Commentary

Cowboys will host national dual final

Originally Published: February 14, 2012
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

STILLWATER, Okla. -- Being No. 1 is pretty much the same as just "being" for Oklahoma State wrestling.

No matter how many times you may have heard the numbers, they're still staggering: 34 NCAA team championships, 134 NCAA individual titles, 425 All-Americans, 44 team conference crowns, 40 Olympic appearances with 11 gold medals.

[+] EnlargeOliver
ostatephoto.comJunior Jordan Oliver was a national champion for Oklahoma State last season and is 18-1 for the Cowboys this season.

Two of those golds belong to John Smith, a 1988 and '92 Olympic champion who's been coach of his alma mater since 1992. He's led the Cowboys to five NCAA team titles. Oklahoma State has had at least one NCAA individual champ in 14 of Smith's seasons, peaking at five in 2005.

Last year, the Cowboys had one: Jordan Oliver at 133 pounds. He's back for his junior year for Oklahoma State, which hopes to win its first NCAA title since 2006 in March.

Before that, though, there's another team title the Cowboys are shooting for. And they'll do that in the biggest week they'll have all season save the NCAA championships next month in St. Louis.

Thursday is Round 2 of Bedlam, Oklahoma State's rivalry with Oklahoma. The Cowboys won the first meeting in December 25-13 here in Stillwater; Thursday's dual meet is in Norman, Okla.

Then Sunday is a revamped event that has made for a "Final Four" of college wrestling, and it couldn't have been scripted any better. The Cowboys' chief national rival, Iowa, along with the Hawkeyes' fellow Big Ten schools Minnesota and Illinois, will all come here to Oklahoma State's Gallagher-Iba Arena for the finals of the NWCA/Cliff Keen National Duals.

"These are really competitive matches," said Oliver, who has an 18-1 record, including a victory Sunday over one of his top challengers at 133, Logan Stieber of Ohio State. "You train and wrestle every day to wrestle the best. It's just fun for you."

The national duals previously had been an event contested on one weekend and sometimes had included various NCAA divisions. But Division I wrestling has -- for lack of a better word -- wrestled for years with how to elevate the profile of the concept of dual meets, which programs engage in all season before the NCAA championships.

The NCAA event, of course, pits the top individuals in their weight classes, with the team champion being decided by the cumulative results of those individuals. But what about full team versus full team? The excitement of that format is what the National Duals represents, and to that end its setup was finally changed for 2012 after years of debate and discussion.

This new setup involves four regionals on one week, followed by a "Final Four" the next week. This past Saturday, Minnesota won the Rutgers regional. Sunday, the regional winners were Iowa (at Iowa State), Illinois (at Cornell) and Oklahoma State.

The Cowboys won their regional on their home mat, first defeating their fellow Cowboys from Wyoming 28-7, and then Ohio State 25-6. Late during the dual with the Buckeyes, when Oklahoma State already had an insurmountable lead, the public-address announcer told fans that the NWCA had decided the finals would be held in Stillwater, too. Some in the crowd immediately scooted out to ticket windows.

Those folks are hoping, of course, to see another showdown with Iowa, which would be the second this season. The first was Jan. 7 before a sold-out Carver-Hawkeye Arena crowd of 15,400 in Iowa City, Iowa.

[+] EnlargeOklahoma State
Ostatephoto.comThe top-ranked Cowboys will host Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois at the national dual final on Sunday.

It may not be on "Sports Center," but to those involved -- athletes, coaches and fans -- Oklahoma State-Iowa wrestling is every bit as important and emotionally charged as Red Sox-Yankees, Giants-Patriots or Duke-North Carolina.

Iowa is second on the NCAA team titles list with 23, and has its own long list of individual champs and Olympians. Both states have a National Wrestling Hall of Fame -- Iowa in Waterloo, and Oklahoma right here in Stillwater, next to Gallagher-Iba.

The January dual between these longtime rivals more than lived up to its billing. Then, Iowa was ranked No. 1 and Oklahoma State was No. 2. But the Cowboys pulled the upset by the slimmest of margins, 17-16, sending the huge crowd home disappointed.

The Hawkeyes would like to return that favor this weekend at Oklahoma State if the teams meet in the event that's subtitled "Matt Mayhem." The Cowboys would love to see Gallagher-Iba just as full as Carver-Hawkeye was.

"You're told not to listen to the crowd, to block out everything," Oliver said. "But sometimes in a tough match, you're out there and you start feeling a little winded. Then you hear that crowd behind you, and it gives you that second wind.

"So it's a big factor to us to have our supporters here. Carver-Hawkeye Arena was just amazing -- 15,000 fans. It's hard to do something like that, but I think we can."

That said, the Cowboys, 14-0 in dual meets this season, are going to do everything they can to focus first on what's immediately in front of them, and quite important, too: facing Oklahoma.

The long-range goal for the Cowboys is always the same, though.

"All of our guys know we are in a position to win the national title, just like we were last year," said Oliver of the Cowboys' fourth-place finish behind Penn State, Cornell and Iowa. "We let it slip away then. This year, we're in good position. We motivate and push each other every day."

This Sunday, Oklahoma State and three of the other top teams in the country will be doing that, too.

Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.