PSU grapplers poised for 3rd NCAA title

UNIVERSITY PARK – For the two-time defending NCAA champion Penn State wrestling team, the 2013 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships offer more plot lines than an Alfred Hitchcock movie marathon.

Can the Nittany Lions three-peat?

Can 165-pounder David Taylor and 184-pounder Ed Ruth repeat?

Can Taylor finally figure out Cornell’s Kyle Dake?

Can 197-pounder Quentin Wright win a second championship at a second weight?

Can 174-pounder Matt Brown repeat his tour de force in the Big Ten Championships and live up to his No. 2 seed?

Can 125-pounder Nico Megaludis make it back to the finals?

Can the Alton twins bounce back from rocky performances at the Big Ten tournament?

One thing is certain: Nittany Lion coach Cael Sanderson is confident in his team, which will contend for its third-straight national championship when the tournament gets under way Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa.

“I believe we’ll have our best tournament this weekend, yes. That’s just the year-long plan, and making sure the guys are clear on their purpose and remember what we want, and make sure they’re going to do it, and very specifically,” he said at a press conference Monday. “Then, get out of their way and let them attack their goals.”

Who can argue with Sanderson’s assessment? Not only are his Nittany Lions gunning for their third title in their coach’s fourth year at the helm, they are coming off their third-consecutive Big Ten Conference championship in which they qualified their entire lineup for this week’s trip.

Two teams that Penn State outdistanced in the conference race – Minnesota and Iowa – figure to push the Nittany Lions, as well as Oklahoma State. Another PSU title would give it four and put it alone in third place on the team titles won list – behind Oklahoma State’s 34 and Iowa’s 23. Penn State is currently tied with Minnesota.

Ruth is the clear favorite to win at 184 pounds after winning at 174 last year. Taylor, on the other hand, despite being the defending champion at 165 and the returning Hodge Trophy winner, is seeded second at 165. The No. 1 seed goes to Cornell’s Kyle Dake, who last year became the first wrestler in NCAA history to win three titles at three different weights (141, 149 and 157). He moved up to 165 this year and is vying to become just the third four-time champion in the sport’s history, joining Sanderson and Oklahoma State’s Pat Smith.

The match is so anticipated that the NCAA, in a move that is unprecedented in a tournament that dates back to 1928, announced it will start the championship finals at 174 pounds and wrap up with the anticipated Dake-Taylor showdown at 165.

Wright, who won the 184-pound championship two years ago, lost in the 184-pound final last year to fellow Centre County native Steve Bosak of Cornell and is now at 197, isn’t favored to win a second title. He’s seeded second behind Kent State’s Dustin Kilgore.

“I think that winning the first one is probably the easiest, and it takes a lot of strength and character to come back and win two,” Sanderson said. “It’s a great challenge, and I’m always excited to see how these guys will respond to difficult circumstances. That’s what I enjoy as a coach, to sit back and see what they choose do in situations like this. They’re competitors, so I’m not too worried about them, just here to help them.”

Brown entered the Big Ten tournament seeded fifth but then roared to the championship. That earned him a No. 2 seed at the NCAA tournament behind No. 1 seed Chris Perry of Oklahoma State.

Megaludis was a surprise finalist last year as a true freshman. This year, he has lost to No. 1 seed Jesse Delgado of Illinois and two-time champion Matt McDonough of Iowa. Those two are seeded second and third, respectively, behind No. 1 Alan Waters of Missouri. Megaludis is fourth.

Dylan Alton is seeded eighth at 157 after placing third a year ago. Andrew Alton, who finished one win short of earning All-America status two years ago, is seeded 11th at 149.

Andrew Alton said that loss haunts him still.

“I think about that match almost every day,” he admitted. “What could I have done to be an All-American? It’s a new year and a new tournament and I’m motivated.”

As are, Sanderson said, all of the Nittany Lions.

“Well, we have some great veterans obviously and guys with a lot of experience and confidence, and great poise, and that rubs off on the guys that haven’t been there, and these guys have wrestled in big matches,” he said. “It’s a lot tougher to wrestle in Rec Hall than it is to wrestle at the national championships, so our guys are prepared to go, it’s just a matter of what they choose to do now.”

Notes: Along with the Nittany Lions, two Mifflin County natives are headed to the tournament. Lewistown graduate Matt Snyder will make his third straight NCAA appearance in his final campaign after finishing third at 125 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Tyler Bedelyon, a junior at Clarion who graduated from Indian Valley, was an at-large selection at 149.