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Close Only Counts in Horseshoes and Hand Grenades

After going 12-2 on day one of the 2015 Division 1 National Championships, Penn State's already slim chances to win their fifth straight title took a huge hit this morning. PSU wrestlers went 4-4 and the team fell to 8th place in the team race.


Do you guys remember that phrase--'close only counts in horseshoes & hand grenades?' Its application to wrestling's premier tourney was showcased in crushing fashion in three of PSU's four losses this morning. Zach Beitz was trailing Michigan's Alex Pantaleo 5-4 with time running out when he took a beautiful single to double leg shot, brought Pantaleo to the mat outside the ring and verrrrry nearly earned the takedown with his own feet still in bounds. But it was not awarded as time expired, and Beitz's season is over. Close losses to the top guys have been one of the defining traits of Beitz's young two-year career, and if the rumors of Zain Retherford bumping up to 149 next year come true, it could be the last chance for Beitz to make the podium. Whatever Retherford does, Beitz will have two more seasons of eligibility to try and finally get over the proverbial hump. Zack finishes this year at 19-11, in the Round of 24 and he sent 2 points to Penn State's team score.

After upsetting Arizona State's 3-seed Blake Stauffer in Round 2 (and prompting ASU coach Zeke Jones to hurriedly exit the mat without looking at or talking to his wrestler), Matt McCutcheon had a very winnable draw in Ohio State's and Central Dauphin's unseeded Kenny Courts. And after the first period it sure looked like he would, getting a takedown and a studly rideout to get the riding time over a minute. Courts barely got his forehead off the mat in that first period, but we learned later that McCutcheon reinjured the kneecap that forced him to MFF out of the Big Ten Tourney two weeks ago. And Kenny Courts can be a very dangerous wrestler when he wants to be. Courts roared back with two takedowns to send the match into Sudden Victory where he got to McCutcheon's legs pretty easily and ended it with another takedown. I'm not gonna lie: that one stung. McCutcheon had been wrestling very, very well and he looked set to earn All-American honors and advance to the semifinals in his redshirt freshman season. As it is, he'll get one more chance tonight when he'll face Nebraska's 16-seed TJ Dudley (a guy he absolutely dismantled in January's Southern Scuffle) in the high-stakes, high-pressure blood round. Win, and he's an AA; lose, and his season's over. If his knee is not too debilitated, I really like his chances.

Penn State's quarterfinal disappointments didn't end there, though, as Morgan McIntosh had great position on a late third period shot, but Duke's 10-seed Conner Hartmann scrambled and scrambled and scrambled and held on for a 3-2 victory. Cael Sanderson used one of his three coach's challenges, but the non-takedown call was upheld during video review, and Morgan drops to the consolation bracket and will wrestle for his season in tonight's blood round. This was a particularly disappointing loss because McIntosh has been wrestling at a very high level and represented one of Penn State's best chances to continue their four-year streak of having at least one individual National Champion. Last year, Morgan lost an early match in the championship bracket, fought through the blood round to AA, but drew Iowa State stud Kyven Gadson and ended up placing 7th. This year his consis draw looks a little easier as be first faces Wyoming's 13-seed Shane Woods, with a possible ensuing matchup with Iowa's Nathan Burak to whom he's never lost. Morgan is absolutely talented enough to battle back for third place, but no Penn State wrestler has done so after a quarterfinals loss since Dylan Alton did it in 2012. (Miss you, Dylan).

At Heavyweight, we didn't have high hopes that Jimmy Lawson would upset 1-seed returning champ Nick Gwiazdowski and, well, he didn't. Bman proffered a half-hearted theory that maybe against a heavyweight who actually wrestles Jimmy might discover his own offense, but it was not to be. Gwiz mauled him in an 11-3 major. No shame in that, though, and Lawson has a great opportunity to become Penn State's first heavyweight All-American since, I think, Kerry McCoy in 1997 (check me on that please). He faces off against Missouri's 11-seed Devin Mellon. You know the drill by now, and it's what makes tonight's Session IV the best of the weekend: win to climb the podium or lose to slink home with no hardware and a whole lifetime to lament it.

But not all was rainclouds and teardrops for Penn State this morning! Jordan Conaway went 2-0, beating Lehigh's Scott Parker in one helluva battle and Minnesota's Ethan Lizak 7-3. Tonight he faces AU's unseeded David Terao for a chance to earn his first All-American honors and to advance Penn State's now extremely bleak hopes for a fivepeat.

All-American Jimmy Gulibon! How's that sound to you guys? It was pretty freakin awesome for me. Brought back some James English tears and I was glad I watched from a new perch on the 5th-floor penthouse media room. I was free to cheer there and I did. I'm so happy for Gulibon and his tourney is far from done, as he faces Iowa's 3-seed Cory Clark tonight for a chance to wrestle on the raised stage tomorrow night. Clark is a really tough grinder not all that dissimilar to Gulibon and we should not be surprised to see a mirror image of their battle in the dual, which Gulibon won with a last-second body slam takedown. At this point Jimmy is one of our two remaining hopes for a champ.

The other is Matt Brown, who earned his third All-American honors in as many years competing as a starter (he lost a year of eligibility behind Ed Ruth before he bumped up to 184 in 2013). Brown looked like his typically bruising self in grinding out a 2-1 revenge win over Virginia Tech's Zach Epperly, who handed Brown one of his three losses on the season back in December's dual. And guess who Brown gets to see in tonight's semifinal match. Yep, Iowa's Mike Evans in what will be their ninth (!) career matchup. Brown leads the series 5-3 including identical 2-0 victories that featured only escape & riding time points this season. Brown looked great in both of them and Evans has increasingly abandoned the offense that made him so fearsome in High School at Cumberland Valley, but for some reason I'm becoming more & more anxious about this battle. Probably because they are both so similar and so even. I'm nervous, but if Brown can repeat the same gameplan from the dual and from the B1G tourney semifinals, he will advance to tomorrow night's finals. Previously undefeated 1-seed Robert Kokesh was knocked to the consis by Pitt's Matt Wilps, who was still injured at the time of the Pitt dual, so if Brown can get by Evans one last time, his chances for a title are really good.

In the team race, Ohio State has taken a nice lead with 64.5 points and five semifinalists. But the rest of their lineup is finished and Iowa (47.5) and Missouri (45) each have 7 wrestlers alive and both have far more maximum potential points still available. Not that any team will remotely approach these totals, which can only be achieved by winning every remaining match by pin, but Iowa could still finish with 170.5, Mizzou could get to 168 while Ohio State's max is only 139.5. Penn State currently sits in 8th place with 33.5, which underscores how painful those close McCutcheon & McIntosh losses were. Penn State left 12 team points on the mat in those two matches, which would have put us in 3rd place behind Iowa and ahead of Missouri.

And that is what this brutal tournament can do. Every round it shatters dreams and crushes hopes. And while the double-elimination format provides a secondary hope, at this level, in this tourney, close just doesn't cut it.