3:25 PM ET
- Ryan HockensmithClose
Picture this scene from last year's NCAA wrestling tournament.
In the weekend's last match, the best big man in the tournament, NC State's Nick Gwiazdowski, took the mat against his heir apparent, Ohio State sophomore Kyle Snyder. But come on, who could take down Gwiazdowski, a two-time defending NCAA champ with 88 straight wins?
The answer? Snyder. The undersized sophomore, just 10-0 after being pulled out of a redshirt year, tied up the bout with a late third-period takedown, then notched the match-winner in overtime. That bout capped off a tournament in which seven unbeaten wrestlers entered and only four escaped unscathed. The previous year, only four undefeated wrestlers even made it to NCAAs.
Which brings us to why 2017 is unprecedented in modern wrestling history. There's more team drama than expected after Penn State looked vulnerable at Big Ten championships. And each of the 10 weight classes has a Gwiazdowski-type Death Star: an unbeaten wrestler with a huge target on his singlet. Perhaps no wrestler looks as indestructible as Snyder.
The Buckeyes junior is rewriting what college wrestlers are capable of. Before he beat Gwiazdowski, he had stepped away from college wrestling and jumped to the senior circuit — as a 19-year-old — to face off against the best Olympic-level grapplers from Iran, Russia and Japan. He won there, becoming the youngest world champion in U.S. history, before setting his sights on Gwiazdowski. He won there too … then he took a gold medal in Rio.
Now Snyder leads that pack of college undefeateds with an entire bracket aiming to hand him a first loss. "I'm ready for that," he said. "I feel like if I wrestle my best, nobody can beat me."
By comparison, last year had seven unbeaten wrestlers. The year before, that number was four. In 2014, it was one. In 2013, there were six. The best recent comparative year may have been 2012, when eight undefeated guys entered the NCAA tournament, but they were bunched into five weight classes.
The 2017 class could go down as the all-time best, though. The other unbeatens — Iowa's Thomas Gilman (125 pounds), Ohio State's Nathan Tomasello (133), Oklahoma State's Dean Heil (141), Penn State's Zain Retherford and Jason Nolf (149, 157), Illinois' Isaiah Martinez (165), Arizona State's Zahid Valencia (174), Cornell's Gabe Dean (184), Missouri's J'Dean Cox (197) — bring ridiculous season and career records into this tournament. Tomasello, Heil, Retherford, Martinez, Dean and Cox have all won national titles before. Martinez, Dean and Cox are all going for three straight titles apiece. Cox was with Snyder in Rio, winning a bronze medal for Team USA.
"This kind of year doesn't happen," said Penn State assistant coach Cody Sanderson, brother of PSU head coach Cael Sanderson. "I don't think it means anything big about the sport. It's just an awesome, curious season."
Speaking of awesome and curious … Penn State brings considerable intrigue to the team race. The Nittany Lions, winners of five of the past six NCAA titles, romped through the dual meet season at 14-0, including a 27-13 rout at No. 2 Oklahoma State (the Cowboys had been 14-0 heading into that match). But at Big Tens two weeks ago, Ohio State — led by Snyder and three other individual champs — knocked off Penn State for its first outright Big Ten title since 1951.
Penn State still has to be considered the best bet to win again, with eight top-five seeds. The Nittany Lions have massive horsepower from unbeaten No. 1 seeds Retherford and Nolf, two of the heaviest favorites in the entire tournament. But all eyes will be on 125-pounder Nick Suriano's ankle. The freshman injury-defaulted out of Big Tens after he got hurt in the Oklahoma State dual. (Editor's note: Penn State announced on Wednesday afternoon that Suriano will not compete at NCAAs.)
The severity of Suriano's injury has generated plenty of mystery and conspiracy theories. If Suriano is healthy and makes a deep run at 125 pounds, it's almost impossible to see someone clipping Penn State in the team race. Cael Sanderson's comments on Monday clarified the 125-pounder's status — sort of.
"He's down in the room right now, wrestling," Sanderson said. "He's progressing along. He's looking good. I don't know what else you want to hear … He's in."
And while temporarily snowbound at the Pittsburgh airport on Tuesday, Cody Sanderson laughed when asked if he could please alert the world to Suriano's status.
"I'll say this: He's with us," Sanderson said. "We're hopeful. And we'll see what happens. His teammates have done a good job of not putting pressure on him. He's had a heckuva season, but this has been tough on him. Now it's about each of our guys going out and doing a great individual job, and hopefully that adds up to a lot of team points."
Penn State's biggest challenge could again come from Ohio State, with Snyder as a near-lock to win at heavyweight and Tomasello unbeaten at 133. Oklahoma State should push hard, too, after a historic showing at Big 12s, where all 10 Cowboys starters advanced to the finals.
"Penn State and Oklahoma State are really good," Snyder said. "We're confident — we think we can win this thing. But then again, I bet lots of teams are saying that right now."
Probably quite a few individuals saying it, too.