Senior Moments Highlight 2014 National Title Run for Penn State
In any sport, in any season, fans tend to root especially for the seniors on their team.
This year, Penn State had three seniors in the postseason starting lineup. It is hard to imagine a more triumphant trio.
Ed Ruth capped off his legendary career by becoming the first Nittany Lion wrestler to ever win three individual NCAA titles. Ruth picked up a pin, a technical fall and a major decision before avenging his only loss of the last three seasons with a 5-3 decision over Gabe Dean of Cornell in the semifinals.
He then coasted to a 7-2 victory over previously undefeated and top-seeded Jimmy Sheptock of Maryland in the finals. Ruth finished his senior season with a 34-1 record and a career mark of 136-3, the best winning percentage in program history.
David Taylor was again magical in his collegiate swan song. Taylor pinned his way to the semifinals, giving him a truly unbelievable 11 pins in his last three NCAA tournament appearances. Taylor then picked up a major decision in the semifinals before dominating Tyler Caldwell for a 6-0 shutout victory in the championship bout.
Taylor was the only wrestler to compete in the postseason and go undefeated on the year. Not only did Taylor post a 34-0 record, he picked up bonus points in 32 of his wins. Taylor finished his career with 134-3 record, the second best winning percentage in program history.
He also finished with 53 career pins, tied with Josh Moore for the school record and he finished with 125 bonus point victories, an astounding accomplishment that will almost assuredly never be touched. Taylor also went through his entire high school and college career without missing a single bout, a testament to his dependability and a streak that is comparable to what Cal Ripken, Jr. did in major league baseball.
As great as Ruth and Taylor were, and they will go down as two of the greatest competitors in college wrestling history, this tournament may best be remembered for the contributions of the third senior.
James English came back for another season after the NCAA granted him a sixth year of eligibility for medical hardship. Many recommended the chemical engineering grad move on to his life's work. But English wanted to pursue his dream until he could no longer do so.
English has battled a chronic neck injury his entire career. He also came back from shoulder surgery. He suffered a back injury early this season and was behind Zac Beitz and Andrew Alton on the depth chart. English kept battling and kept asking the coaches for a chance, just a chance, to fulfill his dream. English placed second at the Edinboro Open, going 4-1 and losing a hard-fought one-point decision to redshirt Ohio State standout Hunter Stieber in the finals.
Wrestling five bouts in one day gave English the leverage to get a wrestle-off with Beitz and Alton in the wrestling room. English prevailed over both and earned the right to compete in the final dual of the season, at Rec Hall, against Clarion. English won and convinced the coaches his body could hold up in the postseason.
He placed fifth at the Big Ten tournament but pulled his hamstring in the process. So, with no real mat time between the Big Tens and the NCAA tournament and with his back and neck still ailing and a torn labrum now in what was considered his "good shoulder," English began what he knew would be his final wrestling tournament with an improbable dream of winning the national title.
After a tiebreaker victory in the first round, English took a 3-1 lead over Big Ten champion Jason Tsirtsis into the third period. But Tsirtsis got a late take down to pull out the 4-3 win and send English into the wrestlebacks. English won a 3-1 decision and then a 4-3 battle and then downed Zack Neibert of Virginia Tech in sudden victory, 6-4, to earn All-American honors. English then held a 3-0 lead in his consolation quarterfinal bout before getting caught in a cradle and pinned.
And so English dropped into the 7th place bout at 149 pounds and as his luck would have it, he would face returning national champion Kendric Maple of Oklahoma in his final collegiate bout. It is hard to imagine a more difficult match-up for English in the entire tournament.
But here he was, in overtime yet again, against the national champion and into the tiebreaker. English got the escape in the first 30 seconds and then had the best 30 seconds of his entire career as he rode Maple out for the win that, at the time, gave Penn State a one point lead over Minnesota in the team race.
In the end, Penn State beat Minnesota by 5.5 points for the title, meaning that the Nittany Lions needed English's All-America performance.
All ten wrestlers scored at the national tournament for Penn State and the Nittany Lions got key performances from All-Americans Nico Megaludis, Matt Brown, sensational true freshman Zain Retherford and Morgan McIntosh. All seven All-Americans finished their tournament with victories.
But, in the end, this year's run will be best remembered for the seniors that led the way. Taylor and Ruth, among the greatest in the sport's history and James English, one of the greatest stories in the sport's history and an inspiration whose story will long be told to wrestlers trying to persevere through the challenges that this sport offers.
Individual titles won, victories to remember, history made and legacies assured.
Penn State's fourth straight national championship will long be remembered for its senior moments.