However, Penn States inability to fight out from underneath the Oklahoma wrestlers is also significant. The good news: There is still plenty of time to work on the problem areas before the postseason tournaments roll around.
Though Penn State fans should not be overjoyed by the results, going 2-3 against the ranked opponents the Nittany Lions faced could serve as a good building block. With Eric Bradley wrestling in just one of the meets on the weekend because of the sore biceps, Penn State mustered up a very gutsy effort. Adam Smiths ability to ride out the third period and pick up the win against Cornell kind of exemplified the determination Penn State showed. I think fans should also be encouraged with the way the team, as a whole, responded to a somewhat sluggish performance against Oklahoma. The wins that followed over West Virginia and a very good Cornell team showed the type of potential this squad has. Although the Nittany Lions remain outmanned at some weights, this group can be a solid dual-meet team if it wrestles with some fire and determination.
Penn State is looking to build on that momentum with a couple of Big Ten home matches this weekend. The Nittany Lions are looking to get more consistent performances from Adam Smith, DeWitt Driscoll and Nate Galloway. The steady progress of redshirt freshman Bryan Heller and Phil Davis, not to mention their exciting styles of wrestling, continue to be huge pluses for this years squad.
A couple of quick notes on the NWCA Cliff Keen National Duals. The event may be pushed back to earlier in the season, which would probably benefit the event and the sport. Having a marquee early season event would help spark interest at the start of the season. The thinking being that this would be similar to the preseason NIT or the Maui Invitational in basketball. Regardless of when its held, they need to have the marquee teams involved this means trying to consistently get Iowa, Iowa State, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Penn State and Lehigh involved. These programs bring fans, especially Iowa.
Cleveland, in my opinion, did a poor job of hosting the event the past two years. However, the coaches of the respective teams need to push their administrations to make this event a priority. The fact that we had to scramble to get information on top 20 programs, or in the case of Michigan, a top-5 program with no sports information contact available, is ridiculous. If nothing else, send along some statistics and bio information with one of the assistant coaches or a manager. This event should be something special in the dual-meet season, but it needs to be treated as such.
Ideally, this event could be moved to early December and the fledgling Pennsylvania Duals, which also has great potential, can be wrestled within a week or two of the national event.
Out of Control
One other note on the sport in general. I have been pleading for years and am hoping that someone with authority will soon hear my cries: We must change the riding-time situation. If a wrestler on bottom comes out and grabs a leg and has the man who started on top bouncing up and down on one foot, the riding time should NOT be accumulating against the wrestler who started on bottom. There just needs to be a way for a referee to signal that riding time should stop until he determines if an escape or reversal is to be awarded. Too often, a wrestler who has NO control is able to build riding time in a match.
I realize there is still plenty of wrestling left this season and still think there is a chance for Penn State to pull some surprises in the postseason. But I firmly believe next season this program will make a strong run toward a top-three finish in the Big Ten and a top-five finish at the NCAA tournament. Provided the Nittany Lions stay healthy and get the hardship year of eligibility for both James Woodall and Eric Bradley, Penn State should have its strongest team since Sunderlands first season as head coach. Of course, staying healthy in this sport is a very rare occurrence indeed, and predicting the outcome of NCAA cases is harder than trying to figure youre way out of a Josh Moore pinning combination.
Regardless, here is just my early guess at next years lineup. It is worth noting that the overall depth next year will also be the strongest Penn State has had since Sunderland took over the program.
125: Tim Haas The guess here is that Haas will be able to get down to 125 and become a force in this weight. While Pataky has great upside potential, I think a redshirt year would benefit his progress.
133: Jake Strayer Before this season started, few would have had any questions that Strayer would be next years man at this weight. But Bryan Hellers performance makes me wonder if he wont be able to beat out Strayer by next year. Regardless, the winner of this weight should be an All-American contender at the least next season.
141: DeWitt Driscoll As a senior, Driscoll should be a solid All-American contender. If he can improve on his positioning, especially from the bottom, he could become one of the elite wrestlers at this weight next year.
149: James Woodall A healthy James Woodall can beat anybody in the country at this weight. Hopefully, the NCAA does right by this kid and gives him one more chance to fulfill his dream. His scrambling ability and conditioning alone give him a chance to be a title contender.
157: Nate Galloway I think another year of experience, weight and strength conditioning, and learning the importance of opening up from the neutral position will allow Galloway to truly emerge as an All-American candidate in his junior season. Galloway really has made great progress this season and is on the verge of realizing his potential.
165: This is the one weight that seems wide open right now. There is a slight chance that incoming freshman David Erwin could wrestle here, but 174 pounds seems more likely for him. If Jeremy Hart recovers from his shoulder injury, he would be my early favorite, although Steve Troup, Phil Bomberger and possibly Neil Bretz could all be in the running at this weight class. The Nittany Lions need someone to emerge who can be a solid contender. On paper, this weight is the biggest question mark for next season (if everything else pans out on the injury and NCAA front).
174: David Erwin Though projecting an incoming freshman as a starter is always a dangerous proposition, the guess here is that Erwin will be up to the challenge. Erwin will have to fight off an improving and more experienced James Yonushonis. But Erwin is a special talent and could give Penn State fans another young, exciting wrestler to watch.
184: Eric Bradley I cant see how the NCAA can deny Bradley the extra year, but you just never know for sure. Still, if Bradley does indeed return, I think he can win the NCAA championship next season. Bradley is a rock-solid competitor and his experience will catapult him into the elite next season.
197: Phil Davis Though Davis style can make his coaches a little nervous, he is fun to watch and as he continues to improve his positioning, he will become an increasing threat to knock off anyone in the country. Davis seems certain to be among the pin leaders at 197 pounds in 2006.
HWT: Joel Edwards With the remainder of this season to learn how to wrestle the heavyweight style, Edwards will be able to put on some good weight in the off-season and could emerge as a solid contender in 2006. I think Edwards commitment, his natural ability and the coaching hell receive will allow him to follow in the footsteps of Pat DeGain and become an All-American contender and maybe even a dark horse national title threat in 2006. The early guess here is that Edwards will be able to fight off a significant challenge from the bigger Aaron Anspach, who is coming off shoulder surgery. Anspach has a world of potential, though, and if healthy could also work into the upper echelon of this division. But, if Edwards can come in at around 235, which I think he can, he will be big enough to have a legitimate chance to contend.
These projections should be taken with a grain of salt. A lot can happen in a week, let alone a year, within a wrestling team. These are just my projections and history tells us to expect the unexpected. There will be great competition for several of the starting jobs next year, most notably at 133, 141, 165 and heavyweight. Injuries or weight changes may allow some wrestlers to emerge or hold others back.
But if everything comes together next season, Penn State should have two or three contenders for national titles and at least seven strong All-American candidates. On paper, next years squad should be both a strong dual meet team and good tournament squad.
It is not the nature of fans, nor of those of the media, to practice patience. But I truly believe out of the struggles of this season, an exciting, nationally competitive team will emerge next year.
As for the here and now, Penn State would dearly love to pick up a couple of home conference wins this weekend. Indiana will have its best chance yet to pick up its first ever win over the Nittany Lions. Indiana will definitely be looking to this dual meet as a chance to prove itself and make a bit of a statement early in the conference dual season. The Hoosiers have not faced a lot of tough dual competition, but do come in with a 12-1 record and a solid team that is ranked 17th in the country while Penn State is 20th in this weeks W.I.N. poll. The two most intriguing matchups are at 125, where Adam Smith will face the powerful Joe Dubuque, and at heavyweight, where potentially Joel Edwards will challenge Pat DeGain, who made the move up to heavyweight last year and is now ranked fourth while Edwards just made the move up last week. Penn State may opt for the bigger C.J. Wonsettler in this bout, though. If Eric Bradley sits out at 184, this dual meet will be a difficult one for Penn State to win. Even with Bradley in the lineup, this dual could go either way.
The Purdue meet on Sunday is, on paper, a better matchup for the Nittany Lions. The featured bout here will likely be at 141 pounds where DeWitt Driscoll will take on Rene Hernandez. Though the Boilermakers are improving, if Penn State wrestles like its capable, the Nittany Lions should win at least six of the bouts with some bonus points along the way. There is not a lot of margin for error, though, and if Purdue can pull a surprise, it could become an uncomfortable afternoon for Penn State fans in Rec Hall. And more than a couple of coaches have pointed out to me over the years that they dont wrestle these matches on paper they wrestle them on the mat (unless youre Jon Trenge, then you wrestle on the hardwood after whistle). Sorry, that was a cheap shot about a cheap shot.
It would be nice to build some momentum and interest in this team for Penn State this weekend with Iowa visiting next Friday.
Jeff Ironhead Byers is the longtime radio play-by-play voice of Nittany Lion wrestling.