Fierce competition in Big Ten wrestling's 149-pound class
Bubba Jenkins has a world title, yet the Penn State sophomore couldn't claim one of the top three seeds in this weekend's Big Ten wrestling meet.
Northwestern's Ryan Lang spent his junior season on top of the national rankings, and a year later, he's No. 7 -- in his own conference.
Dustin Schlatter once was hailed as unbeatable by some followers of the sport, but now the Minnesota junior isn't even a consensus pick to reach the finals of a tournament he's already won twice.
Welcome to life in the Big Ten at 149 pounds. Welcome to perhaps the most absurdly loaded weight class ever assembled in one conference -- a bracket so deep in talent that two NCAA finalists could meet in Saturday's quarterfinals.
"I can't think of anything like it," wrestling historian Jay Hammond said.
No conference has ever produced more than five All-Americans in the same weight class. The Big Ten matched that record last year when the conference had five 149-pounders on the medal stand at the NCAA Championships.
The return of three of those All-Americans, the arrival of three more top wrestlers at the weight and the emergence of a couple of others have created the opportunity for the Big Ten to make an unprecedented push later this month and occupy seven of the eight spots on the awards podium at the NCAA meet -- provided they all survive this weekend's conference tournament in Minneapolis.
"The fur's going to be flying at that weight class from the time the first whistle goes off," Michigan coach Joe McFarland said of the bracket that features seven of the top 11 wrestlers in the national rankings. "I think the big thing is to get these guys qualified, get them through to the national tournament, and that's where that weight class is really going to work itself out."
The Big Ten meet also serves as a qualifying tournament for the March 20-22 NCAA Championships in St. Louis. The conference will send the top seven wrestlers at each weight, plus two wild-card selections, to the national meet, which could mean an NCAA-caliber 149-pounder gets left behind.
"I know everybody's going to be fighting, and just to get to the national tournament is going to be tough because these are seven of the top guys in the nation at our weight in the Big Ten," Ohio State sophomore Lance Palmer said. "It's going to be exciting."
The Big Ten's brutal bracket features an NCAA champion (Schlatter), two returning national finalists (Lang and Michigan's Josh Churella), a junior world champion (Jenkins), another All-American (Palmer) and two of the most prolific wrestlers in the country at putting opponents on their backs (Purdue's Jake Patacsil and Indiana's Kurt Kinser) -- and we still haven't gotten to the No. 1 seed yet.
That distinction belongs to Iowa's Brent Metcalf. The top-ranked sophomore was the only 149-pounder in the Big Ten to get through regular-season conference competition unscathed.
"That's a weight class where you could say it could be a coin toss between the top seven guys, but really, one guy has kind of put himself in the forefront, and he's done that by wrestling a style that most guys can't understand and they don't want to even attempt to go at that pace," Iowa assistant Doug Schwab said. "I think [the weight] sets up perfectly for a guy like Metcalf because it's a grinder and those guys are all going to have to go through damn tough matches."
Metcalf wrestled his way to the top with a relentless style and a breakneck pace that opponents haven't been able to match for seven minutes. He wore out Jenkins with 16 points in the second period before pinning the Nittany Lion in the third. He got to Palmer and Churella with late scores.
"His conditioning is excellent, and he pushes guys until they get tired," Palmer said. "That's one thing I've been working on. I've been working extremely hard on my conditioning with [assistant] coach Joe Heskett. He's been putting me through workouts where I don't get tired and give up third-period takedowns, because that's where Metcalf is really good -- in the third period, he can really wear down guys all the way to the point where they're just giving him takedowns that late in the match. He's definitely done a good job of pushing guys and doing that."
Metcalf is one of the three prominent newcomers at the weight. Lang moved up from 141, Jenkins cut down from 157 and Metcalf became eligible after sitting out a year following his transfer from Virginia Tech.
They joined a weight that had been controlled by Schlatter during the past two seasons. He captured the 2006 NCAA title as a true freshman and won 65 straight matches until last year's NCAA semifinals. But a hamstring injury cost him nearly two months of competition this season, and a loss to Palmer in the Gophers' final dual of the year dropped the two-time Big Ten champion down to the No. 3 seed for this weekend.
Churella, the Big Ten and NCAA runner-up last year, earned the No. 2 seed. His reward could be a quarterfinal match with Lang, who is seeded seventh.
Jenkins has gone from the top of the world to the middle of the bracket since last summer, when he became the first American in eight years to win a freestyle junior world title.
Palmer finished fourth at the NCAA meet last year. He's the No. 5 seed this weekend and could wrestle Jenkins in the quarterfinals.
"It's definitely more exciting having a challenge than beating the [expletive] out of everybody like I did in high school," said Palmer, a four-time Ohio state high school champion. "You've got something to work for, and it doesn't get monotonous [like] just beating everybody all the time."
There's no monotony in their approaches, either. The top seven seeds have wrestled their way to prominence with a varying collection of skills.
"Guys like Lang and Jenkins have styles that are comparable in that they have big moves and they're really quick and explosive," Metcalf said. "You've got me and maybe Churella with the way I've seen him perform in the past. He's a hard worker and a goer. And then Palmer and Schlatter are really great technicians and win matches with their style.
"[The weight class] definitely has all sorts of dynamics, and it's definitely got a lot of depth with guys who have had success at all levels."
Andy Hamilton covers wrestling for the Iowa City Press-Citizen.