On their way to yet another top 15 finish in the Learfield Director’s Cup, which is given annually to each NCAA school (in each division) with the most broadly successful athletic program, Penn State finished the 2015-2016 athletic year having captured two NCAA titles: Women's Soccer, and Wrestling. The Nittany Lions also won Big Ten titles in three sports this past academic year (Women’s Soccer—regular season and tournament, Wrestling—Dual and Tournament, Women’s Cross Country).
The wrestling team, as we’ve documented here, was expected to bounce back this past year after a comparatively underwhelming 2015 NCAA tournament, having redshirted Zain Retherford and Nico Megaludis, as well as then-true freshmen Bo Nickal, Jason Nolf and Nick Nevills. The team came out on fire and was the favorites from near get-go, despite entering the National Duals as one of two undefeated squads on the year—and they secured the NCAA title early on in the tournament accordingly.
Erica Walsh’s soccer squad’s first title in program history was different. Though boasting Costa Rican World Cup star Raquel Rodriguez and McCoy award winner Britt Eckerstrom amongst its starting lineup, and despite being the top seed, the Nittany Lions felt like an underdog due to the relative unknown of having never been there before. But strong offense and incredible goalkeeping brought about the first title for the school of the year.
Despite the excitement of both titles, though, it seemed like a down year for Penn State athletics as a whole, as—wrestling notwithstanding—the University’s arguably most dominant program, Russ Rose’s women’s volleyball squad, failed to make it out of the Iowa region in the NCAA tournament (let alone win a sixteenth conference title in an increasingly more competitive Big Ten), and the money program, James Franklin’s football team, lost their last four games en route to their second 7-6 season in a row.
So, this week’s MMQB asks--what program has the best chance to win a title next season? Both Big Ten, and NCAA.
We’re qualifying the question to both the Big Ten and NCAA titles, because in certain sports it is often more difficult to win the conference than the national title; take, for example, the women’s 2014 volleyball squad led by USA team member Micha Hancock, which lost the conference title to Wisconsin but won the national title (due, in this blogger’s view, to in no small part to a favorable schedule for the then-upstart Badgers).
Personally, and I think many readers of this blog will agree with me, I think this year’s wrestling title—both NCAA and Big Ten, both tournament and outright dual (unlike last year’s Co-designation)—will be Cael Sanderson’s team’s to lose. With all of the firepower that’s returning, and the guys in the weight room ready to step up to replace Nico Megaludis and Morgan McIntosh, coupled with the SCORE BIG SCORE FAST SCORE OFTEN mentality that no other wrestling program seems able to replicate, barring another rebuilding year like 2014-2015 until other programs #getonCaelslevel it may be a while before anyone catches up.
What say you, humble community? Will Walsh be able to replace the #2 overall NWSL pick, and arguably one of the best goalies in the nation last year? Will Rose and Salima Rockwell turn around their very young squad from 2015 into one of the elite teams that make a deep run into December, like we’re used to?
And what about Fencing, with thirteen national titles to their name, or men’s volleyball, who won back-to-back NCAA titles as recently as two years ago? There’s no Big Ten conference for either sport, but the Lions have been among the upper echelon in both.
Let us know in the comments.