Wrestling Mailbag: Cael vs. Gable, recapping NCAA championships, transfers, rules, and more
Saturday night at the NCAA Championships turned into another Penn State showcase. The Nittany Lions went 5-for-5 in the finals to punctuate another team title, the ninth for head coach Cael Sanderson, the third-most by a single coach in NCAA history.
Put another way: Penn State hired Sanderson away from Iowa State before the 2009-10 season, and since then, the Nittany Lions have been undeniably the most successful program in the country. They are doing things we’ve never seen before in this sport.
Consider these numbers:
In 12 NCAA Tournaments, Sanderson’s Penn State teams have won nine team titles and finished second once, and he’s coached 70 All-Americans and 32 national champs.
We’ve seen that before — about four decades ago, right down the road in Iowa City, when Dan Gable coached the Hawkeyes.
How do they compare?
In his first 12 NCAA Tournaments, Gable’s Iowa teams won nine team titles, finished second twice and third once, and he coached 86 All-American and 25 national champs.
Here’s where they differentiate:
The hallmark of those Gable-coached Iowa teams was the staggering number of All-Americans. From 1980-89, 74 Iowa wrestlers earned All-American honors, the most in the country in that time. Oklahoma State had the second-most, with 57. Between the 1979-80 and 1985-86 seasons, Iowa had eight, nine, eight, nine, seven, nine and eight All-Americans, respectively.
The hallmark of these Sanderson-coached Penn State teams is the staggering number of national champs. Penn State and Iowa are currently 1-2 in total All-Americans since 2010, with 70 and 69, respectively, but Penn State’s 32 NCAA title winners since 2010 are far and away the most by any program.
For perspective: Cornell is second … with 12. (Iowa and Oklahoma State are tied for third, with 10.)
Much of Gable’s NCAA success came in Friday morning’s quarterfinal round, where a win guarantees All-American status. In Gable’s first 12 national tournaments as Iowa’s coach, his wrestlers produced a 70-18 overall record in the quarters. In the same span, his wrestlers then went 50-20 in the semifinals and 25-25 in the NCAA finals.
Much of Sanderson’s success has come Friday and Saturday night, in the semifinals and finals. Over the past 12 NCAA Tournaments, Penn State wrestlers are 46-6 in the semifinals — 30-2 since the 2015 tournament — and 32-14 in the finals. Since 2017, Penn State wrestlers are 21-3 overall in the NCAA finals and have won 11 in a row.
That’s absolutely bonkers.
Here’s another wild stat: Penn State’s 32 NCAA champs since 2010 are more than any team has had since 2000. The state of Iowa’s three Division I programs have combined for 34 total NCAA champs since 2000.
Clearly Sanderson and Company have figured things out that the rest of the country hasn’t — the same way Gable figured something out during his 21-year tenure in Iowa City.
Eventually, the rest of the country caught up to the black-and-gold dynasty. Iowa State stopped a string of nine consecutive titles, then Arizona State, Oklahoma State and even Minnesota all won to break up Iowa’s dominance.
Here we are again, this time with a blue-and-white dynasty, and the rest of the country is again trying to figure out how to catch up. Ohio State and Iowa have both won over the past decade, but on Saturday, the Nittany Lions returned to the top again.
How long they stay there is anybody’s guess.
OK, onto the Wrestling Mailbag, the last of the 2021-22 season. Sad face. Our wrestling coverage will continue through this week and the spring and summer months, with some postseason folkstyle and some bigger freestyle and Greco-Roman competitions, so stay tuned (but after I take some time off first and foremost).
Please give me a follow on Twitter and I’ll keep you up to date on all things wrestling in Iowa. Don't forget to tune into the Register's wrestling podcast, In the Room, each week. You can find the latest episodes below.
Thanks for your help here, and for reading.
► MORE WRESTLING FROM THE DES MOINES REGISTER
- Iowa overcomes multitude of injuries for third-place at NCAA tournament
- Iowa State starts slow, ends strong; UNI starts fast, then sputters at NCAAs
- Day Three recap for the 2022 NCAA Wrestling Championships
This week's Mailbag roll call was actually the first one I thought of for last week, before we went to Detroit. But I ended up going with the Eminem lyrics.
There were a lot of memorable moments and quotes that came out of the NCAA Championships last week, but I couldn't really squeeze any of them into a roll call, which I often prefer to be jokes that are both topical and funny.
(I would love to see the total number of doubles and singles from this past weekend compared to the Tigers' 81 home games this season. I will not be tracking that myself.)
Remembering Cory Clark's NCAA title run in 2017
Yes, without question, especially when you consider who Cory Clark beat to win the title that year:
- 4-0 over Stanford's Connor Schram
- 10-5 over Princeton's Pat D'Arcy
- 6-4 over Michigan's Stevan Micic
- 7-4 over Ohio State's Nathan Tomasello
- 4-3 over South Dakota State's Seth Gross
That is a gauntlet. Tomasello and Gross both won NCAA titles, Micic made the NCAA finals and Schram was an All-American in 2016. And Clark won all of those matches with torn ligaments in his wrist and a shoulder that had blown out twice that season.
People aren't supposed to do that.
We saw over the past month how cumbersome injuries can be, with Michael Kemerer's shoulder popping out at the Big Ten Championships and Jaydin Eierman's torn ACL very clearly hampering his ability to wrestle at the NCAA Championships.
Watching Eierman lie on the mat during his round-of-16 match with Micic, clearly wounded but still clearly searching for a way to continue, was tough to watch. But I also hope it put into perspective some of the injuries these guys go through and what some of them fight through in order to compete just one more time.
Clark is the rare injured wrestler who went out on top, who got to ride off into the sunset as an NCAA champion. Not everybody gets that happy fairytale ending — even when they're fully healthy.
How transfers are impacting NCAA wrestling
It's a huge part of the game now.
Look at some of these impact transfers from this last year alone:
Penn State had Drew Hildebrandt (I know, he didn't add much) and Max Dean, from Cornell, who won a national title.
Michigan had Nick Suriano, Patrick Brucki (who only went 2-2, but still) and Kanen Storr (who didn't qualify, but was formidable when healthy). You could also argue Micic, who started his career at Northwestern, but we're nit-picking with that one.
Arizona State had Michael McGee (from Old Dominion) and Kyle Parco (from Fresno State) both finish as All-Americans to help it win a team trophy for the second straight year.
Think about when Iowa won last year: Austin DeSanto and Eierman accounted for 41 of the Hawkeyes' 129 team points. They don't win the team title without them. The year before, Pat Lugo, from Edinboro, won a Big Ten title and was the 1-seed for the NCAA Championships.
This is very much a the-rich-get-richer kind of conversation. The bigger programs can scan the transfer portal now and grab a plug-and-play guy to bolster their starting lineup. On its face, that sucks for some of the smaller programs who might lose their big-time wrestlers, but for those trying to win titles, you're falling behind if you aren't attempting.
A lot of people asked what the transfer market might look like this coming offseason. I don't have access to the portal so I don't really know outside of a few names who I've heard about and then reached out to see what was up (like Triston Lara, who's now headed to Oregon State, and Zach Price, who's still a free agent).
I imagine the transfer portal free agency period, which basically starts now and will run through the spring and summer and, for some, even all the way through next semester, will be hot as ever now. I'm sure all three of Iowa's Division I programs will be active.
Stalling and other NCAA wrestling rules
Well, for starters, none of you know what stalling is. I'm not saying that to be mean or to poke fun, because I'm not sure I know what stalling is either sometimes.
But, for example, let's use the NCAA finals. A lot of people were steaming mad about guys like Suriano and Roman Bravo-Young and Aaron Brooks and Dean and a few others because apparently, to many watching, they seemed to be stalling.
I'll hear those people out about Suriano basically stalling out the final period in the 125-pound final. He even said so himself. But while a lot of folks complained about the lack of action, here's what I saw:
- Suriano scored four offensive points (takedown, reversal) and Pat Glory scored none. Suriano won, 5-3.
- RBY scored two offensive points (first-period takedown) and Daton Fix scored none. RBY won, 3-2.
- Brooks scored four offensive points (takedown, reversal) and Myles Amine scored two (late takedown). Brooks won, 5-3.
- Dean scored two offensive points and Jacob Warner scored none. Dean won, 3-2.
Do you see what I'm getting at here?
But Cody! Aaron Brooks rode Myles Amine off the mat multiple times! That's stalling!
OK, sure. Brooks was hit for stalling in the second period. At some point, Amine needs to do a better job maintaining position in the center of the mat, clear Brooks' grip and escape. Why are we only getting mad at the top guy for doing what the rules allow for him to do? Why aren't we getting more frustrated that the bottom guy isn't escaping?
Put another way: Amine needed to score points. He did not, and as a result, he lost.
If you want to win NCAA titles, you have to score points. It's that simple. Just because fans want to see more action doesn't mean the wrestler on the mat is stalling. Don't rely on the officials for points. If you score points, you take it out of the ref's hands and you win matches.
I used stalling to really illustrate a larger point. I don't know if this is a misconception with regards to the rules, but the biggest problem I see time and again is the lack of full understanding of the rules.
Most fans don't read the rulebook cover to cover. To be fair, I don't either. I only really read it to understand a call after it was made.
Sometimes fans' frustrated reactions are merited. Take the Jay Aiello-Max Dean match, for example. In the second period, Aiello went claw-ride and took Dean over and probably should've had two nearfall, but the ref was out of position (which isn't the best excuse because you can start counting swipes while you get in position but it's the only one that made sense).
But then in the third, Dean scored a takedown on that weird scramble and the ref got it right because Dean had control of Aiello's foot through the sequence, so the move was his so he was awarded the points in the end. At least that's how I saw it.
But here's another stalling example: Sebastian Rivera-Chad Red in round two at 141. Rivera won on a stall call in sudden victory because he walked Red from near the center of the mat to out-of-bounds. I watched that one happen in real time. It sucks that the call was made, because nobody wants to see an overtime match decided on a stall call …
… but, by the book, it was the right call.
We all would've preferred the ref swallow his whistle in that moment, but that rule is pretty straightforward, so Rivera won.
No thank you.
That's mixing too much freestyle into the folkstyle product and I don't like it.
Also, technically speaking, you're looking at the possibility of wrestlers leading 8-0 after the first period, 11-0 after the second, and winning matches 14-0, but more over, a scoring system like this would continue to encourage the idea of riding without turning, because no matter what, you get a point at the end of a minute.
Everybody wants more neutral wrestling — and, more accurately, more freestyle neutral wrestling. I understand why. The Olympics this past summer, followed by the ensuing world championships (both successful tournaments by U.S. wrestlers), have made us want to see more action than we're used to in the folkstyle game.
I do too. Let's not get that twisted. More action is more exciting and more fun. It's aesthetically pleasing and it helps draw people in. If I'm going to show a new wrestling fans matches, I'm showing them the Bryce Andonian-Austin Gomez NCAA quarterfinal before I show them the RBY-Daton Fix NCAA final. Get them hooked first.
The point here is that folkstyle and freestyle are two fundamentally different wrestling styles — folkstyle is all about control; freestyle is all about high-amplitude and fast pace — and they need to stay that way so long as folkstyle continues to exist.
I'll entertain the idea that maybe we need to move away from folkstyle altogether and wrestle strictly freestyle, but even then, folkstyle will always hold a special place in my heart.
The other thing too that people are maybe coming around on: Wrestling folkstyle helps develop an element of toughness that the rest of the world simply doesn't have. U.S. wrestlers have insane gas tanks and that gives them such an advantage that freestyle rules now state that injury time can be unlimited if the medical staff needs it.
Also, we're starting to see some folkstyle technique in freestyle matches anyway. Go back and watch Keegan O'Toole's run to a Junior world title last summer. That dude was whipping cradles out and none of his international opponents knew what to do.
But either commit to completely going from one to the other, or don't. Huge overhaul rule changes like the ones you're suggesting feel like you're just dipping your toes in the water. Jump all the way in or don't. In this particular case, don't.
Why is Penn State wrestling so successful?
I think fit is a thing that matters and I think timing is a thing that matters and the combination of those two things is something that doesn't get talked about enough when it comes to college athletics at large.
For example, I believe that DeSanto probably wouldn't have been nearly as successful had he gone anywhere but Iowa. Tom and Terry Brands were the perfect coaches for him at this particular stage in his wrestling career, and they brought out the best in him — both on and off the mat.
I believe the same can be said for Lugo. He came to Iowa from Edinboro with a good skillset and Tom and Terry helped him make that skillset great. I'm not sure he would've gotten as much better had he gone anywhere else or decided to stay to Edinboro. Again, that's a situation where the wrestler fit the staff at the best time.
I think the same things in regards to Penn State. Dean was already great, an NCAA finalist in 2019, before moving to State College, but he seems like a right-place, right-time thing. I'm not sure he would've found the same success if he had joined the Nittany Lions earlier or later in his career. I think he could've won had he stayed at Cornell.
Also, consider Hildebrandt: an All-American last year, fourth in the country, for Central Michigan, but at Penn State, he went a combined 1-4 in the postseason (0-2 at the Big Ten tournament, 1-2 at the NCAA Championships). I don't know all the variables that went into that specific situation, but that's an example of fit maybe not working.
I think Mekhi Lewis is a perfect fit at Virginia Tech, the same way I think the entire Amine family is a perfect fit at Michigan, the same way I think Brandon Courtney is a perfect fit at Arizona State, the same way I think O'Toole and Rocky Elam are both perfect fits at Missouri. There are countless examples like that all over the country.
Some guys, with the benefit of hindsight, could probably win anywhere. I think Bravo-Young would've been a great fit at Arizona State, for example. I think Kyle Snyder could've won at Maryland. I think Thomas Gilman would've been great at either Iowa or Oklahoma State. I think Alex Dieringer would've been just as great at Wisconsin.
The thing Penn State has going right now is a ton of positive momentum and that ridiculous record on both Friday and Saturday nights. I said this at the top, but it bears repeating again: Cael Sanderson and his staff have figured things out that the rest of the country hasn’t, and it's on the rest of the country to figure it out and run them down.
Iowa wrestling team chemistry
The best way I can describe it is this:
After DeSanto took third Saturday's first session, he embraced Iowa coach Tom Brands and then met his teammates in the far corner of Little Caesars Arena, where Alex Marinelli hugged him. They went into that tunnel where more teammates — Max Murin, Kaleb Young, and more — hugged him and congratulated him.
When Warner lost to Dean on Saturday night, he walked off toward the other corner and the first people he saw were his teammates — Drake Ayala, Marinelli, Young, Kemerer, Tony Cassioppi, Cullan Schriever, literally anybody and everybody who made the trip. They all walked together in the tunnel back to their team camp afterward.
Teams before 2017-ish just didn't do that.
I remember when Tony Ramos won his title in 2014, he ran off the stage and jumped into the arms of his family. It's been a while since then, but I don't really remember him enjoying that moment with his teammates afterward.
But in 2019, when Spencer Lee won his second NCAA title in Pittsburgh, the entire team crowded into the small media room to see Lee's post-finals press conference. Sam Stoll even asked a question:
Spencer Lee, why are you the baddest man on the planet?
Everybody laughed, and then Stoll carried Lee out on his shoulders.
I didn't really see a ton of that during my first few years covering the team, and I've been covering the program for basically the past decade — from 2012-15 for The Daily Iowan, and now for the past five seasons here in at the Register.
These past five seasons, the team, as a whole, has been significantly closer. Those little moments after some of their biggest matches have really shown the strong bond these guys have developed over the years.
Put it this way: I'm not sure I heard the word "brother" at all from 2012-15. I've heard it probably every day over the past five seasons.
Way-too-early-look at Iowa, Iowa State, UNI wrestling lineups
I have deeper breakdowns coming on all three teams this week, but here's a quick glance off the top of my head:
- 125: Spencer Lee
- 133: Cullan Schriever
- 141: Wyatt Henson
- 149: Max Murin
- 157: Bretli Reyna/Cobe Siebrecht/Caleb Rathjen
- 165: Patrick Kennedy
- 174: Nelson Brands
- 184: Abe Assad
- 197: Jacob Warner
- 285: Tony Cassioppi
While we're at it, here's Iowa State's, too:
- 125: Kysen Terukina
- 133: Ramazan Attasaouv
- 141: Zach Redding
- 149: Cam Robinson
- 157: David Carr/Paniro Johnson
- 165: David Carr/Paniro Johnson/Isaac Judge
- 174: Joel Devine/Julien Broderson
- 184: Marcus Coleman
- 197: Yonger Bastida
- 285: Sam Schuyler
And Northern Iowa:
- 125: Brody Teske
- 133: Kyle Biscoglia
- 141: Cael Happel
- 149: Colin Realbuto
- 157: Derek Holschlag
- 165: Austin Yant
- 174: Lance Runyon
- 184: Parker Keckeisen
- 197: John Gunderson
- 285: Tyrell Gordon
There's a lot more at play, of course — with all three programs. Again, deeper breakdowns are coming this week, so stay tuned.
I had a lot of favorite moments.
I loved watching the Peyton Robb-Jacori Teemer match on Saturday morning, the last 20 seconds of which has since gone viral for its awesome action and sportsmanship. I watched that one happen in real time. It was a thing of beauty.
I loved watching O'Toole win on Saturday night — not just that he won, but how he won. Shane Griffith scored two takedowns for a 4-2 lead and looked like he might cruise to a second-straight title, but O'Toole reversed him in the second for 4-4, then scored his own takedown in the third to win it, 6-5. Gritty and gutsy.
Honestly, I loved watching Cohlton Schultz all weekend. His Friday was a masterpiece — he scored two takedowns in the third period to beat Michigan's Mason Parris 6-5 in the quarterfinals, then had that tremendous front-head hold/Greco-Roman roll for a takedown in a 5-3 overtime-tiebreaker win over Lehigh's Jordan Wood in the semifinals.
It felt like a lot of the matches at 149 pounds were bonkers — Bryce Andonian pinned Austin Gomez in a thriller in one quarterfinal, then Ridge Lovett pinned Tariq Wilson in another, then Gomez beat Andonian, 5-4, in the semifinals, all while Sammy Sasso outlasted both Beau Bartlett, 6-4, and Kyle Parco, 5-1 in overtime, on the other side.
There are so many more — Griffith beating Evan Wick at the gun in the semifinals, the Carter Starocci-Mekhi Lewis final, every match Parker Keckeisen wrestled (especially the two on Saturday). It was awesome to see Marcus Coleman roll up Trey Munoz to secure All-American honors. His smile when the match went final was everything.
It was an electric week of wrestling. I worried I might've been a prisoner of the moment, that I was sucked in too much because it was the first true NCAA Tournament with all the fans in the stands and every team back competing, but the more I look back at the week, the crazier it gets in hindsight. It truly was a spectacular, magical three days.
This week, I'm grateful for you, dear readers. We produce a lot of wrestling content each season — stories, videos, interviews, podcasts, more — and each year, I am always stunned, humbled and appreciative of the interaction, viewership and readership that you provide. Your collective fandom never ceases to amaze me.
I like to think of each wrestling season as a ride we all take together. We all watch the same matches and tournaments and other various competitions, but we all learn and view the same things differently, and we continue that discussion here, online and even in person. It is always a thrill to hear what you guys think and have to say each year.
This season was a joy — between the action, the stories, the interviews and everything else. You are part of that. From the bottom of my heart, thank you. We'll talk again soon.
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.