Conventional wisdom held that Penn State would peak in March, just in time to win their sixth wrestling title in seven years.
Ohio State and Oklahoma State will look to prove otherwise this weekend in St. Louis.
The Nittany Lions, Buckeyes and Cowboys are among the teams to watch during the NCAA Championships, which start on Thursday and run through Saturday.
Ohio State knocked off Penn State at the Big Ten championships, and on Wednesday Penn State coach Cael Sanderson announced that star freshman Nick Suriano won’t wrestle this weekend because of an ankle injury.
“We were trying to get him to a point where he would be competitive and could defend himself and I don’t feel like he’s in that position,” Sanderson said.
Oklahoma State, ranked No. 1 for much of 2016-17, had eight different wrestlers claim titles and set a Big 12 record for margin of victory at the recent league meet.
Here are some of the things to look for this week with the tournament televised nationally in prime time during each day of competition for the first time:
POKES LOOK FOR REDEMPTION
Penn State, with five underclassmen qualified for nationals, will be the favorite after going 14-0 in dual meets and crushing Oklahoma State 27-13 in Stillwater. But Oklahoma State is the only school with ranked wrestlers in all 10 classes, led by top-seeded Dean Heil (141 pounds), and it could have the ability to rack up points in unexpected divisions.
“Whatever you do at the end of the year isn’t always a reflection of your season, but with wrestling it pretty much is,” Cowboys coach John Smith said.
Ohio State won the team title in 2015 and has three national champions, including 2016 Olympic champion Kyle Snyder.
Snyder wrestled just 12 matches for the Buckeyes this season as he juggled his collegiate and international duties. As expected, Snyder is undefeated in the heavyweight class heading to St. Louis. Missouri’s J’Den Cox, who injured his knee in the Rio Games but still took home a bronze medal, is 23-0 at 197 pounds in 2016-17. Saturday’s final will be the biggest stage for both of them since the Olympics, and Snyder and Cox are expected to show the country why they’re among the U.S.’s biggest hopes in the run-up to the 2020 Tokyo Games.
The meet will feature undefeated wrestlers in every weight class. Penn State’s Zain Retherford has won 59 matches in a row, and teammate Jason Nolf has taken all 22 of his matches in 2016-17. Illinois junior Isaiah Martinez, a two-time champion at 157 pounds, is 27-0 at 165 this season. Cornell’s Gabe Dean is 30-0 and looking for his third national title, while Iowa’s Thomas Gilman (125 pounds) will look to cap a perfect season and avenge a loss in the finals a year ago.
“It’s been consistent. It’s been a dominant run,” Iowa coach Tom Brands said of Gilman.
The race for the Hodge Trophy, the equivalent to football’s Heisman, is as open as ever. Snyder is undoubtedly the best wrestler in the country — and one of the best in the world regardless of weight — but the fact that he wrestled just a dozen times domestically might hurt him. Still, Snyder might force the voters’ hands if he wrestles to his enormous capabilities this weekend.
HE SAID IT
“This is national tournament week. It’s a good time to be alive right now,” Sanderson said.
AP freelance writer Travis Johnson contributed to this report from St. Louis.