he gave up a takedown, but the ensuing escape and riding time point solidified the 5-3 win. While it wasn't what I was looking for, I enjoyed the ride. Ed Ruth was in the finals for the 3rd time in 3 years and he had just sent 7 crucial points to the team.
In the Round of 12, two Ivy Leaguers, Lorenzo Thomas from Penn and Ophir Bernstein from Brown, set up a matchup with each other, as they both became All-Americans. And Minnesota's Kevin Steinhaus became a 3x All-American after falling just short last year.
At 197, Ohio State helped us out when Nick Heflin beat Minnesota's Scott Schiller again, and Morgan McIntosh stormed into his first All-American placement with a 13-4 Major. Iowa State and Iowa both celebrated their wrestlers placing as well.
Heavyweight matches this year have been PRITT-tee tedious, but NC State's Gwiazdowski acts like he'd like to change that. Dude shoots for takedowns! I know! His semifinal opponent, Adam Chalfant, is probably the shootiest heavy in the Big Ten, so it was a fairly interesting match to consume, and Gwiz advanced with a 5-4 decision. Minnesota's 2x-defending Champ Tony Nelson beat Iowa's Bobby Telford and that's all I have to say about that.
In the consis, I was delighted to see my new friend Mike McClure earn his first AA with a Major Decision, but was mortified by what I thought was the worst call in the whole tournament in the Austin Marsden (OkSt) vs J.T. Felix (Boise State) Round of 12 match. I'm normally all for the refs stepping up the quickness with which they issue stall warnings and points, but when it's as arbitrary-looking as this call, it's shady news. Felix was winning 3-2 late in the third period and had just taken a shot. Marsden tried to scramble around, but they both returned to their feet with nobody in control. Maybe 5 seconds later, and with less than 5 seconds left in the match, the ref hit Felix with a stall call, which apparently was his second, because the score changed to 3-3 and we headed to overtime. There, Marsden took a shot, scored, and the bout was over, 5-3. Austin Marsden was an All-American and J.T. Felix was not.
When it first ended, I was like 'why is that Boise coach not screaming his head off right now?' So I put the binocs on him and could see that, while he wasn't jumping up and down & gesticulating like some other coaches (Esposito & Brands were the most physically active in protest that I saw over the weekend), he was definitely talking. He followed the ref over to the table and was chirping. Ref wouldn't look at him and kept talking to the NCAA paper-shufflers, one of whom kept looking at the coach like he was a child out of line; he had raised eyebrows and was looking at him like 'keep it up young man and see what happens.' The ref finally put his right arm out to the right side of his body, never looking to the coach at his left, and made a fist (his wrist had the green band on, which I guess was the color Felix had been wearing before he got his AA ripped away by this guy.) Coach said a few more words, wrapped it up and headed into the tunnel. I'd guessed he had gotten a warning, or worse.
A few minutes later the P.A. system calls out 'Boise State to the head table please. Would the Boise State coach please report to the head table.' I watched on the binocs as dude appeared in the tunnel, but didn't come all the way into the arena for about 5 minutes. Then the P.A. system requested him again. So he slowly walks the length of the arena, looking for whatever the NCAA considered the 'head table' (stopped at one person who directed him onward) until he reached an old white guy with white hair & a cheap suit, looking every bit the stereotype of the authoritative but otherwise useless bureaucrat. The table was pretty elevated and came to about the coach's chest; he put his arms on it and rested his head in his hands. Old White Dude shuffled some yellow papers and talked, apparently verbally going over a list of coach's transgressions. Coach said one more thing, waved his hand in disgust and walked away. The younger black dude next to Old White Dude mocked coach's dismissive wave and the two of them had a big laugh.
Two minutes later, the P.A. system announced that Boise State had been deducted a team point.
As the session wound down with the consolation quarterfinals, I assessed the team race. McIntosh had disappointed again, falling to Iowa State's star Kyven Gadsen and assuring him his best possible finish would be 7th place. Penn State had dropped Nico and Retherford from the championship bracket, both disappointing, but not terribly surprising. Our other four wrestlers all advanced: Taylor and Ruth up top, and English and Brown in the consis. Minnesota had performed almost identically, dropping Storley and Schiller from the championship bracket, advancing Ness and Nelson to the finals and advancing Thorn, Zilverberg and Steinhaus in the consis. They also lost Chris Dardanes, who joined his twin brother on the sidelines. Oklahoma State lost Klimara (permanently, it turned out, as he was arrested at some place called the Redneck Yacht Club hours after his elimination, for public drunkenness and possession of cocaine)(I did not get a chance to experience this Redneck Yacht Club) and Collica, but advanced Kindig, Dieringer, Caldwell and Perry to the finals, and Marsden (ahem) in the consis. Final session scores were PSU 91, Minny 90.5 and OkSt 87.5, and the team race was most definitely in high contest.
Saturday morning's Session V, the Medal Round, where all the non-champion results are finalized, was the most sparsely-attended of the six. The arena was half-empty, it looked like.
I wasn't quite sure why that was, but reading through the BSD archives, I see that our esteemed bscaff might be onto something:
The medal round can be a strange dynamic. Some wrestlers remain on a mission, while others can't recover from having their dreams of a national title crushed just 12 hours earlier. Injuries mount after 50 hours of fighting, and play a role in the results as well.
Perhaps the fans aren't much different, and fatigue played a role in the attendance.
For each weight in this session, there were five matches: two consolation semifinal matches (winners wrestle for 3rd, losers for 5th), the 3rd place match, the 5th place match and the 7th place match. Only the 7th place match was determined the night before, so every other All-American wrestler is guaranteed two matches.
For Penn State, English and McIntosh were locked into the 7th place match, but Nico, Zain and Brown were still alive for 3rd, and only Nico advanced. Because of 1-seed Port's upset loss in the quarterfinals, Zain had the tough match we would have liked to have seen in the championship semifinals and he lost in the second tie-breaker. Brown also went to overtime, in his umpteenth matchup with Minnesota's Storley, and fell 3-1. Gone were opportunities at precious team points--3 Placement and .5 Advancement--and Brown's was especially harmful in that, not only did PSU not get the 3.5, but Minnesota did. What did you think of those matches, Scaff?:
Zain lost an overtime match with 1-seed Mitchell Port, and Hulk Hands, more painfully, lost an overtime match with Minnesota's Storley. Both Zain and Hulk fired shots from neutral in overtime, looking for the win. Both were countered, and both gave up the takedown. Neither Port nor Storley had initiated an offensive shot in the first 7 minutes; neither was called for stalling. It was a bitter pill at the time.
Meanwhile, Minnesota left some points on the mat as well. They went 2-2, with Storley and Schiller advancing to the 3rd place match, but Thorn and Steinhaus both lost. In the medal round of the session, though, all of the Penn State and Minnesota wrestlers won their final matches of the tourney, including one very special win over a returning champ by All-American James English. It was an exciting session, both on the mats and on the scoreboard, and at the end of it all Minnesota had taken the lead: 104 to 101.5. The team title was resting squarely on the shoulders of each team's two finalists.
Saturday night was going to be something to see.
I spent part of the following break having a brew with a guy who goes by slushhead on the wrestling boards, and we had some cool conversations. It was a little windy, but the spot we settled on, Captain Norm's Dockside Bar, had an outdoor deck that overlooked this little canal thingy that meanders through Bricktown. I especially appreciated the talks about social life in the Information Age. When he asked me how I met Roar and NoVA, I thought about it and had to answer 'data.' I remembered being frustrated that there wasn't an easily-accessible data set where I could quickly search a list of All-Americans and told him how a data-entry project to transcribe them from wrestlingstats.com to a spreadsheet jump-started my interest. Once I was armed with that data, commenting on the boards took on a new kind of fun. I could pretend I was doing #analysis at the same time I was learning more about wrestling's history. Then when the preseason All-Star match came to American University, it was easy enough for me to put up an invite post to Guapo's for pregame beers. Anyway, we wrapped up our convo and I went back to the hotel to chill.
I was pretty frayed out from a general lack of sleep, heaps of anxiety and long hours of sitting, but I knew better than to kid myself into the possibility of a nap. So I listened to some Soul II Soul while doing some light stretching and some old Busta while I knocked out a few pushups and situps. Roar had reminded me that the Parade of Champions was scheduled for 6:30p with the finals to kick off at 7p, so I grabbed a hot shower and headed out for the last round.
I had pushed the time, so I needed a spot with a quick bite and chose the Yucatan Taco Stand Tequila Bar and Grill, one of the bars I'd passed a couple times on the canal path between my hotel and the arena. Two fish tacos, a margarita and a beer, and I was prepped and primed.
I'm not sure exactly what I'd been expecting, but when the parade had finished with the 80 All-Americans organized in ten neat rows on the lone center mat, I found I was most interested in which wrestlers might have been talking to each other. Not many of them were. I've always wondered about the social dynamic on the podiums, where you're expected to stand graciously shoulder to shoulder with dudes you may think you're better than, but who just kicked your ass, and here I could see all ten podiums at once. Another interesting aspect of this lineup was that, since the two finalists had not yet been resolved, but the other six had, they placed the two finalists at the end of each row, such that they weren't asked to fraternize or even share the same general space just minutes before their big matchups.
I scanned up and down each row with the binocs and wasn't surprised to see David Taylor chatting with some others, but for some reason I found it interesting that Minnesota's Logan Storley and Nebraska's Robert Kokesh, who had wrestled two frantic and tight overtime matches in this tournament (both won by Storley), seemed to be sharing a joke and a smile. OkSt's Chris Perry was jumping around in a contained spot, which made sense, as his was the first match of the night, and each of Iowa's six All-Americans were stoic as stone. I've really got no #hot #takes on these observations; I just found them notable and memorable for some reason.
I'm not sure who has more sway between the NCAA Wrestling Committee and ESPN, but between them, they had a lot of good options for ordering the lineup and choosing the final bout of Saturday night. Ohio State's Logan Stieber, Minnesota's Tony Nelson, and Penn State's Ed Ruth were all two-time defending champions, and the team race was tight, with a couple compelling scenarios.
Advancement Points were over and all finalists had already been credited with the 12 Placement Points they earned for their team by placing at least second. Remaining at play were four Placement Points, for finishing first, and the ever mercurial Bonus Points, where a Major Decision win of 8+ points earned 1, a Technical Fall win (w/nearfall points) of 15+ points earned 1.5 and a pin earned 2. Bonus Points in the finals aren't as rare as they might seem, especially with explosive scorers like David Taylor and Ed Ruth, who had both done it there before.
Oklahoma State was 16.5 team points behind leader Minnesota, but they needed all four of their finalists to win and at least one of them to earn bonus, so while it was a long shot, their fans still had lots to hope and cheer for. Minnesota led Penn State by 2.5 points and each team had two finalists, all four of whom were capable of sending 5-6 points to their team with a win and some flavor of bonus. So I was happy with the order they chose, both as a Penn State fan and from an event showcase standpoint. They split up the OkSt wrestlers, by starting at 174, with Chris Perry vs. Andrew Howe and would finish with David Taylor vs. Tyler Caldwell.
Perry seemed to respond to the backlash he received after the non pin call in the Evans match and appeared pretty active in shutting out Howe 4-0. I think he's a perfect case study for what can happen if referees called stalling with the aggressiveness we'd all like to see from the wrestlers. Ruth followed that up with a methodical and convincing 7-2 decision over previously undefeated Jimmy Sheptock. Ever since the Scuffle loss to Dean, Ruth has demonstrated a judiciousness he never before seemed to care for. It was a weird feeling to watch him win his 3rd national championship and be bummed he didn't score more points for himself and for the team. But the win was vital for the team race, as Penn State took the lead over Minnesota 105.5 to 104, and of course I was happy (as well as aware how spoiled I've become).
197 was another case study in the effects of referee usage of the currently written rules, as Missouri's J'Den Cox put on a show of aggressiveness that was thwarted only by Nick Heflin's retreating defense. Heflin a few times looked for an underhook throw, but caution set in each time and he decided to avoid the risk. He had won quite a few late-season matches using similar tactics, but on this night, Cox's aggressiveness was too assertive and Heflin's lack of offensive attacks too apparent for the referee to ignore, and the stalling point gave Cox the win, 2-1.
The Heavyweight match was one of the rare times the Oklahoma State and Penn State fans teamed up. I felt like a real visceral sports fan as I joined in the group chant: N C STATE! It wasn't exactly rhythmic, but nobody would buy into my Gwee Az Dow Ski clap clap clap clap clap, so I bailed and went with the crowd. The outlook was bleak for most of what looked like was going to be a typical Tony Nelson match: scoreless p1, Nelson ride out for all of p2, Nelson escape to begin p3. But then something odd happened. A heavyweight takedown! Gwiz took a bulldozer of a double-leg shot, that was so explosive it knocked Nelson off-balance and he got his ankle tucked under him as the two behemoths fell to the mat. He was clearly very hurt. I read on twitter later how gruesome the injured ankle was, and Minnesota took the full amount of injury time. It being the national finals of his Senior year, Nelson of course sucked up the pain and rose to his feet, with the score 2-1 and the riding time point looking favorable due to his second period spiral dominance. But the injury time use allowed Gwiz his choice of positions and he wisely chose neutral. A few seconds and another manly blast double, and Sophomore Nick Gwiazdowski had earned his first national title. Nelson ended his stellar career as a 4x All-American, 3x Finalist and 2x Champion.
More importantly to Penn State, Minnesota and Oklahoma State fans was that the team race scores remained the same: PSU 105.5, Minny 104, OkSt 91.5. Oklahoma State still needed wins and at least one bonus from their three remaining wrestlers. For Penn State, all David Taylor had to do was match whatever show Minny's Dylan Ness put on. We were in good hands.
At 125, Illinois' Jesse Delgado didn't make any new fans with the cagey 3-2 victory he managed over Cornell's Nahshon, but 133 was a show. First, Wiscy's Tyler Graff had decided he would accept the typical challenge Iowa's Tony Ramos issues to all of his opponents, as he eschewed any extended warmup in favor of sprinting to center mat to go toe-to-toe with Ramos in a stare-down. Ramos later indicated that Graff had briefly lost focus and had looked down, but in the arena from up high, it all looked awesome.
Ramos had lost close matches at Nationals before, and through all of this year's tourney his scores were lower and his matches tighter than in years past. The match was tied up until Graff tried a crazy roll during a scramble and Ramos stacked him for two pretty easy back points and that was the match. I had been scanning the Iowa section with the binocs and stumbled across Wiscy coach Barry Davis and Illinois coach Jim Heffernan watching from the tunnel. They were teammates on some of Dan Gable's fiercest teams in the 80's and were a funny sight. Davis was pacing like a madman, back and forth, back and forth with an occasional jump thrown in. Every now and then he would say something to Heffernan, who stood stoicly with his arms crossed (he had no horse in the race) and Heffernan would answer him back. When Graff performed the roll, Davis was exasperated and grabbed his head with both hands. I'm no lip reader, but I could imagine him saying 'you don't try a damn granby roll against Tony Ramos!'
The Iowa fans were thrilled and frankly so was I. Ramos has really grown on me the past two years (despite Penn State wrestlers routinely getting mauled by him). He's candid and classy and clearly has worked very, very hard. After the hand-raise, he sprinted off the mat to find his parents and it was a relief to finally see the Pig Pen cloud above the Iowa section evaporate for a spell. His mat-side interview was a treat, too, as he thanked his family and all the fans--'no matter where you're from.' I thought his entire performance really exemplified the best that this great sport can offer.
At 141, Ohio State's Stieber scored the night's first Bonus Points, majoring Virginia Tech's Devin Carter 10-1 and winning his third title. At 149, Northwestern Freshman Tsirtsis ended OkSt's long-shot bid by defeating Josh Kindig. When Minny's Ness and OkSt's Alex Dieringer came on at 157, I felt we were in good shape. Taylor would get the last crack at it, and Dieringer seemed solid enough to stay out of Ness' funky trouble. Did he ever. Ness couldn't get anything going, and Dieringer even won all the scrambles, finishing with a 13-4 Major Decision and clinching the team title for Penn State.
All that was left was a coronation match for the Magic Man. He did not disappoint. Well, maybe he disappointed a little because he didn't bonus OkSt's Caldwell, but that ridiculous expectation is one that he built with his amazing body of work. He dominated nonetheless and won his second title 6-0. During the trophy presentation later, he was given the mic and he said 'I hope you understand how hard it is walking off that mat with a loss and how much better it feels when you win.'
I believed him.
I've always wondered what losing felt like to those wrestlers who so very rarely experience its sensations. I mean, I know it sucks to them, but how do they really react to it? Disbelief? Taylor has handled his two high-profile losses, on 'that mat,' with a grace I hope I can teach to my kids, and he's responded both times by going undefeated the entire following season and capping them with titles. He's had an amazing career and has been a great resource and leader both for Penn State and for the sport. His winning another title in his last year was a fitting end to a great tournament.
I said goodbye for now to my seatmates and headed back to my hotel. My brother wasn't picking up and it was too late to ring my mom, so I dialed Bman! But he was not much help in the debriefing department either, as he had just wrapped up playing a set and hadn't watched his dvr yet. He did ask me later for all the details, so you can blame him for the length of this post. I later learned from Roar that their hotel hosted a reception for the winners and about 400 people were there. For me, while there weren't many Penn Staters, my hotel bar scene was the most hoppinest it had been all weekend. I walked in just behind Edinboro coach Tim Flynn, an (All-American for Penn State in 1987), who had been announced as Coach of the Year earlier, and the bar erupted into applause. A.J. Schopp and Mitchell Port were there and I grabbed a brew and a seat to take in one of my late father's favorite things to do: people watch.
Port was about 30 feet away from me, but two things stood out to me from that distance: his most glorious mullet and his massive, massive hands. Looking at these guys and remembering their wrestling weights always trips me out. Those mitts could toss me around with ease, and he was laying them on little dudes who only weighed 141 pounds. The Edinboro crowd was full of mirth, as they had every right to be after their first top-5 finish and their eighth top-10 finish in history.
The Buckeyes were also hosting a reception, in a back room past the bar, and Ohio State coach Tom Ryan walked just past me. I was far too tired to get my ass kicked, so I bit my tongue instead of asking him about average officials. I finished up and hit the sack.
During the next day's (failed) attempt to return home via my original plans I saw some wrestling luminaries in the airport. Still rockin my labels in blue and white (everybody did, really--repped their teams with their gear, all weekend), I caught eye contact with Ramos bundling back up after security and managed a succinct 'congratulations.' He was all smiles as he said thank you, and for the first time ever, I could see the kid in him. Oh, man, the joy! Further down the hall, I had a similar experience with Mike Evans, but I kept my trap shut. Telling him he got robbed didn't seem to fit, and the agony and fatigue in his eyes were warning enough. On the plus side, I was happy to observe just how Pennsylvanian the guy looks. Decked in black and gold, and rockin some good ole boy shit-kickers, dude looked exactly like what would come out if Iowa and Pennsylvania had a baby.
I saw legendary Wisconsin wrestler Lee Kemp both days in the airport on the way home, but I never got a chance to ask him what he thought of Taylor joining him in the 4x Finalist club. I did, however, have a nice chat with Charlie Gadsen, an All-American for Iowa State in 1977 and the uncle of current cyclone star, Kyven. I had read last year about Kyven losing his dad, Willie (Charlie's brother), so I offered condolances. Charlie talked a little about Willie's last few months and days and he was kind and friendly as he did.
As I dredged through those last two days of shoddy travel snafus, I had plenty of time to reflect and recollect. I was finally able to talk and debrief with my mom, and it felt good to share my wonderful experience with her. As I continued to wind down, I found I kept returning to the notion of a successful sporting event. I wondered how appealing it would be to non-wrestling fans, and how much baconway might enjoy it if we joined up for a home and away fan series to our favorite sport. I know I would kill to go the Frozen Four with him as my guide.
But mostly I kept coming back to how much I enjoyed this one, my first nationals. I loved it all. The people, the tournament, the wrestling, the town. Eating and drinking and watching and talking.
It was a sports fan's sanctuary and a wrestling fan's utopia.
It was perfect.