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FEATURE: Parity and depth continues to spread in Div. I college wrestling



Once upon a time, there was a Big Four in college wrestling. The Iowas and the Oklahomas ruled the roost, leaving very little for others to take away on the national scene. At different times, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma, Iowa State and Iowa, all took turns at the top of the wrestling world. When one did not win, one of the others would take their turn.

Sure, there were individual years when somebody broke the ice. These were unique times in history, and are easy to find on any championship chart. Team champions Cornell College (1947), Univ. of Northern Iowa (1950), Penn State (1953), Michigan State (1967), Arizona State (1988) stand out against all the Oklahomas and Iowas of the past.

It took many years for the Big Four cycle to be broken. One of the keys came in 2001 and 2002, when the Univ. of Minnesota won the team title and showed that hard work, organization, promotion and strong coaching could

Oklahoma State remains the sport's true powerhouse, now winning its fourth straight title and 34th overall team championship. The Big Four still remain strong, and may always remain in the hunt for more titles. However, what has changes is that one of the NCAA trophies, given to the top four teams, seems to always in play in recent seasons. Many teams seem to have a shot at this award. In addition, a finish in the Top 10 is in site for many teams that people would never imagine back during the days of concentrated dominance.

Last year, two teams claimed trophies that had not been in the mix for a long time, with both Michigan and Cornell getting to stand on the stage at the end and take home some hardware.

The NCAA Tournament becomes a contest of meeting and beating expectations. There is much more parity across the nation, with more teams capable of doing well. In addition, since the NCAA meet is an individual contest also, and high-placing athletes rack up big points for their teams, there are more quality wrestlers from more programs who are capable of advancing deep in the medal rounds.

"Parity is really great for wrestling," said rookie Penn coach Zeke Jones, who was on that Arizona State that cracked in as national champions in 1988. "It is not just among teams, its among conferences. You are seeing teams that have a chance. And the kids want it all. They can stay close to home and still be great wrestlers. Some of our greatest wrestlers have now become coaches, and have evened out the contest. For so many programs, placing in the top eight, the top 12, is not far away."

The example of teams who seem to be outperforming their "predictions" is quite long. Hofstra had a No. 19 pre-event ranking, but sits in ninth place after two days. Arizona State was placed at No. 14 in the rankings, but is holding down fifth place. Edinboro, a No. 16 pick coming in, has made it to 11th place. Penn was slated as the No. 23 team in the field, but is hanging in there at 12th at this time. Three unranked teams are hanging around the top 25, with American and Oregon tied at 22nd place and Boise State at 24th place.

Likewise, some of the heralded programs in the nation have fallen on hard times here. Illinois, holding a No. 4 pre-tournament ranking, enters Saturday in 26th place. Nebraska, ranked at No. 5 in the pre-event poll, is down at 16th place. Central Michigan, No. 7 coming in, is standing at 25th in the team race.

"You look at wrestling 20 years ago, the Ivy League and Eastern schools were just not that strong. None of those schools were even in the top 30," said Nebraska coach Mark Manning. "Some of the bigger schools weren't at that level then. Administrations there have invested in wrestling, and there is more commitment there.You have better coaches at different places. There are a lot of very good coaches out there now."

"I think young athletes are figuring out that they don't have to go to certain schools to be successful. Kids all used to just go to the same schools. It has changed the sport, and it is good for wrestling," said Central Michigan coach Tom Borelli, who led his program to a No. 4 national dual meet ranking this year and is among the teams always in the mix.

"Since I have been in the MAC, at one time all the teams were capped at about four scholarships," said Borelli. "They have removed the cap. Now, most of the teams are at 9.9 scholarships. It changes everything. For the first time since I have been coaching, our athletic director has come here for the NCAA Championships. It is great for the administration to see what the athletes do here and what we are about. They can also see we can make some money in wrestling."

All of the athletes and coaches also understand that the NCAA Championships open up a new opportunity. Regardless of what happens during the year, every wrestler and team has a chance to make an impact at the national meet. Coaches will tell you that it is this tournament that defines a season.

"You wrestle throughout the year, and they want the dual meets to be more important. That is not the nature of things," said Arizona State coach Tommy Ortiz. "Do you know my dual meet record? I don't know anybody's dual meet record. Everybody remembers you by what happens at the NCAAs. We wrestle the top programs all year long. This is the mountaintop. This is where you want to be at your best."

Ortiz said that the coaches on each team know about the potential that their teams and athletes have, and that it is their job to make things happen at the NCAA Championships.

"We were ranked No. 14 coming in," said Ortiz. "I knew we were better. We peaked the team for the NCAAs. I have been talking about (finalist Brian) Stith. Some people didn't expect much, but I am not surprised. But this tournament is just so tough."

The day of a few teams dominating college wrestling may be gone for good. There may be teams that can run streaks as champions, like Oklahoma State's current four year reign, but the rest of the field has become wider and deeper. Although rankings are fun and informative, the people in the competition, the coaches and athletes, have already decided to throw them away when it comes to wrestling at the NCAA Championships.
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