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Wednesday, January 16, 2008
National Duals serves as midseason checkpoint in college wrestling

By Andy Hamilton
Special to ESPN.com

The strangest half-season college wrestling has seen in years intertwined its top teams and turned its rankings into a tangled mess.

Penn State became the fourth team in six weeks to plant its flag at the top last week when it completed the climb to No. 1 after starting the season 11th. The Nittany Lions made their biggest surge by winning in December at Oklahoma State, which later beat Iowa after the Hawkeyes had taken the top ranking away from Iowa State one week after the Cyclones had done the same to Minnesota.

Brent Metcalf
Brent Metcalf (left) and Iowa tore through the National Duals competition.

This was remarkable volatility in the sport -- Iowa, Oklahoma State and Minnesota have combined to win every NCAA title since 1989 -- and it set the stage for perhaps the most eagerly-anticipated National Duals since its inception that same year. The two-day tournament, which concluded Sunday in Cedar Falls, Iowa, has often been a midseason checkpoint for individuals and teams during the journey toward the NCAA championships in March.

If anything, though, this year's National Duals added another element of suspense to the final two months of the season.

"I almost think it's going to be one of those crazy seasons like college football," said Michigan coach Joe McFarland, whose team placed third. "I think there is a lot of parity right now, and I think the national tournament is going to show that. I think it's exciting for wrestling."

These were the biggest storylines from this year's National Duals:

Iowa's supremacy

The second-seeded Hawkeyes tore through the field on their way to the school's first title at the National Duals since 1996. Iowa outscored its four opponents by a collective 106-31 margin, won 32 of 40 individual matches and handled Nebraska 24-6 in the championship meet.

"We made a statement," said Iowa 149-pounder Brent Metcalf, named the tournament's outstanding wrestler. "The [Jan. 5] Oklahoma State match, I don't think our guys were prepared or ready to go. I feel like this is a better representation of what this team is all about."

The Hawkeyes didn't get an opportunity to avenge the 19-14 loss against Oklahoma State. The third-ranked Cowboys skipped the National Duals to compete at the Virginia Duals, where they beat No. 17 Illinois in the championship.

"Nine out of the top 10 teams were here, and the team that wasn't here whipped us a week ago," Iowa coach Tom Brands said. "That's something I think we ironed out here. I don't think we needed [Oklahoma State] here to iron it out. I think we ironed it out."

This bodes well for Iowa's chances in March. The National Duals champion has gone on to win the NCAA title 12 times in 18 years. The Hawkeyes stood on top at the end of the season in five of the six other instances.

"We don't let our guard down," Brands said. "I gave them a couple compliments after the Midlands [title in December] and I'm going to keep the compliments to myself now. We're going to continue to be hard-drivers because this team has a lot of potential."

Minnesota's ailments

The Gophers were the consensus No. 1 team in the country when the season started. They had nine starters returning from the squad that swept the National Duals and NCAA championships last season, led by 2006 national champion Dustin Schlatter and runner-up Roger Kish.

Roger Kish
Roger Kish didn't look 100 percent at the National Duals.

But Schlatter, ranked No. 1 at 149, wasn't on Minnesota's active roster for the National Duals. Kish wrestled, but didn't look like the guy who compiled a 74-8 record during the past two seasons. Both were dealing with unspecified injuries, which contributed to Minnesota's slide to a fourth-place finish.

"We're not that far away," Minnesota coach J Robinson said. "You stick those two guys in there and it's a whole different deal."

The Gophers stumbled in the semifinals, losing 24-13 against unseeded Nebraska. The Huskers took advantage of Minnesota's ailments. Sixth-ranked Jordan Burroughs won by technical fall at 149 and No. 10 Vince Jones came from behind in the final 10 seconds, tossing Kish to his back for a fall at 184.

"This is just part of the way toward March," Robinson said. "It doesn't make much difference. Nothing counts here. We've just got to go back and get healthy, that's our problem."

Parity joins the party

There was a time when the only mention of parity in college wrestling came when someone mentioned the disparity at the top. But the playing field has leveled in recent years.

The 10 individual NCAA champions came from 10 different schools in 2004 and again last year, and the perception of parity's arrival at the elite level in the sport is a viewpoint that gathered validity during the first two months of the season at the National Duals.

Nebraska became just the second unseeded team in tournament history to reach the finals of the National Duals. The Huskers took down No. 9 Northwestern, No. 1 Penn State and No. 5 Minnesota on their way to the finals.

Unseeded Ohio State placed fifth, finishing ahead of the Nittany Lions and third-seeded Iowa State and No. 4 Central Michigan.

"It's hard to tell [what this means for March] because this is a dual-meet tournament [and] it has more to do with how you match up with people than anything else," Robinson said. "A lot of people will draw a lot of conclusions from it, but I don't think it's that big of a deal."

Perhaps more telling were some of the individual outcomes. Five of the top-ranked individuals in the country didn't compete at the National Duals. Three of the five who did sustained their first losses of the season. Nebraska's Paul Donahoe, the defending NCAA champion at 125, went 0-2 Sunday. Michigan freshman Kellen Russell lost twice Saturday after entering the tournament 18-0 and ranked No. 1 at 141.

"There's a lot of good kids going to a lot of different places," Nebraska coach Mark Manning said. "You've got a lot of good, young coaches out there who are go-getters and they're doing a good job recruiting and training kids, and they hustle."

Andy Hamilton covers wrestling for the Iowa City Press-Citizen.