Monday, March 16, 2009

Memories of championships past

The most popular three days in American amateur wrestling starts Thursday in Saint Louis – the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships. All other college divisions have crowned their champions like one long series of opening acts for the headliner.

WCWA Oklahoma City University
NCWA The Apprentice School
NJCAA Iowa Central Community College
NAIA Lindenwood University
NCAA DIII Wartburg College
NCAA DII University of Nebraska-Omaha

More people will fill the Scottrade Center for DI’s than attended all of the other intercollegiate championships combined. It is one of the very few championship events that is actually profitable for the NCAA.

Make no mistake – this is American wrestling’s big show – and once again I’ll be listening to Mark Ironside describe the action on the radio and watching the quarters, semis and finals on ESPN outlets. Business obligations will prevent me from attending.

Truth be known – I’ve probably attended far fewer Division I Championships than many fans – just seven. I know a couple of fans that haven’t missed in over thirty years. I first went in 1986 when a friend gave me his tickets for the first two sessions. I called in sick to work and had a great time. I don’t remember much about the wrestling – just about the excitement.

Most of the year I am a wrestling fan who favors the Hawkeyes. This week I’ll be 100% Black and Gold. Nationals have given me lots of great memories. In 1991 the final between Pat Smith and Tom Ryan was one of the best finals I’ve seen, but it was the following match that I remember most – when Mark Reiland hit that neck wrench and pinned Kevin Randleman. 1993 was the year of the comeback – Lincoln McIlravy and Troy Steiner scoring back-to-back come from behind wins in the finals and John Oostendorp knocking off Billy Pierce and Rulon Gardner to wrestle back for 3rd.

The 1995 Championships began with the ecstasy of Jeff McGinness pinning his opponent in a pigtail match and Sandy Stevens announcing, “With that fall by Jeff McGinness, IOWA takes the lead!” They ended with the agony of waiting for Lincoln McIlravy to come back and accept his second place trophy after Steve Marianetti scored one of the biggest upsets in NCAA finals history.

The year 2000 brought another comeback. After upset losses by three Hawkeye number one seeds: Jody Stritmatter, Doug Schwab and TJ Williams, it looked like Iowa State was going to end the Hawks’ championship streak. Each of those three came back to finish third with Stritmatter and Schwab each scoring bonus points in three of their four consolation matches. Saturday night in the finals Eric Juergens beat Cody Sanderson in the only head-to-head finals matchup between Iowa and Iowa State. Every Iowa fan immediately became a Wisconsin fan as the Badgers’ Donny Pritzlaff faced the Cyclones’ Joe Heskett. Pritzlaff’s overtime victory sealed the team championship for Iowa.

2001 did bring the end (until 2008) of the Iowa championship run. My memories are of Minnesota winning the team championship with 10 All-Americans and no finalists and of the three former California high school wrestlers, Stephen Abas of Fresno State, Adam Tirapelle of Illinois, and Mark Munoz of Oklahoma State celebrating their NCAA titles together. The Hawkeyes crowned two champions, but it was Mike Zadick’s upset of the Cowboys’ number one seed, Reggie Wright, in the second round that brought the house down.

No – I didn’t forget 1997. That year tops all years for me – despite the weather and the aluminum UNIDome benches. The list of memories from that tournament is long – six finalists and five champions, Kasey Gilliss pinning ISU’s David Maldonado in the first round, the McIlravy/Bono overtime final, “Uke, Uke, Uke, Uke, Uke” and Gable pounding his crutch into the floor when Lee Fullhart won his championship are some of them. The two that will stay with me forever, however, are Dan Gable’s high school coach, Bob Siddens, presenting Dan with his last team championship trophy and – of course – Jesse Whitmer’s improbable championship run. “Strongest man in the world!”

I envy those of you who are headed to St Louis. I hope you all come back with great memories.

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