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2016 Penn State Wrestling - Best Team Ever?

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It's hard to argue that this isn't the best Penn State wrestling team ever. Coach Cael has them winning everything. Look out NCAA's, here come the Lions!

Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Growing up in Central Pennsylvania, it's hard to escape wrestling...especially back in the early 1980's. While it isn't quite on par with Iowa or Oklahoma, every boy in my grade in State College Area High School wrestled at least once in gym class. I hung around a lot of athletic types and there were always somebody "cutting weight" for a wrestling match. While I never learned to like to do it, I learned to really admire the sport.

Wrestling is as strategic as football and faster than basketball. Done right, it's a lot of fun to watch. But it takes time to learn what's going on and it doesn't have a true "pro" level, short of the Olympics, so it doesn't get the kind of TV coverage that even volleyball or gymnastics enjoys.

That's a shame, because the B1G has some great wrestling teams and has for years.

Growing up in the town of State College, we had the opportunity to go to Penn State wrestling matches. I can still remember the smell of dust, old heating ducts, and wrestling mats that greeted me every time I went into the old Rec Hall building.

The venue is small, so there were no bad seats. I'd yell myself hoarse during the close matches.

It was a tradition that began in High School and carried on through college and beyond. I am a wrestling fan. And while I'm not as up on things like I used to be, this Penn State wrestling team is special. Truly special.

To help me express just how great Penn State's team is...and was...I enlisted help. First, I've asked bscaff, a talented writer for Penn State's Black Shoe Diaries site, to help out. He's followed PSU wrestling for years now and has a great, in depth perspective.

And I also sought out input from the voice of Penn State wrestling, Jeff "Ironhead" Byers. He's the award winning announcer for Penn State wrestling, a post he's held since 1990. He's also been a contributor to statecollege.com and a popular radio personality. Jeff and I go back to the early 1980's, and he was kind enough to answer a bunch of my questions about Penn State wrestling.

Back in the early 1980's, Penn State was just emerging as a wrestling power. According to Jeff, it was Rich Lorenzo, the coach at the time, who brought Penn State into the national spotlight. Back then it was the team to beat in the east, but we still weren't a national power. In fact, we had only one national championship prior to Cael Sanderson, our current coach, arriving.

What's that, you've never heard of Cael Sanderson? Why friend, let me give you a little background. Cael wrestled for Iowa State. His record was 159 - 0 in four years of college. He's the only wrestler to go undefeated and win four national titles in his collegiate career. He was a 2004 Olympic champion in Athens, Greece.

Cael's teams won four straight national championship titles from 2011 - 2014. He's coached 19 All-Americans and eight national champions. He's had some special wrestlers - Frank "the tank" Molinaro was a 2x finalist and 1x Champion; Quentin Wright was a 3x finalist and 2x champion; David Taylor won two Hodge Trophies (the wrestling Heisman) as a 4x finalist and 2x champion; Ed Ruth was never beaten in 4 years of Big Ten conference matches, and finished his career with a 136-3 record, and 3 individual national titles.  Each of those four were also 4x All-Americans, all at more than one weight (and Wright did it at 3 different weights).  By the way - those four were all on the same team for two different seasons.  They were pretty good.

That said, Jeff thinks that this team is the best group of wrestlers in Penn State's 108 year history. The team is 16-0 in dual meets. That's the most wins ever for an untied and unbeaten PSU team. They're currently projected to score 125.5 tournament points before bonus - 30 points ahead of 2nd place Oklahoma State (whom Penn State just destroyed 29-18 for a team dual national title).

Here's a quick list of highlights from this year so far:

  • They beat the EIWA Champ, long-time rival Lehigh, on the road 28-9;
  • They beat the ACC Champ, VaTech, on the road 21-15;
  • They beat the Big12 Champ, Oklahoma State, 29-18;
  • They beat the Pac12 Champ, CSU-Bakersfield, on the road 39-3;
  • They beat the EWL Runner-up, Rider, on the road, 38-4;
  • They beat seven other ranked opponents 254 to 56;
  • They outscored all opponents 548 to 132;
  • They outscored all Big Ten opponents 312 to 71;
  • The takedown ratio was 4 to 1 in favor of  Penn State  (423 to 105)

This team could easily end up with 7 All-Americans, and potentially all 10 could finish on the podium. It should have four or five wrestlers in the finals, and potentially five national champions (out of just 10 weight classes).

Whew.

Jeff attributes the development of this team to Cael. His humility, unassuming nature, and pure love of wrestling. He's a positive guy who lets kids reach their potential. Jeff says you can see it...he loves watching the kids compete. He can attract the best talent, not just from Pennsylvania but from all over the country.

Those kids from California, Texas, Ohio...those kids come because Cael can make them better. That's a big reason for Penn State's success in his tenure. Here's the national rankings (via InterMat Wrestling):

Wrestler

Weight Class

Ranking

Nico Megaludis

125

#4

Jordan Conaway

133

#5

Zain Retherford

149

#1

Jason Nolf

157

#1

Shakur Rasheed

165

#17

Bo Nickal

174

#1

Matt McCutcheon

184

#7

Morgan McIntosh

197

#1

Nick Nevills

HWT

#16

Cael is a no-bullshit type coach. He teaches offensive minded wrestling. It's aggressive and fun to watch. His style is to focus on wrestling. That's how you get better. Weights and running are fine, but you get better at wrestling by wrestling.

More than that, Cael teaches the kids to be great people. Jeff says these wrestlers are the most grounded group of young men he's seen.

Bscaff and I asked Jeff to expand on this year's team. We started with Jason Nolf, a redshirt freshman who is about as confident and fearless a kid as I've ever seen wrestle. Jeff said Nolf's style is to score points...as many as possible in a match. He and Zain compete every day in practice, and even then, he's out to score as many points as possible.

Bscaff specifically wanted to know who the real number one is at 197 pounds, with Morgan McIntosh ranked that high but J'Den Cox running a close second.  Jeff told us that both McIntosh and Cox are special wrestlers. Either one is capable of taking the title.

That said, Morgan McIntosh is a unique kid. Jeff really likes him. He has sports and life in perspective. But his goal is the Olympics, beyond the NCAA championship. According to Byers, McIntosh spent much of this year working on scoring points from the top position. He's very good at scoring, which is what puts him in the top spot at 197.

Finally, we asked Byers to talk about the rise of eastern teams like Cornell, Virginia Tech, and N.C. State. We laughed about the Virginia Tech coach calling the Iowa coach an "orange" for dodging a dual meet. This is great for the sport of wrestling. Schools like Boise State, Duke, and even Lehigh are committing to quality wrestling programs. That's great news for the sport, and it's certainly welcome after three decades of the opposite.

Roll back the calendar to those early 1980s of my youth, and you'd find more than 200 collegiate wrestling programs at the Division 1 level.  Like football, there was no women's equivalent for wrestling (though that's beginning to change now), and when Title IX legislation hit, wrestling - which is generally not accretive to athletic departments - became an easy cut for administrators.  The result was devastating.  Today there are fewer than 80 D1 wrestling programs.

But the bleeding off of programs finally slowed, then stopped, and now is reversing course.  Grand Canyon - it's an actual college in Arizona - began a wrestling program and will move from provisional status to full D1 membership after this season.  Fresno State's President has promised to bring the sport back to California's central valley.  And it's growing wildly in SEC country at the high school level.  Wrestling's survived its death scare, and is coming back stronger.

One of the challenges to future growth, of course, is that it's not a simple sport to pick up.  There's no ball for the camera to follow, the scoring can be confusing to beginners, and it's a combat sport - fighting doesn't appeal to everyone.  Consequently, you don't get to flip on the tube and watch wrestling.

Thankfully Al Gore invented the innernets, and streaming coverage can be found on your nearest connected device.  This being the Big Ten, Jim Delany does charge a nominal fee for access to student broadcasts of wrestling events.  But ESPN3 let's you watch the ACC, MAC, and Big12 for the price of on the house.

In addition, the best aspect of wrestling - the post season - does appear on TV, and it's not too late to catch Penn State stomping the tar out of the rest of the nation.

ESPN covers the National Championships, held in Madison Square Garden this year, on ESPN2, ESPNU, and even regular old ESPN.  No ESPN The Ocho subscriptions needed.  That's because ESPN's ratings have sky-rocketed each of the last 5 years - and the Mouse has bumped the sport up the channel lineup in conjunction with it.

It's a growth sport, dominated by our favorite conference (4 different Big Ten schools have won 9 of the last 10 national titles).  Join in now while the gettins good.  You'll look smart and impress your neighbors.  They might even be fooled into believing there's a mentally and physically tough wrestler hidden beneath your disgusting, doughy, chat room body.

Your Friends,

Townie and bscaff