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|TheMatside View by Gary Abbott: The top 10 wrestling stories of 2006|
By Gary Abbott USA Wrestling
Happy holidays from USA Wrestling. The 2006 year is winding down, and we are all looking forward to another exciting wrestling year.
In what has become a tradition, the holiday season is a time to review the top wrestling stories from the year gone by. Everybody is encouraged to take a look back and make their own list. From one man's perspective, here are the top 10 stories of 2006.
1. Zadick and Warren win World titles - In recent years, it has become increasingly difficult for a U.S. athlete to win a World gold medal in international wrestling. With only seven weight classes in each style, as well as increased competition worldwide, bringing home a World gold is a tremendous achievement. This year, Team USA not only got a World Champion, it brought home two golds. Joe Warren became only the fifth U.S. Greco-Roman World Champion with his amazing run to the gold at 60 kg/132 lbs. in Greco-Roman. Bill Zadick, a veteran who many felt had passed his prime, capped off an amazing season with a stunning victory in freestyle at 66 kg/145.5 lbs. Both of these athletes, who train full-time at the U.S. Olympic Training Center, showed tremendous heart and poise in capturing World gold medals in Guangzhou, China. Their final matches went down to the final seconds. Warren needed a takedown in the closing seconds of the third period to defeat David Bedinadze of Georgia. Zadick's finals match went down to a third-period leg clinch, with the American scoring the winning takedown over Otari Tushishvili of Georgia. Two new American wrestling heroes were discovered. It was the first time since 1999 that the United States had more than one World Champion the same season (Stephen Neal, Patricia Saunders, Sandra Bacher).
2. Coaching changes rock NCAA wrestling world - What started as a few coaching changes at prominent Div. I college programs became what will go down in history as the biggest shift in coaching leadership in the history of NCAA wrestling. Things seemed to get started when veteran Ohio State coach Russ Hellickson retired, and the Univ. of Iowa decided not to retain Jim Zalesky as its coach. On what seemed a daily basis, positions became open. There were retirements, contracts not renewed and coaches changing teams, creating a revolutionary reshuffling in the sport. Olympic champion Cael Sanderson took over at Iowa State. Olympic champion Tom Brands left Virginia Tech and assumed the reigns at Iowa. Tom Ryan left Hofstra to became the new coach at Ohio State, and Tom Shifflet moved from UNC-Greensboro to take the Hofstra team.Virginia Tech hired Kevin Dresser to replace Brands. Zalesky ended up at Oregon State. Chris Bono became the coach at UT-Chattanooga. Teague Moore assumed leadership at Clarion and the Virginia job went to Steve Garland. Jason Loukides became coach at UNC-Greensboro. The Portland State job went to Mike Haluska. Chris Ayres took over at Princeton, Jason Kutz became coach at East Stroudsburg and Joel Sharratt went to Air Force. Greg Williams took over Utah Valley State. Other coaching changes filled the wrestling news. Some of these colleges boosted the salaries of the coaches and decided to make a deeper investment in their programs.
3. High School senior Henry Cejudo wins U.S. freestyle nationals - In the age of specialization in Olympic wrestling, something amazing happened in 2006. A high school wrestler won the U.S. Senior Nationals in men's freestyle, when the spectacular Henry Cejudo of the Sunkist Kids captured the national title at 55 kg/121 lbs. Cejudo, a senior at Coronado High School in Colorado and a U.S. Olympic Training Center resident athlete, defeated Matt Azevedo of the Sunkist Kids in the gold-medal match. No high school athlete since USA Wrestling became national governing body had ever won a Senior National freestyle title. Cejudo had blast onto the national scene a year earlier, and put his amazing speed and technical skills on display. He became the talk of the sport, and a hero to young wrestlers all across the land. Cejudo's quest to make the U.S. World Team fell short, when he was beaten in the World Team Trials by 1998 World Champion Sammie Henson. He capped his year off with a silver medal at the Junior World Championships. Cejudo decided to forgo competing on the college level to concentrate full-time on freestyle and pursue his quest to make the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team.
4. Oklahoma State extends dominance to dynasty - Great sports programs are able to repeat after winning it all. Only dynasties can win the title year after year after year. The Oklahoma State Cowboys under John Smith in the 2000's have become one of the great college sport dynasties, not only in wrestling but in all sports. The Cowboys won their 34th NCAA team title, and their fourth straight championship with a total team effort on their home mats at the Ford Center in Oklahoma City. Claiming individual titles for OSU were Jake Rosholt at 197 pounds (a three-time champion) and Johny Hendricks at 165 pounds (a two-time winner). Smith's team finished with 122.5 points, an impressive 38.5 points ahead of runner-up Minnesota. Going into the tournament, many felt the Gophers might snap the OSU championship streak, but the Cowboys saved their best for the NCAA Tournament once again. The 2006-07 year started with OSU again one of the favorites in Div. I wrestling. Can anybody take the NCAA team trophy out of Stillwater? Check in next year.
5. 10 years anniversary of the loss of Dave Schultz - Our society places great importance in the anniversary of major events, not only of those that are uplifting but also those that are tragic. The wrestling community spent the days surrounding January 26, 2006 remembering one of the darkest days in the sport's history, the 10th anniversary of the day that World and Olympic champion Dave Schultz was murdered. Besides being one of the great athletes Team USA has ever had, Schultz was a legendary figure internationally. His life was about wrestling and about family and international goodwill. Friends who loved Dave told interesting personal tales about the man in numerous articles, and fans went to TheMat.com to share their memories of this legendary figure. A bittersweet day became a celebration of a very special and unique human being, an example of wrestling and life at its best.
6. Virginia Tech vs. Iowa off the mat - Clearly the biggest controversy within wrestling in 2006 happened on the sidelines rather than on the mat. When Virginia Tech coach Tom Brands accepted the position at his alma mater Iowa, he left behind one of the nation's top group of young recruits. A number of these athletes chose to attend college in Blacksburg in order to compete under Brands. A number of athletes decided to follow him to Iowa City, including Brent Metcalf, the nation's top recruit in 2005. The Virginia Tech administration made a decision not to release the wrestlers to Iowa, offering to provide them a release only after one more season wrestling for Virginia Tech. Rather than spend another year without Brands, the athletes transferred anyway and sought relief through the courts. This flamed passions between wrestling fans from both programs, and provided enough drama to fill the newspapers and internet pages for months. At the end, the legal case was thrown out in court. This saga is far from over.
7. USA has strong team effort at World Championships - It was a challenging year for the United States at the World level in 2005, when the men's freestyle and Greco-Roman teams combined for just three medals in Budapest, Hungary. The freestyle squad finished eighth in the world, and Greco-Roman was 16th. Going into the 2006 World Championships in Guangzhou, China, the men's freestyle team featured three athletes on their first World team and only two past medalists. The Greco-Roman team was almost exactly the same as the year before, with only one new athlete, Jacob Clark at 85 kg. The naysayers were wrong about this group of American wrestlers. Both the men's freestyle team and the men's Greco-Roman team placed a strong third in the final team standings, and both were within a victory or two from taking the team title. Freestyle had four medals, three from athletes who had never medaled before: Bill Zadick (gold), Mike Zadick (silver) and Donny Pritzlaff (bronze), plus a repeat medal from 1998 World champion Sammie Henson (bronze). Greco-Roman opened the first day with three medals in the first three weights, each winning a first career medal: Warren (gold), Lindsey Durlacher (bronze), Harry Lester (bronze). It could be argued that this was the greatest Greco-Roman team effort ever. The downside of the week in China was the seventh-place finish of the women's team, which had two of their stars win bronze medals: Patricia Miranda and Kristie Marano. Combining all three styles, the nine medals by Team USA was second only to Russia. The world was reminded once again of the excellence of wrestling in the United States.
8. The Year of the True Freshman - It is very difficult for freshman college wrestlers to make immediate impact on the national scene right out of high school. Most young wrestling stars usually take a redshirt year, then burst out as second-year freshmen. However, two young stars decided to test the waters right away, and became college stars as true freshmen. Dustin Schlatter of Minnesota had a near-perfect year in his first year, losing only one match all season and going on to win the NCAA Div. I title at 149 pounds. Schlatter handled the pressure of entering the meet as the No. 1 seed, and beat No. 2 Ty Eustice of Iowa in the finals, 4-0. The other phenom, Troy Nickerson of Cornell, made the NCAA finals at 125 pounds, coming in as a No. 5 seed, losing an 8-5 match to defending champion Joe Dubuque of Indiana. Schlatter now faces the pressure of the quest for four NCAA titles, while Nickerson returns as a hopeful to win multiple national titles. Their success gives the freshmen of the future more inspiration to pursue the highest goals right away.
9. USOEC Greco-Roman program makes international impact - For many years, USA Wrestling National Greco-Roman Coach Steve Fraser has called the USOEC Greco-Roman University program at Northern Michigan Univ. his "secret weapon" for developing the United States into a World power in Greco-Roman. The program is no longer a secret. USOEC athletes have made a name for themselves here in the USA for many years. However, in 2006, a few USOEC stars made a huge splash on the international level. Harry Lester won a bronze medal at 66 kg/145.5 lbs. at the World Championships, with an inspiring tournament in Guangzhou, China. Earlier in the summer, Spenser Mango won a gold medal at 55 kg/121 lbs. at the University World Championships in Ulan Baator, Mongolia, as well as a bronze medal at the Junior World Championships in Guatemala City, Guatemala. Another USOEC age-group World medalist was Chas Betts, who added a silver at 84 kg/185 lbs. The program is led by world-class coaches Ivan Ivanov and Jim Gruenwald, and feature a number of nationally-ranked wrestlers on the Senior level. Expect more great performances from the USOEC.
10. Brother and sister Hutchisons make wrestling history - For many years, girl wrestlers have been competing on the high school level against boys. A number have placed at their state high school tournaments, including a few who made the gold-medal match and placed second. In 2006, sophomore Michaela Hutchison of Skyview High in Soldotna, Alaska broke down a major barrier, claiming the 103-pound state title competing against boys. It was a special day for the family, as her older brother Eli also won a state title at 135 pounds, making them the first brother-sister state champions ever. Michaela was featured in the national media for many days, including a story in Sports Illustrated. A few months later, the Hutchisons made history again, becoming the first brother-sister act to win ASICS/Vaughan Junior National titles the same year, with Michaela capturing the 119-pound women's freestyle title and Eli capturing Greco-Roman gold medal at 135 pounds. Both were coached by their father Mike, the state chairperson for USA Wrestling Alaska. Here's to another great wrestling family!!!
Others stories worth noting include:
- FILA holds first Sombo and Beach World Championships - In the Mediterranean coast city of Antalya, Turkey in November, FILA hosted its first World Championships in the new styles of wrestling, Beach and Sombo. The United States sent a full team of athletes to participate in the men's divisions of both tournaments, each who qualified for the team at the first U.S. Nationals in both styles, held in August in Palm Beach County, Fla. The United States had a strong performance in both styles at the World meet in Turkey. In Sombo, the men's team placed second in the standings with seven medals, led by individual World champion Jeff Zastrow at 96 kg/211.5 lbs. In Beach wrestling, the U.S. was also in second place, with a pair of bronze medalists Ray Downey at Under 85 kg and Angelo Borzio at Over 85 kg. U.S. wrestler Leigh Jaynes won a bronze medal in both styles in the women's division.
- Nicole Woody wins Junior World title - Woody, a high school star from Maryland, had an outstanding year in women's age-group wrestling, capped off with a gold-medal at the Junior World Championships in Guatemala City, Guatemala at 97 pounds. She was the only American in any style to win a gold at the Junior World meet. Her toughest bout came early, a win over Russia's Anastasia Koltun in three periods. Woody had a great summer of wrestling, also capturing her third career ASICS Junior National title with at 102 pounds. Her five-point back salto in the gold-medal finals over Victoria Anthony of California in the finals wowed the crowd, and she was named Outstanding Wrestler. Woody was featured in a full-page photo in Sports Illustrated's Faces in the Crowd Special edition in December.
- Dan Gable returns to coaching - Perhaps lost in the hoopla over all the head coaching changes in college wrestling this year was the return of the most successful college coach in sports history. Dan Gable, head coach at Iowa for 21 years, is back in the wrestling room and on the sidelines as an assistant coach for the Hawkeyes, working with one of his disciples, head coach Tom Brands. Gable's last year as head coach was in 1997, when his team set NCAA scoring records with a dominant performance. Wrestling fans will watch closely to see how Brands and Gable work together in their quest to return Iowa to the top of the college wrestling world.
- Ben Askren, a champion with pizzazz - Not only did Ben Askren become the first NCAA Div. I champion in the history of wrestling at the Univ. of Missouri, but the junior star also was considered the best in all of college wrestling in 2006, winning the Dan Hodge Trophy after dominating the 174-pound division all year. The long-haired Askren competed with a wide-open style which included numerous pins and many high-scoring blowout matches. His refreshing personality and sincere love for wrestling added great excitement to the sport. Fans wearing "Askren wigs" have become common at wrestling venues everywhere. By December, Ben was not the only Askren grabbing headlines. His younger brother Max, a freshman, climbed to a No. 1 national ranking at 197 pounds with a strong fall semester, and Missouri held the top ranking in the NWCA/InterMat poll. This brother combination should enliven the wrestling world all year long.
- Fresno State drops wrestling, part of bad season of program cuts - For a few seasons, college wrestling had escaped the axe from the trend of eliminated programs within college athletes. The 2006 year was especially brutal for wrestling. Dropped programs at Slippery Rock, Montclair State and Illinois College were bad enough. But when the powerful Div. I wrestling program at Fresno State was unexpectedly cut in June, the pain was unbearable for those who love wrestling. Athletic Director Thomas Boeh and University President Dr. John Welty waited until classes had ended and wrestling coach Shawn Lewis had already recruited a large and talented group of athletes to announce the cut. A large outcry spread across campus and throughout "the Valley," yet the Fresno administration refused to change its decision. The battle continues today. This fall, James Madison Univ. announced the elimination of 10 varsity teams (seven men, three women), including wrestling, another bloodbath that proves that no program is safe in the current climate within intercollegiate athletics.
- Remembering McCann and Vaughan- The wrestling world lost two of its giants this year, with the passing of Olympic champion Terry McCann and wrestling leader John Vaughan. The impact of both Hall of Fame legends can not be measured. McCann won his Olympic freestyle gold in 1960, then went on to be a coach and a leader for many years at the Olympic level. He was a president of USA Wrestling and a member of the FILA Bureau, as well as involved with the U.S. Olympic Committee. Vaughan was perhaps the biggest fan of the sport, and one of its most active benefactors. His involvement with USA Wrestling and the National Wrestling Hall of Fame established the foundation of both organizations. Vaughan biggest impact was always behind the scenes, and often at a very personal level.
- Blair Academy's run of excellence - Sometimes it takes a loss for people to realize how great a team has been. When Blair Academy in New Jersey placed second to the powerful St. Edward High School of Ohio at the Ironman Tournament in Ohio this December, it was the first time in years that Coach Jeff Buxton's team did not win each dual meet or tournament it entered. Sports Illustrated made a special note of Blair's program after the loss, in an article where Buxton talked about starting a new streak. Blair athletes continue to excel at the highest levels, especially at the ASICS/Vaughan Cadet and Junior Nationals, and often go on to NCAA and Olympic-level success.
- Konrad beats Mocco in NCAA big-man battle - Going into his senior year, Oklahoma State's Steve Mocco was expected to finish off an impressive college career. Mocco had won the Dan Hodge Trophy as the nation's top college wrestler the year before and was expected to win a third NCAA title. Somebody forgot to tell Minnesota's Cole Konrad, who Mocco beat in the 2005 NCAA finals. Each of the five times Konrad met Mocco during the 2005-06 season, Konrad won the battle, keeping college wrestling fans on the edge of their seats. Their final battle was in the 2006 NCAA Championships match. This time, it was Konrad who was crowned champion, 5-2 in four overtimes.
- Anthony Robles wins national high school event competing with one leg - A wrestler is only limited by his ability to work hard and dream. Such is the story of Anthony Robles from Arizona who was born with one leg. Robles won a national high school tournament, the NHSCA Senior Nationals, defeating the nation's top senior wrestlers at 112 pounds. His amazing story captured numerous media reports, and Robles was a finalist for an ESPY award for "Best Athlete with a Disability."
- Rulon gets roasted in New Jersey fundraiser - Sometimes, wrestling can be fun. In a unique and very humorous night of zingers, Olympic and World champion Rulon Gardner was roasted by his friends during the Night and Drive of Champions, held in Gladstone, N.J. in May. It was a joint fundraiser for the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Wrestling. Taking shots at Gardner were actor Billy Baldwin, legend Dan Gable, coach Steve Fraser, rival and friend Dremiel Byers, Olympic weightlifter Shane Hamman and his agent Danielle Marquis. Veteran sportscaster Bruce Beck moderated the hilarious night. Gardner held his own, then gave a touching speech full of appreciation for the sport and for his friends.
That makes 20 stories…
Every year I do this column, I know I have left out some major stories. Wrestling is rich with great battles, amazing achievements and compelling personalities. That is why each year I ask you, the readers, for your input on this topic. If you would like to agree or disagree with my choices, or add more stories to the list, please visit this thread posted on the College Board on TheMat.com Forums.
Happy New Year.