While I follow Penn State Wrestling, I’ll admit that I’ve never attended a match – or any college match for that matter. The last match I witnessed in person was in 1982 – my senior year at West Scranton High School. Back then, George Roskas was a pretty good coach – leading the Invaders to 11 straight winning seasons. Unfortunately, all streaks come to an end eventually and his ended in my senior year when the team went a woeful, 3-18.
Penn State was usually respectable in wresting, but they couldn’t compete with the titans of the sport – Oklahoma State and Iowa. From 1927 to 2011, Penn State had only logged one NCAA National Championship – all the way back in 1953. During that same time, there have been 80 Championships decided. Oklahoma State piled up 34 Titles while Iowa owns 23.
The wrestling landscape changed in 2009 when Penn State hired Cael Sanderson away from his alma mater, Iowa State. As a wrestler for the Cyclones, Sanderson earned himself four straight NCAA Individual Championships along with an Olympic Gold Medal, then started his coaching career. After four seasons as the head coach at Iowa State, Penn State lured him away by making him the highest-paid coach in the sport.
Starting in 2011, the Lions have racked up 8 of the last 9 National Championships. The lone blemish in 2015 came at the hands of the evil empire, Ohio State – their only national title in the sport.
Coming into tonight’s match, the Lions bested their opponents in 60 straight meets – dating back to February 15, 2015, when they lost to Oklahoma State. Since then, Sanderson’s team has been simply dominant.
ASU, on the other hand, has been struggling to remain competitive as a team. They do have one National Title to their name, in 1988. When you consider that only 12 schools have won titles in the last 90 years, that’s not too bad. After a couple of impressive back-to-back years, they slipped last year to 6-10. Even so, the program is certainly on the rise – led by, Zahid Valencia, the #1 ranked wrestler in the country at 184. Tonight’s meet was shaping up to be something special.
Ted and I headed out early to tailgate – like any self-respecting B1G Wrestling fan would do. Our spot was on the top deck of a parking garage overlooking Sun Devil Stadium, where the Oregon Ducks will play tomorrow, and the site of tonight’s match, newly renamed Desert Financial Arena.
Of course, when you’re tailgating for Penn State sports, you have to have Yuengling. A trip back east recently allowed me to “self-import” so I’m stocked up for Thanksgiving.
We had a modest tailgate…
and even brought along “Little Joe”!
ASU was expecting to break the record for home attendance for a meet, but the previous record of 5,400 was absolutely shattered when over 8,500 fans showed up! We saw several schools and clubs in large groups. In our section alone, a few chaperones sat in the row in front of us and said they brought about 100 kids from Yuma. Several of the coaches had wrestled for ASU. When they entered, we complimented the head coach on bringing so many kids out to the event. His response – “this could be a historic night”.
The lineups were set and we were underway!
ASU jumped out to an early 4-0 with Teske losing a major. Tuscon native, Roman Bravo-Young brought the lines back to 4-3 with his decision over #12 Josh Kramer.
Nick Lee then posted a tech fall for the Lions as they took their first lead of the night 8-4. It was short-lived as the Devils posted back-to-back wins at 149 and 157. Pittsburgh native, Josh Maruca took down Jarod Verkleeren and Jacori Teemer outlasted Bo Pipher. 10-8 Devils at the break.
It was around this time when they played a video called “lipstick challenge”. I gotta say, this was very weird. One of the wrestlers was on the video putting lipstick on his lips and then all over his face. With the acoustics being so poor, you couldn’t really hear what was happening. My hope is that there was some sort of storyline that we were missing. Having just the video certainly made it look bizarre.
I was then accosted by a Devil for wearing white. He even ripped off my hat and made me throw up the “fork”.
I wasn’t too worried. We now had the gauntlet coming up with three of the next five Lions ranked #1 in the country. #1 Vincenzo Joseph took care of business by a decision over another Pittsburgh native, #5 Josh Shields putting the Lions back on top 11-10.
Then Mark Hall, another #1, racked up a major decision over Anthony Valencia (Zahid’s brother) – 15-10 Lions.
And that’s when things got crazy. With ASU’s lone #1 Zahid Valencia entered the mat, Sanderson waived it off and forfeited the match. Our #2, Shakur Rasheed has been recovering from an ACL and his backup, Creighton Edsell didn’t weigh in.
The crowd went nuts. One of the coaches in front of us turned around and was going off on me like I made the decision to forfeit. I will say, I was confused and a little disappointed. From a sportsmanship standpoint alone, I thought they’d throw someone out to wrestle their #1 – a senior. In what will likely be the largest home crowd he’ll see. I was definitely bummed for Valencia.
Now, Penn State is down 16-15 with two matches to go. The crowd was involved earlier, but now they are incensed. There was still hope since we had a match with one of our #3s and one with our #1 going against their #5.
Cael obviously felt confident that each would take care of business. Unfortunately, ASU had other plans. Kordell Northfleet, an unranked and untested 0-0 on the year came out guns blazing. He took down Kyle Conel in the first period and the place went nuts – fueled by the forfeit. Northfleet would not be denied and owned Conel with a 10-4 decision that could have been worse. ASU is now up 19-15.
Now, it was up to Anthony Cassar. Our #1 at heavyweight against Tanner Hall. Cassar needed a major to tie or better to win. A tie and I believe Nick Lee’s tech fall would have been the deciding factor in the tie-breaker. A pin and they win.
In the first period, Cassar made a move that nearly pinned Hall. Instead, he earned a near fall to run up the points. But the move seemed to wear him out as the two struggled the rest of the way. Cassar only managed a decision and the Lions fell 19-18.
The place erupted and the Devils pulled off a signature win for the program – a win that ended Penn State’s streak of 60 straight wins and dominance atop the rankings. The former ASU wrestler turned coach in front of us called it. A historic night!
While I’m disappointed in the loss, I’m thrilled I was there to experience it. This was a great night for the sport of wrestling. The win for ASU will undoubtedly make a positive impression on all of the young grapplers (and their coaches) who were there to witness it.
Let a new streak begin!
Stop wondering. Start wandering!