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Kevin Gorman: Ready to watch NCAA wrestling with wide-eyed wonder

Kevin Gorman

Teague Moore knows the wide-eyed wonder that comes with the tidal wave of energy at the NCAA wrestling championships, one that wrestlers can ride to glory or be crushed under its weight.

The American University coach will be flooded by memories this week, with reminders of the overwhelming joy of winning the 1998 NCAA title at 118 pounds at Oklahoma State — with a stunning pin of previously undefeated David Morgan of Michigan State — to the disappointment of his third-place finish the following year.

“The energy that this building will encapsulate — enormous highs and really tough lows — you’re going to see it over the next three-day period,” Moore said. “In the last 25 years where I’ve been intimately involved with it, there’s a constant flood of memories, from big matches that were won to the tough defeats you or your athletes went through.”

Moore attended the NCAA championships for the first time when he was at North Allegheny to see his older brother, the late legend Ty Moore, wrestle for North Carolina. Teague instantly fell in love with the event and remembers his immediate reaction: “I want to do this.”

Now, Moore can’t help but marvel that the magic of the NCAA wrestling has returned to his hometown for the first time since 1957, when Pitt hosted it at Fitzgerald Field House. Word is, when PPG Paints Arena was being constructed, the late Pitt wrestling coach Rande Stottlemyer suggested it be built large enough for Pitt to host the event.

Welcome back, wrestling world.

“The Steel City is a wrestling a city,” said North Carolina coach Coleman Scott, a Waynesburg graduate who won the 2008 NCAA title at Oklahoma State and was a ’12 Olympic bronze medalist. “It’s a hotbed of wrestling in elementary, high school and college, so it’s great to be back for me and see a lot of people I know. It’s a cool thing. It’s never been here for me and my generation.”

For generations, it was debated which region reigned as wrestling’s hotbed. Pennsylvania is now a no-brainer. Of the 330 wrestlers in 10 weight classes, 53 are from this state. With the WPIAL producing 23 NCAA champions since 1990, Western Pennsylvania is now recognized as not just a hotbed for the sport but a cradle for college champions.

The NCAA tournament features 23 wrestlers from Western Pennsylvania, including three defending champions. Iowa sophomore Spencer Lee of Franklin Regional won the 125-pound title. Penn State has a pair of two-time champs in Jason Nolf, a 157-pounder from Kittanning, and Vincenzo Joseph, a 165-pounder from Central Catholic.

Where the state’s top wrestlers once left for the likes of perennial powers Iowa and Oklahoma State, Penn State’s Cael Sanderson has swayed many to stay home. With No. 1 seeds Nolf, Mark Hall (174) and Bo Nickal (197); Nos. 2 Joseph, Shakur Rasheed (184) and heavyweight Anthony Cassar; and No. 3 Nick Lee (141), Penn State is favored to win its eighth NCAA title in nine years.

“People have to recognize it now,” Moore said. “There was a time when this was debated all the time: Where is the best area of wrestling in the country? Pittsburgh was always part of the conversation. Now, with what Penn State is doing, they’ve been able to capture the premier Pennsylvania wrestlers and put them onto one team. For a long time, we struggled to do that. Now, it’s happening.”

It’s happening thanks to the men who have devoted their lives to the sport. The list of WPIAL wrestlers who won NCAA championships includes not only Moore and Scott but Jefferson-Morgan’s Cary Kolat, who won 134-pound titles in ’96 and ’97 at Lock Haven, and McGuffey’s Jeremy Hunter, who won 125 at Penn State in 2000.

All four are giving back as coaches — Moore at American, Kolat at Campbell, Scott at North Carolina and Hunter as an Illinois assistant — in hopes their wrestlers can experience that energy and go for glory.

“Some of these guys, this has been their life,” Moore said. “From the time they were 5 or 6 years old, their focus has been this event: the NCAA championships. The stage that the NCAA has built for this event, it is the pinnacle of our sport right now. It is exciting to not only see the athletes get this type of experience but in a place like Pittsburgh where it’s a showcased sport, where people understand this sport.”

This weekend, people will watch in wide-eyed wonder, ready to ride the wave that is the NCAA wrestling championships.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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