Nittany Lion Wrestlers Laying Foundation for a Fourth Straight National Title
On a night when the Penn State women’s volleyball team won its sixth NCAA championship, the Penn State wrestling team was making a down payment on its fifth.
The No. 1 Nittany Lions walked out of Carver-Hawkeye Arena into the teeth of a Midwestern snowstorm with a convincing 24-12 win over the No. 3 Iowa Hawkeyes.
It was the first time Penn State coach Cael Sanderson had walked out of Carver-Hawkeye as part of a winning team, as either a coach or a wrestler.
Sanderson has always downplayed that fact, but as a world-class competitor, you knew it had to eat at him.
Now that he’s slayed that dragon, Sanderson can get to work fine-tuning his starting lineup so it’s roaring along without a miss come March.
Don’t think for minute, even after a win as impressive as it was, that Sanderson and his staff don’t need to spend some time under the hood.
Penn State won without two of its starters in the lineup. Andrew and Dylan Alton each underwent offseason shoulder surgery. And even though each has been cleared to practice full tilt, the staff has been cautious in facilitating their return.
Assistant coach Cody Sanderson told the Penn State Sports Network after the Iowa dual that the Altons would probably make their season debut Dec. 28 at the Wilkes Open in Wilkes-Barre.
It will be interesting to see if Sanderson and Co. will enter either or both Altons in the Southern Scuffle on Jan. 1-2 in Chattanooga, Tenn. And, if they do, how long will they let each of them advance through the tournament before pulling the plug?
The Scuffle is arguably the best mid-season tournament in college wrestling, rivaling the venerable Midlands tournament in Evanston, Ill.
This year the field will feature 33 teams, including Oklahoma State, Minnesota, Cornell and Missouri, among other talented teams. Four of the top five teams in the country and six of the top 10 are scheduled to compete.
In addition, 135 NCAA qualifiers and 34 All-Americans are expected to grace the field.
If the Nittany Lions hope to win their third straight Scuffle crown, it figures they'llneed a strong showing from redshirt freshman 133-pounder Jimmy Gulibon. The four-time PIAA champion is off to a rocky start in the Penn State lineup.
His record has slipped to 4-6 after losing his last three bouts, including getting pinned against Iowa’s third-ranked Tony Ramos and a 3-2 decision to No. 6 Johnni DiJulius of Ohio State.
Both Cael and Cody Sanderson insist that Gulibon will be just fine. Cael said as much before a mid-week practice. And Cody made the same assertion after the Iowa win.
Is that wishful thinking by a coaching staff looking to prop up Gulibon’s spirits? Or is it a faith in what they see in the room and the track record of a staff that has made good wrestlers great and great wrestlers elite champions?
That remains to be seen, but a strong Southern Scuffle performance would be a good start in affirming the latter.
With the second two months of the regular season ahead, now’s a good time to evaluate each of the three-time defending champs.
125, Nico Megaludis: The two-time NCAA runner-up is 11-1 and humming along as usual. His only loss is to Cornell’s second-ranked Nahshon Garrett. He’s ranked No. 3, but regular-season rankings mean nothing when it comes to Megaludis. He performs best when the lights shine brightest.
133, Jimmy Gulibon: As discussed above, he has struggled. He’ll need to build momentum, and confidence, in the next two months.
141, Zain Retherford: The precocious freshman looks like the next Nittany Lion superstar to follow in the footsteps of David Taylor and Ed Ruth. He’s 12-0 and beyond that, what impresses most about Retherford is his ability to improve, not only from match to match, but within matches.
149, Andrew Alton: It will be interesting to see how quickly he can round into his old, dynamic self.
157, Dylan Alton: Much like his brother, it remains to be seen how long it will take him to get back to 100 percent.
165, David Taylor: He’s ranked No. 1, as usual, undefeated at 12-0 and there’s really no one in the country collegiately at his weight that can touch him.
174, Matt Brown: Undefeated (12-0) and ranked No. 3, Brown hasn’t been in danger of losing yet. His toughest battles are ahead, but he looks like he’s up to the task.
184, Ed Ruth: He’s ranked No. 1, as usual, undefeated at 12-0 and, like Taylor, there’s no one collegiately that figures to knock him off. He just got done majoring the No. 2 guy at his weight, defeating Iowa’s Ethen Lofthouse, 12-4.
197, Morgan McIntosh: The redshirt year obviously had its desired effect on the sophomore. He’s 11-0, ranked No. 3 and looks better than ever. He doesn’t have the flair for the dramatic that Quentin Wright had, but McIntosh is filling his shoes pretty well.
Hwt, Jimmy Lawson: At 11-1 and ranked No. 12, Lawson suffered his first defeat against Iowa, a 3-2 decision at the hands of No. 3 Bobby Telford. He’s gaining ground on the nation’s best. The only question is, can he catch them by March?
As a team, Penn State has no peer. It spanked Iowa, 24-12, without two starters. The only team that might have a shot is No. 2 Minnesota. The Golden Gophers might be favored at five weights, the Nittany Lions at the other five.
It’s a safe bet that Penn State and Minnesota will meet in spots sometime during the Southern Scuffle. That will give an indication of how those wrestlers match up.
That will be an appetizer for the main course, Feb. 9 in Minneapolis.