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Olympic Team Trials Recap: Penn State NLWC Surging

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The Nittany Lion Wrestling Club made a huge impact at this weekend's freestyle team trials.

The Olympic Team Trials held in Iowa City last weekend delivered a ton of excitement.  At every weight Lions roared.  In total, the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club stockpile of talent is unmatched.  Let's recap the results and storylines.

57KG (125.5 lbs)

Weight qualified for the Olympics? Yes

PSU / NLWC: 2016 NCAA Champ Nico Megaludis entered a talented pool, and had a disappointing tournament.  He opened with Ohio State's Nathan Tomasello, and jumped out to a 3-0 lead before going conservative and dropping a close one, 3-4.  In the consolations, he got Cornell's Nahshon Garrett.  Unfortunately, it was another close loss, this time 4-5.  But you can count on seeing Nico back out there in future years, and - in our biased opinion - eventually grabbing his spot in the Team USA lineup.

Who Won: Dan Dennis, Hawkeye Wrestling Club.  Before Sunday, Dennis was known for losing his last collegiate bout in the most excruciating way possible (Dennis was winning the NCAA final 4-2 with 10 seconds remaining, and got taken down to his back.  Lost 6-4).  And when you lose like that, after you've put everything - everything - into winning, you're left "a sobbing puddle of flesh", as Dennis once described it.  You also, apparently, throw everything you own into the bed of a beater 1986 Ford F-150, call it "home", start driving west, and go rock climbing for a few years.  And now he's an Olympian.  Pretty cool story.

Not everyone thought it was a cool story, though.  Tony Ramos - who held this spot in the lineup for the last two years, and qualified it for Team USA last month at the Pan Am games, and also trained at the Hawkeye Wrestling Club - was not too happy about losing his spot.  Ramos felt "stabbed in the back" and "lied to", among other things, by Iowa coach Tom Brands as a result of the past year's training situation (with Dennis in the same room).  Tom - whom I've always liked a lot (at least, as much as you can like a Hawkeye) - got ambushed for a quick presser, and responded with aplomb, making me like him to the maximum possible extent of (asterisk) Hawkeye likability.  We probably shouldn't read anything more into the whole spiel other than "forlorn guy is forlorn, says forlorn things".  But in wrestling - where the code of conduct believes John Wayne was an over-emotional, chatty, sissy pants - it's big news.

What To Expect At Rio - you don't get a world ranking by sleeping in a farm truck and rock climbing Utah canyons.  So Dan Dennis will be an underdog.  And it turns out that there are some slick, slick dudes on planet Earth at this weight class.  The favorite will be Vladimir Khinchegashvili, from Georgia.   He's an offensive machine, with a ton of neutral attacks, and a formidable parterre offense to boot.  Iran's Hassan Rahimi has been near the top of the heap for several years, and is just about impossible to score on.  And, of course, there'll be a Russian in the mix.  Probably Viktor Lebedev, who has an incredible YouTube fan video.   But, Dennis is clearly on a roll, and - unlike most US wrestlers - has an awesome gut wrench.  Plus the whole "sleeping in a truck" thing sounds a lot like Rocky training for Drago in Siberia.  Definitely some mojo going on there.

65KG (143 lbs)

Weight Qualified For Olympics? No.  Hawkeye Brent Metcalf lost to NLWC's Franklin Gomez (wrestling for Puerto Rico) at the Pan Am semi finals, and missed qualifying.  So now the Team Trials winner gets two chances to secure a spot in Rio.  First, April 24th, in Ulanbataar, Mongolia.  And, if he misses the top 3 there, he'll get a final chance in Istanbul, Turkey to qualify.

PSU / NLWC: so the fashionably dressed guy on the coach's chair you watched all collegiate season?  That was Frank Molinaro.  And now he's an Olympian (well, soon will be - see above).

Frank entered the trials unseeded, and opened with a blow out win over long-time rival Kellan Russell (Russell and Frank both wrestled 141 as freshman, and faced each other four times over Frank's two years at that weight - with Russell winning all 4).  So that was pretty awesome.

In his second match, Frank drew Brent Metcalf, the reigning Team USA wrestler, and top seed, who was wrestling on his "home" mat.  They'd met twice in college, and Frank lost both by bonus.  They'd met once or twice in freestyle, too, with Metcalf winning each time.  But this time was different.  Frank scored two exposure, and registered a pushout late in the final period to win on criteria, 3-3, and advance.

Up next was World #12 and 4x NCAA Champ Logan Stieber.  Frank beat him too, with the patented left handed high crotch, lift, slam - and 2-point exposure.  The 4-point move pushed him into the final, best of three, where he knocked off World #17 Aaron Pico, two matches to one.   Incredible.  Awesome.  Way to go, Frank.

Zain Retherford also made waves in the same bracket.  First, he beat 2015 World bronze medalist James Green 9-2.  That opened a bunch of eyeballs.  Then he jumped out to a 4-0 lead on Stieber, before falling 8-6.  Unphased, Zain wrestled back by pasting two excellent wrestlers - Jason Chamberlin (7-2) and Jayson Ness (6-3).  He took an injury default win over past World Team member Reece Humphrey - and then thought his 3rd place bout wouldn't be wrestled until 7pm.  So he inhaled a turkey sub, drank a bunch of fluids to rehydrate, and figured he'd get a few hours rest.  Instead, as he was polishing off another Gatorade, he got told "you gotta go wrestle now".  So he went out to the mat and beat 2014 World team member Jimmy Kennedy, 2-2.  The biggest challenge?  Trying not to puke up the turkey sub and Gatorade.

Who Won: Frank

What To Expect At Rio: at least a part of what makes international wrestlers so good is that they have a ton of international experience.  And that's one thing Frank will be missing.  However, as we always say - and we're sure Frank would agree - high crotches win matches.  It's the first takedown you're taught in pee-wee wrestling, and it works at every. single. level. of competition.  Plus, with Frank getting exposure points out of his high crotch finish, that's a nice little bonus.  He'll have an uphill climb, for sure - but you never count out Gorilla Hulk, especially with the way he's wrestling now (which is better than ever).

74KG (163lbs)

Weight Qualified for Olympics? Yes

PSU / NLWC: Dan Vallimont - NCAA finalist at 165 as a senior (Cael's first year) - gave the Olympics his best shot, but came up short.  He opened with an impressive 5-0 win over Vlad Dombrovskiy, but fell 3-0 to 2014 World team member Nick Marable, and dropped his consolation bout 6-2 to Michigan wunderkind Logan Massa.

Penn State recruit - yes, a high school senior - Mark Hall began with a wild 13-11 win over Massa, but ran into OLD MAN STRENGTH with Andrew Howe in the quarterfinals (losing 0-10).  Hall put up another impressive 11-5 win over Quinten Godley in the consolations, before losing 14-5 to Adam Hall, who was the senior 1-seed at 157lbs in the 2011 NCAA Championships - David Taylor's redshirt freshman year (that's a long time ago).  So - losing to a pair of old men isn't the worst thing in the world for a high school senior.  Pretty good, as a matter of fact, and portends good things for future Penn State (and Team USA) lineups.

Who Won: Jordan Burroughs stomped challenge bracket winner Andrew Howe, 2 matches to 0.  Burroughs - known for his blast double from collegiate days - is just about untouchable.  That's partly because, despite winning 4 of the last 5 world gold medals, he's continued to improve at a ridiculous rate.  If you're still hung up on the double, then you need to watch him counter Howe, lace his ankles, and roll him for 4 or 5 points.  Burroughs - who admittedly won 2012 Olympic Gold with neutral offense only - is now also a beast on the mat.  And that's frightening.

What To Expect At Rio: another gold medal.  Jordan Burroughs isn't just the best wrestler in the world, he might also be its best athlete, period.  He's lost exactly 1 time - on a torn up knee - in the last 5 years while facing everyone on planet Earth.  In 2014 he broke his ankle, had it set, and then won another world gold medal just 4 weeks later.  The guy is amazing.

Sidebar: quick shout out to Penn State recruit - yes, another high schooler - Mason Manville, who made the semi-finals of the Greco 75kg team trials.  This last recruiting class of Cael's seems pretty good.

86KG (189lbs)

Weight Qualified For Olympics? No.  Same deal here, where the winner gets two shots to punch his ticket to Rio.

PSU / NLWC: Ed Ruth, wrestling for Sunkist Kids, began with a 10-0 pasting of Deron Winn. But then he got injured in his quarterfinal match with old foe Keith Gavin, losing 14-5.  Ed default from the tournament, and now is turning his focus to Mixed Martial Arts.  It's sad to see him leave the mat, but we're excited to watch him whip some dudes in the octagon.

David Taylor got a ridiculous draw.  He opened with Austin Trotman, who gets our vote for 'most underappreciated talent'.  Trotman is really good, and really talented, but David got past him, 4-3.  Next up?  Kyle flipping Dake, in the semi-finals.  Frankly, this doesn't look like Dake's best weight.  So although Dake used his mental mojo to slip past David again, 4-3, mark your calendar.  This was the the last time Dake beats Taylor.

Sent to the wrestlebacks, Taylor tech falled two past world team members.  He destroyed wold silver medalist Jake Herbert 10-0, and then romped Gavin 13-3 to finish 3rd.   We're calling it now - 2017 World Team member (and medalist, too).

Who Won: 2016 (and 2014) NCAA Champ J'Den Cox.  The guy who beat Morgan McIntosh 3 weeks ago in the NCAA final ran through the top half of the bracket (beating Herbert and Gavin) - and then took out Kyle Dake in the best of three.

What To Expect At Rio: Cox is a beast.  He's really strong, really quick, and his arms are each 12 feet long, which means he can get to your leg while his legs are still in the locker room.  However, there's also this guy named Sadulaev out there.  He's a freaking tank.  He's only (now) 21.  And he won his first world gold medal at age 18.  His signature move?  A fireman's carry.  Crazy, right?  Who gives up a fireman's carry after middle school?  Apparently everyone who wrestles Sadulaev.

97KG (213lbs)

Weight Qualified For Olympics? Yes

PSU / NLWC: 2012 Olympic gold medalist Jake Varner trained for one last shot at Rio, and put together an impressive run.  He began with an 11-0 tech of Ohio RTC's Enock Francois.  Then he blanked 2015 NCAA Champ Kyven Gadson in the semis, 4-0, and 2011 NCAA Champ Dustin Kilgore in the challenge bracket final 6-0.  That set up a best of three with defending world gold medalist (and 2016 NCAA Champ) Kyle Snyder.  Jake took the first match, 4-4 on criteria.  But dropped the next two, 0-4 and 1-6.

Who Won: Kyle Snyder.  Dude is pretty freaking good.

What To Expect At Rio: It'll be a disappointment if Snyder doesn't medal.  That Gold won't come easily though.  Three "gah's" to keep in mind (though only 2 will make it to Rio): Gatsalov (Russia), Gadisov (Russia), Gazumov (Azerbaijan).

125KG (a whole lotta pounds)

Weight Qualified For Olympics? Yes

PSU / NLWC: Eric Thompson is a guy you can get behind.  He was a top recruit coming out of high school, and signed with Cael at Iowa State way back when.  Eric left the Cyclone program shortly after Cael left - and was working at a warehouse for about a year when Grand View (NAIA) came calling.  He got back into wrestling at Grand View and won 3 NAIA championship titles.  Now, he caught back up with Cael at the NLWC, and is making a push toward Team USA.

Unfortunately, his Team Trial started poorly, with an 8-3 loss to Wisconsin's Connor Medbery.  But Eric came roaring back in the consolations, pasting former Gopher Tony Nelson 11-0, and edging Justin Grant 9-8 to make the consolation semis.  There he lost to World Top 20 Dom Bradley by tech.  But this is just the beginning for Thompson (who is Tolly Thompson's cousin, by the way).

Who Won: old man Tervel Dlagnev beat Zach Rey, 2 matches to 0, in the final.

What To Expect At Rio: Tervel can medal.  He's done it twice before.  But health will be the key thing to watch.  If Tervel's feeling good, then bronze or better is definitely on the table.

Overall

The Nittany Lion Wrestling Club claimed it's spot among the top clubs this past weekend.  Actually, make that the top spot.  Again (third year in a row).

Four NLWC wrestlers are now members of Team USA at three of the five weights (one champ, 3 alternates).   Four more - Nico at 57, Hall at 74, Manville at Greco 75, and Thompson at 125 - just missed making the alternate list.   Two NLWC members (past world medalists Franklin Gomez and Jaime Espinal) will be in Rio representing Puerto Rico.  That's 10 world class athletes in the room, and we haven't even mentioned Bo Nickal, Jason Nolf, Morgan McIntosh, or the US Army WCAP athletes (Matt Brown, Moza Fay, and soon to be others), or visiting athlete/coach Tatsuhiro Yonemitsu (a triple world medalist for Japan).

Wow.

Dear high school phenom - dreaming of gold medals?  Come to Penn State.