NEW YORK — This was Midtown Manhattan, but it definitely wasn’t Broadway.
There was no drama on the big Madison Square Garden stage Saturday in the closing night of the NCAA Wrestling Championships’ first foray into New York, New York. Before 19,270 fans, this was another coronation for the current dynasty that is Penn State.
Cael Sanderson’s program began its reign in 2011 by winning the school’s first NCAA team title since 1953. That was Sanderson’s second year of running the program. Three more consecutive titles before a one-year yielding of the crown to Ohio State last year.
That abdication of the throne lasted about as long as a New York minute. Penn State left here the overwhelming champion.
“The coaches are great at making sure that the guys are confident and having fun,” Penn State 149-pound champion Zain Retherford said minutes after he dominated Iowa’s Brandon Sorensen 10-1.
“That’s a big part of it. You’re not just robots or running into brick walls. We’re having fun doing stuff. We play dodgeball with the coaches, it’s a lot of fun. We play handball most days in practice. It’s light, but they keep it competitive.”
They could play with horseshoes or hand grenades. Life is always lighter at the top.
This is how it felt when Iowa owned this sport under Dan Gable when his teams won 15 national titles in 21 years, including a stretch of nine straight.
Many thought there would be just one Gable. But like Gable, Sanderson left Iowa State and found his own fertile program with potential to be truly great. Pennsylvania is a big-time high school wrestling state with a large population. The balance of power in this sport is now firmly in Happy Valley.
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At Iowa, that’s still a hard thing to accept, let alone stomach. The Hawkeyes had control for so long that being fifth in the team standings might as well be 50th. It’s Iowa’s lowest finish since 2007, Tom Brands’ first year as head coach.
Getting three wrestlers in the finals here was great, but going 0-for-3 there without scoring as much as a single takedown was not.
“We are a long ways away,” Brands said. “That doesn’t mean that this guy’s giving up. But when you look at how they (Penn State) wrestle, when you look at the points they score … I’m not talking only match points, I’m talking about bonus points, team points, how they add up … we are a long ways away.”
That’s quite an admission from a proud, driven coach, someone who guided Iowa to three straight national championships, 2008 through 2010.
“It’s not light years,” Brands said. “We have to do some things that close the gap on that, on those match points, on those team points, on those bonus points.”
What are those things, Brands was asked.
“We have to do some things,” he said.
Maybe there wasn’t an answer to be given. You either have to recruit at the same level as Penn State, a well-resourced program with all sorts of momentum, or you have to out-coach Sanderson. The latter seems unlikely given Sanderson is only 36 and has created a record and aura that is on track to being, well, Gable-like.
New York City was a foreign place for this tournament. And Hawkeye wrestling is in a foreign place of its own. Fifth place.