Monday, January 12, 2009

Thoughts on National Duals

The NWCA National Duals just might be my favorite wrestling event. The current format exposes a wrestling junkie to performances by the best intercollegiate student-athletes at all levels and of both genders. Most fans attend to support their favorite team – sometimes missing much of the spectacle. This year’s National Duals exemplified all that is great about college wrestling – and the wrestling community. Here are some random observations.

It seems almost impossible to avoid unpleasant weather when attending a wrestling event of any kind in Cedar Falls. This year was no exception. By the time I got our house completely dug out of the snow Saturday and felt it safe to travel I had missed the Hawkeyes’ first two meets. Even with the adverse Saturday weather, attendance at the UNI-Dome almost hit 16,000 – topping last year. The event continues to grow in popularity. Is 20,000 an attainable attendance figure? I think so.

This is a well run tournament. UNI athletic director Troy Dannen, coach Brad Penrith and their entire staffs are to be congratulated. The announcing team faced a daunting task of keeping fans apprised of the action on 18 mats (Saturday) and 6 intercollegiate divisions without slighting anyone. They were more than up to it. Every endeavor of this scope has dozens of people behind the scenes who make it work. I really don’t know who is responsible for what, but it sure seemed like Tammy Tedesco from the NWCA logged a lot of miles on the floor of the dome this weekend.

The Hawkeyes were tough. The Big Red from Cornell came to Cedar Falls to wrestle – and wrestle they did. Cornell held the lead in the finals after 165 but Iowa won the last four matches to retain the Division I National Dual championship for another year. Dan Erekson’s pin at heavyweight was an exclamation point at the end of the tournament.

I’ve followed Justin Kerber’s career since he wrestled for Emmetsburg High School. The son of 4X Iowa high school champ and 3X Hawkeye All-American, Jeff Kerber and the nephew of Hawkeye great and Olympic gold medallist, Randy Lewis, Justin would have seemed a natural to wrestle for the University of Iowa. Instead he chose to follow his own path and join coach Rob Koll in Ithaca. An academic All-American, he helped Cornell “upset” Iowa State in Sunday morning’s semi-finals.

The first time I ever saw Minnesota’s Brock Lesnar wrestle was at National Duals in Iowa City several years ago. His strength, physique and dominating performance created quite a buzz. When one reporter asked him how much he could bench press, Lesnar replied, “whatever I want”. Current Golden Gopher 125-pounder, Zach Sanders, is at the complete other end of the weight spectrum. I stood near him late Sunday afternoon and he just might be one of the smallest college wrestlers I’ve ever seen. With his “baby face” he looks about 15 years old. As was the case with Lesnar, National Duals afforded me my first opportunity to see Sanders wrestle. Don’t pay any attention to his size and facial features – this kid is going to be a good one. He is a skilled takedown artist with power on top that belies his size. I’m really looking forward to three years of battles between Zach and Iowa’s blue chip freshman, Nate Moore.

Augsburg’s cumulative score after the first two rounds in Division III was 110-0. Then, in the finals, they scored two falls in the last four weights to upset number one ranked Wartburg. They may be setting up one heck of a team race at DIII Nationals in Cedar Rapids this March.

I spent a lot of time watching the women wrestle. It’s a little disconcerting switching back and forth from watching folkstyle to watching freestyle – but it can be done. It’s pretty clear that there are opportunities to add women’s wrestling at more colleges. With 5,000 girls wrestling in high school, and that number growing, there is room for growth in roster spots and scholarships. Jamestown College of North Dakota is fielding a women’s team for the first time. With athletes from states like Hawaii, California and Michigan, they’ve attracted a full roster of wrestlers and were competitive in this tournament. I especially enjoyed watching Mason City’s Tiffany Sluik score a fall to help Jamestown to one of their victories. It was also heartening to see Olympic silver medallist Sara McMann in the stands supporting the women’s teams. Oh, by the way, Oklahoma City University kicked the snot out of the rest of the field to win the women’s division.

Speaking of Sara McMann, I still can’t get over being such a goober fan when in the presence of Olympic greats like Sara, Bill Smith, Doug Blubaugh and Ben Peterson.

Every year I adopt a team outside the normal group of schools I follow (Iowa, Iowa State, UNI, Coe and Cornell College). This year I picked Southern Oregon because my daughter went to school there for a year. In the closest final dual of the night, they won the NAIA championship on criteria.

Newberry College from South Carolina is another great story. In only their third year of competition, the finished as runner-up in Division II to Nebraska-Omaha. They have 33 wrestlers on the squad – 25 of whom come from states with no Division I programs. With high school wrestling continuing to grow in popularity in the southeastern United States and a limited number of competition alternatives, I see only bright things in the future for Newberry.

However, my favorite story of this year’s National Duals had nothing to do with the competition. Midway through the final round Sandy Stevens announced that one of the young lady wrestlers had lost a gold ring and described the area where the ring was thought to be lost. It was an area open only to those with credentials and you could see a stirring among the coaches and athletes as they began to search for the lost ring. About ten minutes later Sandy came back on the mic to say that the ring had been found by one of the coaches. It was a great way to finish the weekend.

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