Individual upsets, few surprises in team titles at conference tourneys
Conference wrestling tournaments have annually illuminated the last turn on the trail toward the NCAA championships, but this year they were reflective of a regular season that has been unpredictable and unforgettable.
Iowa and Iowa State claimed tournament titles from the sport's power conferences. Hofstra and Central Michigan continued mastery of two other leagues. The season's recurring trend of individual upsets made another appearance. All this set the stage for what could be the most compelling national tournament in years.
"There are so many great teams and so many great competitors," Iowa State sophomore Cyler Sanderson said. "It could turn out a lot of different ways."
Especially if the conference tournaments are any indication of what's to come March 20-22 at the NCAA championships in St. Louis.
The top-ranked Iowa Hawkeyes dusted themselves off Sunday to win the Big Ten title, recovering from a dreary semifinal round with a strong showing in the consolations to overtake defending conference and national champion Minnesota on its home turf. Iowa qualified nine wrestlers for the NCAA meet and scored 127 points, finishing 14.5 ahead of the second-place Gophers.
Three of Iowa's No. 2 seeds went down Saturday night when the Hawkeyes lost six of eight semifinal bouts and fell 12.5 points behind Minnesota. But they responded after coach Tom Brands challenged them to "right the wrong" in the consolations. Four Iowa wrestlers came back to place third, helping the Hawkeyes accumulate 30.5 points on the backside of the bracket.
"You win team titles by getting back on the horse when you fall off," Brands said. "We fell off the horse and we got back on and we feel good about it. The way these guys came back is how you win a team title -- when you're not where you want to be in the bracket, but you still perform and move forward."
The difference in the team race was unmistakable. Iowa went 12-3 on the tournament's final day. Minnesota went 2-8. There were three head-to-head bouts between the two schools. The Hawkeyes won all three, including sophomore Brent Metcalf's 5-3 victory against Dustin Schlatter in the highly anticipated 149-pound title clash that clinched the team race.
"We probably didn't have the kind of success we wanted to this weekend, but what's nice about this is we have another chance to prove ourselves," said Metcalf, who hauled home the conference's Wrestler of the Year and Outstanding Wrestler of the Tournament awards. "We have one more chance to go and perform."
That was the rally call for the Gophers, too. Minnesota coach J Robinson took three seconds to list the positives for his team at the end of the tournament.
"The positives?" he said. "We're going to the national tournament."
Stunningly, the Gophers -- with a lineup led by five former individual Big Ten title winners -- failed to crown a conference champion for the first time since 1996. The consensus preseason No. 1 team in the country lost all four of its title bouts and watched its only unbeaten wrestler fall for the first time in 36 matches. Indiana's Angel Escobedo knocked off top-ranked Jayson Ness in the 125-pound championship.
What's more, the injury problems that weighed on the Gophers throughout the year resurfaced in the semifinals when seniors C.P. Schlatter and Roger Kish pulled out of the tournament.
"You spend all year working to get to this point," Robinson said. "It's damn disappointing."
Iowa State is making another postseason push under coach Cael Sanderson. The Cyclones scored 75.5 points to finish 13 ahead of second-place Nebraska, capturing their second straight Big 12 title and qualifying all 10 of their wrestlers for the NCAA Championships.
"It showed us a couple things as a team that maybe we still need to fine-tune before nationals," 141-pounder Nick Gallick said. "But I think it gave everybody confidence and showed us we're in the mix and we can win the national title this year."
Gallick, Nick Fanthorpe, Cyler Sanderson and Jake Varner won individual conference titles for the Cyclones. Gallick scored an overtime takedown to beat third-ranked Nathan Morgan in the championship match, denying the Oklahoma State senior his fourth Big 12 title.
Like his team, Gallick seems to be wrestling his best at the most critical time. The 12th-ranked sophomore momentarily fell out of the rankings in December and went 2-3 at the National Duels in January.
"Obviously, I didn't have the best start," he said. "I had some ups and downs at the beginning -- probably more downs than ups. I think I have more confidence and it was hard at first to make the adjustment to the weight class. It's a little bit different, but I think now I'm adjusted to it and confident in it as well."
Gallick was one of six Cyclone starters who moved up at least one weight class this season -- an uncommon, wide-scale lineup adjustment.
"We want our guys to be feeling as great as possible when it's the most important time, and that played into it," Cael Sanderson said. "Plus, they all grew into the weight class; they weren't big. Kids are just used to that mentality where they've got to be suffering and sacrificing to make weight, but we'd rather put those sacrifices and effort into getting better, [rather] than maintaining our weight. I know we're going to have a fresh team in St. Louis, and that's what we need."
Second-ranked Central Michigan celebrated its seventh straight Mid-American Conference title by sweeping the league's last seven weight classes. Brandon Carter, Steve Brown, Trevor Stewart, Brandon Sinnott, Christian Sinnott, Wynn Michalak and Bubba Gritter claimed titles for the Chippewas. Michalak became the fourth wrestler in MAC history to win four titles.
Hofstra, ranked 17th, crowned three individual champions on its way to a seventh consecutive Colonial Athletic Association title. The Pride couldn't avoid the upset epidemic, though. Unranked Ryan Williams of Old Dominion knocked off Hofstra's second-ranked Charles Griffin in the 141-pound final.
Griffin wasn't the only highly ranked wrestler to fall in his conference tournament. Far from it.
Two top-ranked wrestlers -- Ness and Iowa 165-pounder Mark Perry Jr. -- stumbled in the Big Ten finals. The top four wrestlers in the country at 133 all lost in their conference meets, including Oklahoma State's top-ranked senior Coleman Scott, who slipped against No. 20 Tyler McCormick of Missouri in the Big 12 semifinals. Second-ranked 149-pounder J.P. O'Connor of Harvard suffered his second loss of the season in the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association finals against No. 15 Cesar Grajales of Penn.
But perhaps the most stunning upset of the weekend came from the Big Ten. Wisconsin senior Craig Henning, who was 15 seconds from winning the NCAA title at 157 last year, lost both of his matches and failed to qualify for the national tournament -- another unusual twist in an atypical season.
"Who would've said Henning wouldn't make it out of the Big Ten this year?" Robinson, the Gophers' coach, said. "Anybody want to vote on that at the beginning of the year? Something [out of the ordinary] is going to happen [in St. Louis] -- you can count on it."
Andy Hamilton covers wrestling for the Iowa City Press-Citizen.