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The Wrestling Dual Meet and Playing Not to Lose

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PSU vs Lehigh Favorability Index

Sunday, I described the 23-19 dual meet between Penn State & Lehigh as “thrilling,” but after sleeping on it, I’ve decided “tense” is more apt.

Penn State was down two starters and the injury-adjusted matchups severely tightened up the Favorability Index (above). After every dual meet, you can head to practically any wrestling internet watering hole and find vastly differing takes as to which team or wrestler was stalling, or at least wrestling not to lose.

Today, I found this take from “Nittany Chris” on BWI” and decided the topic is worthy of a deeper dive:

Sometimes, wrestling not to lose is an extremely good idea!

In point of fact, the sport of wrestling embedded that possible incentive into the very structure of the dual meet, when the gods of yore designed it. Sunday’s contest was a dual meet competition wherein only two teams battle each other and each wrestler’s opponent is not the entire field of his weight class, but a lone grappler representing the other team. There’s one bout to be won or lost and, in D1 college wrestling, there isn’t a ton of weight class juggling. Most typically, the opponent you get isn’t someone who’s beat up other wrestlers to reach you in a bracket; it’s just whoever that one other team has available to face you.

Penn State fans are lucky in that our coach generally employs a philosophy that runs deliberately counter to playing not to lose. We hear Cael talk all the time about how much he would prefer to see his wrestler lose via an attacking style, than to win with no action. The structure of team scoring that those same gods built for Individual Tournaments is a perfect fit for such a philosophy, in that it incentivizes and rewards an open pursuit of points and a dominating margin of victory. Run up the score for the literal win, if you will.

But our coach is also on record (both verbal & evidentiary, unlike some D1 coaches whose verbal declarations haven’t necessarily aligned with lineups they've employed) as believing that .... (warning: buzzphrase alert)..... duals matter.

Yesterday, both Penn State and Lehigh coaches wanted to win the dual meet, which necessarily meant--by edict of the ancient creators of the dual meet competitive wrestling structure--that a "playing not to lose" strategy absolutely must be employed--and in multiple bouts!

Let’s revisit each bout and see if we can uncover who may have wrestled not to lose, whether that was a helpful strategy for their team’s final result, and how successful such a strategy may or may not have been. While we’re at it, let’s make a ratings scale to try to generate #analysis metrics, and generally attempt to quantify an otherwise blowhardy and subjective textual exercise. Keeping it simple, we’ll give 1-3 points in three categories:

  1. How viable or sound was a “wrestling not to lose” strategy? Given the opponent and the Team Score at the time, was such a strategy actually smart team wrestling?
  2. How much did it look like they were “wrestling not to lose?” Did the visible action align with the supposition?
  3. How successful was the implementation of the “wrestling not to lose” strategy? Did they succeed or fail in “not losing” or “not losing badly?”

125 Darian Cruz WBF Devin Schnupp (1:13); Lehigh 6-0

When a RSFR with one win on the season was matched up across the mat from an undefeated returning National Champion, Schnupp’s wrestle-not-to lose mandate was clear. In order:

  1. Avoid the Pin (worth 6 Team Points to his opponent)
  2. Avoid the 15-point margin of victory Technical Fall (worth 5 Team Points)
  3. Avoid the 8-point margin of victory Major Decision (4 Team Points)
  4. Keep it (the likely loss, which he’s trying to avoid) to a < 7-point Decision (3 Team Points)
  5. Actually win (a huge, at least 6-point, swing in Team Points, via avoidance of 3 or more points to the opponent PLUS acquisition of 3 or more points for his own team)

Was it a good idea for Schnupp to wrestle not to lose badly?

Pretty much, yeah.

Dude was clearly overmatched, and will be in most bouts this season. Soundness of Strategy: 3pts. Was it apparent to most fans’ eyes that he was wrestling not to lose? The bout was over so quickly, this is difficult to score, but Schnupp met Cruz’ neutral tie-ups with a fighter’s mentality and didn’t appear to be obviously running, so Visual Evidence of Strategy: 1pt. His success score is much easier to assess, obviously; Strategic Success: 0pts.

133 Scotty Parker WBF Domenic Giannangeli (4:12); Lehigh 12-0

From our recap:

Dom wrestled tough! Gave up a tough single leg, but fought hard and didn’t get ridden long. Also, and this is important, he rocked an extremely veteran moustache, looking every bit the picture of old-world eyetalian his surname suggests.

A mat-room backup thrust into action vs the #3 cat in the country? Yes, employing a Bad Loss Avoidance strategy is sound: Soundness = 3pts. Did he look stally? Not to my eye, but again our visual sampling was cut short. What’d yous guys think? I’ll give Evidence = 0pts.

Success? Nah. 0pts.

141 Luke Karam DEC Jered Cortez 2-0 ; Lehigh 15-0

The Favorability Index previewed this one as a tossup, and it looked pretty clear that both guys wrestled not to lose. Karam employed the disgusting-looking one knee on the mat neutral style, while Cortez danced way more slowly than usual, and far away from him. When they moved to the mat in the second and third periods, Karam escaped, but Cortez did not and that was the final score. This one needs its own chart.

Both wrestlers looked like they were earnestly trying to escape and ride in the second two periods, but that p1 was so atrocious that they each get 3pts for Evidence. That was the first time I’d seen Karam wrestle, but he looked very comfortable with that one knee on the mat. Depending on how you spin that, he was either extremely wary of Cortez’ neutral attack or superbly confident in his own mat wrestling to come. Or both.

This silly exercise is silly enough that I don’t want to get into divisional ranking by period, so looking at the bout holistically, it made sense for Karam to employ a don’t lose strategy, but for Cortez less so. Dude has TRFR Nick Lee breathing down his neck in the room and truly has nothing to lose by attacking Karam’s one standing leg. Why didn’t he?

Why be tight?

1-3-0 seems to fit.

149 Zain Retherford WBF Cortland Schuyler (1:27); Lehigh 15-6

Zain can bonus his NCAA Finals opponent; Schuyler didn’t have the size or strength to avoid the pin, even if he had the stamina or commitment. He gets 3pts for Soundness and 0pts for Evidence & Success.

157 Jason Nolf TF Ian Brown 23-8 (6:40); Lehigh 15-11

Two years ago, Nolf decked Ian Brown in 1:22. He’s bigger now, is Brown. And more experienced in the Nolf School of Engineering, Department of Chemistry and Magic. It felt like Nolf could tell that merely cranking on Brown wouldn’t turn him, so he worked him first with takedowns, including a few absolutely brutal head snaps. Man, they’re pretty. In the end, though, Brown’s visibly clear strategy of wrestle not to lose too badly (Evidence: 3pts), while smart (Soundness: 3pts), was somewhat successful in that he avoided the pin, if not the Tech Fall (Success: 2pts).

165 Gordon Wolf MD Bo Pipher 24-12; Lehigh 19-11

Bo Pipher was giving up at least 10 pounds, and he knew his role: go out there and battle, and minimize team damage. Wolf was probably a little better, but not enough so that, except for the size and strength advantage, Pipher needed to turtle to avoid a big team score. Using the final score as hindsight, wrestling not to lose might not have been a very sound strategy. (Soundness: 1pt).

He obviously needed to minimize Bonus Points, but he kept the loss to a Major with his fight! He scored reversals and takedowns, scrambled hard on bottom and appeared to all reasonable observers to be wrestling to score points for himself and all his defensive wrestling seemed reasonable (fighting to not get turned). It was a fun bout. Frustrating for Wolf, but Lehigh fans had to have given their respect to Pipher’s effort and result. Evidence = 0pts, Success = 3pts.

174 Mark Hall DEC Jordan Kutler, 3-2; Lehigh 19-14

This one gets tricky to score because the combinations of Hall being favored, Kutler’s quality skill and danger, and PSU still being down by eight team points all flipped the onus to Hall actually being required not to lose (Soundness: 3pts).

Mark Hall has incredible neutral defense and rarely gets into dangerous positions on the mat, so as a matter of normal practice he could be viewed as wrestling not to lose against the top guys. It seemed pretty clear that he was fine no longer attacking, after he scored his takedown with that sick duck under. Evidence: 2pts, since it also seemed clear that he knew how much he needed that one takedown. Success? Yes, he cut the team’s deficit to five (Success: 3pts).

184 Bo Nickal DEC Ryan Preisch 3-2; Lehigh 19-17

For Nickal here, you could probably pretty much copy/paste Hall’s Wrestle Not To Lose scores, but Preisch complicated things with his own evidentiary caginess. Lots of that you can attribute to Bo Nickal being Bo Nickal, and Preisch likely having seen all the funky ways Nickal has decked dudes as good as Nick Gravina, Nolan Boyd & Sammy Brooks.

So I get wanting to play things a little safe against Nickal, but the team lead was down to five, with two bouts left after his, and PSU favored in each. Let’s go with 1pt for Soundness of Strategy, but oy vey, the appearance! Preisch did not attack once, and the event started to look like an old Mike Evans vs Matt Brown brawl by the end. Evidence: 3pts. Success? Nah. 0pts.

197 Anthony Cassar DEC Jake Jakobsen 8-3; Penn State 20-19

It’s also tough to score these stellar top-riders, because they play to their strengths despite any bout deficit. So, yes, Jakobsen was down 1-4 when he chose top, but he successfully rode the entire period and locked up the riding time point. Then he quickly escaped in p3 and did push the pace to try to tie it up with a takedown. So it didn’t look like he was trying not to lose (Evidence: 0pts) and with the team lead down to two and the #3 guy in the country still to wrestle for Penn State, it wouldn’t have been very smart anyway (Soundness: 0pts). Success = incomplete.

285 Nick Nevills DEC Jordan Wood 2-0; Penn State 23-19

With Penn State having finally taken the lead, and Nevills being the favorite, it’s possible we could have seen some wrestling not to lose from Nevills. And if you really stretch, you could frame his takedown defense and top ride as such, but that wouldn’t be very fair to what we saw in the arena. Wood had one great shot that, had he finished it, would have put the bout and the meet in real deep jeopardy for Nevills. So he fought it hard.

Same with the p3 ride: both guys were visibly fighting extremely hard, Wood to escape, and Nevills to hold him down. It all looked really active to me (Evidence: 0pts), and any strategic employment could have very quickly backfired anyway, so I wouldn’t say it would have been very smart to do so for Nevills (Soundness: 1pt, maybe). Success = incomplete here too.

The Takery

This was a tough, tense dual made even more so by Penn State’s two injury substitutions. It was cagey and strategic and tight, until the very end. The 10 individual bouts each brought some variation on playing not to lose, but in almost all of them such a play made a fair bit of sense.

I love the Dual Meet. It’s a sensible and simple way for two ‘teams’ of athletes in this individual sport to get some competition and send points to their team through their individual effort. The format allows for a reasonable completion time and if the event is produced as well as this one was, 9,000 fans can take in a great show of our amazing sport.

The Dual Meet is not as pure a test of a wrestler’s supremacy as an Individual Tourney is because, for an opponent, you get what you get. But the team scoring element of the Dual Meet introduces some interesting strategy that doesn’t come into play in tourneys.

One of those strategies includes varying applications of Wrestling Not to Lose. The team score, matchup situations and visual evidence inform what wrestling fans think they saw on the mat, how much they were or were not entertained by it, and whether they accept such an approach as sound or loathsome.