With the Penn State wrestling team seeking a fourth consecutive Big Ten championship this weekend, there are plenty of story lines. Here are what I believe to be the ten most compelling stories for fans to follow at the 2014 conference tournament in Madison, Wisconsin.
10) Alton's Ascension?
Few wrestlers have been the subject of so much message board fodder. Dylan Alton has battled through injuries and tough times and knows he's capable of doing big things (see his third place finish at the NCAA tournament two years ago). Alton is a couple of minor adjustments away from competing for a title this season. He'll be severely tested by many of the nation's best at the Big Ten tournament. He goes in as the fifth seed and could realistically finish anywhere from first through seventh. A big tournament in Madison could set Alton - and Penn State - up very nicely for another NCAA run.
9) Gulibon's Gumption
Although he has more losses than he envisioned, Jimmy Gulibon has been in nearly all of his bouts and he steadily improved toward the end of the season. Gulibon seems to be peaking at the right time and if he can hit an early takedown or two and force his opponents to work from behind, Gulibon could pull some surprises at the Big Ten tournament. A Southern Scuffle-like performance from the redshirt freshman would give Penn State a big boost in its pursuit of another team title.
8) Will the Eagle Soar?
Jon Gingrich has battled for two years to be the full-time starter and while there have been plenty of disappointments, the Bald Eagle Area grad will now have his moment in the sun. Gingrich has the athleticism and the power to score big for the Nittany Lions. If he has confidence in his abilities (like his coaches have) Gingrich could be another pleasant surprise for Penn State fans.
7) What Can Brown Do?
The 174 weight is one of the most powerful weights in both the Big Ten tournament and the national field. Matt Brown is certainly capable of beating anyone but the top four guys in this weight at the Big Ten Championship are all national title contenders. Brown is looking for a second straight conference title and with it will assure himself a top three seed at the NCAA tournament.
6) Mac Attack
Few wrestlers are riding more late-season momentum than Morgan McIntosh. The heralded recruit from Calvary Chapel High School in California has won nine straight, including a decisive 8-4 win over previously undefeated and then-top-ranked Scott Schiller of Minnesota. McIntosh seems to be hitting on all cylinders and may be on the verge of living up to the lofty expectations he had coming out of high school.
5) The Golden Greek?
Although Nico Megaludis is a two-time NCAA finalist, he has never wrestled in the Big Ten finals. That figures to change this season with Megaludis going in as the number one seed and as focused as he's ever been (which is saying something). Megaludis is driven to capture both a Big Ten and an NCAA championship this season. Although the 125-pound weight class is loaded, Megaludis has been the model of consistency this season and rightfully goes in as the conference favorite. An NCAA title rematch with Jesse Delgado of Illinois could occur in the finals.
4) A Little More English!
James English is the embodiment of what we want this sport to be. A determined athlete and a brilliant student, English has persevered through multiple chronic injuries and a logjam of talent in the wrestling room at his weight to emerge, in his sixth year, as the starter for his first, last and only postseason appearance. English is dreaming of winning a conference and national title and while his resume isn't as lengthy as many others in the field, it is filled with indications that he is capable of something special. There may be no more inspirational story than James English.
3) Is a title In-Zain?
As a true freshman, Zain Retherford has taken the 141-pound weight class by storm. He served early notice that he was legit with a sudden victory upset of two-time national champion Logan Stieber of Ohio State. A potential rematch looms in the Big Ten finals and it will be one of the most anticipated bouts of the entire season. If Retherford can do it again, he will almost certainly be the top seed at the NCAA tournament.
2) Will David Taylor and Ed Ruth complete their Big Ten careers undefeated?
There are many impressive feats accomplished by Taylor and Ruth but to have a wrestler go through his entire career in a conference like the Big Ten without losing to a conference opponent in any setting is impressive - to have two accomplish it is virtually unheard of. Taylor and Ruth are looking to add to their legend within the conference. Both are not only favored to win a fourth individual title but to score significant bonus points along the way.
1) Can this team live up to expectations?
Many have thought it a foregone conclusion that this team - perhaps the best yet in Cael Sanderson's remarkable tenure - would capture a fourth straight Big Ten title. It certainly has the firepower to accomplish the task but will have to fend off strong challenges from Iowa and Minnesota, which downed the Nittany Lions by a point in the dual meet.
Penn State is also hoping to send all ten entrants on to the NCAA tournament for the second straight season. Penn State has not shied away from high expectations under Sanderson and this team doesn't figure to be any different. Although a Big Ten title is not the team's ultimate goal, it would be a great stepping stone toward wrestling's ultimate prize two weeks later.
Penn State figures to roar to a four-peat.
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