NCAA wrestling finals recap: Rutgers, Virginia Tech, Northern Iowa wrestlers break through on national stage
Penn State continued its NCAA wrestling dominance Saturday night at PPG Paints Arena with its eighth team championship in nine seasons, but a few programs broke through in a big way.
Rutgers’ Nick Suriano and Anthony Ashnault won titles at 133 and 149 pounds, becoming the first national champions in program history. And Mekhi Lewis did the same for Virginia Tech when he won the 165-pound final over Penn State’s Vincenzo Joseph.
“It means a lot, because Virginia Tech wrestling has been really good,” Lewis said. It’s just that we never really had good finals, good end results. So to be the first one is really special. It means a lot to me. Just so happy that I’m a part of the program.”
Northern Iowa’s Drew Foster made some school history of his own, becoming the school’s first national champion since 2000 with a 6-4 decision over Cornell’s Max Dean.
“A lot of belief, not only self-belief, (but) coach believing, university believing, teammates, my family members,” said Foster, who never won an Iowa high school championship but claimed a national title. “The whole community believing. When you’ve got that kind of backing … it’s hard to get beat when you’ve got that.”
More from a big night of wrestling in front of 18,950 people at PPG Paints Arena:
Match of the night: Cornell’s Yianni Diakomihalis defended his 141-pound championship with a 6-4 decision over Ohio State’s Joey McKenna. Trailing, 3-2, late in the third, Diakomihalis registered a takedown with five seconds remaining, only to see McKenna escape. It ultimately didn’t matter, as Diakomihalis got another takedown in sudden-victory overtime for his second straight title. Suriano had an overtime win of his own, as his takedown of Oklahoma State’s Daton Fix gave him a 4-2 decision.
Biggest upset: Lewis capped a tournament of upsets with his strong 7-1 victory over Joseph, a two-time NCAA champion, at 165 pounds. He put Joseph on his back at the beginning of the second period, getting four nearfall points to take control of the match. The Virginia Tech redshirt freshman beat the No. 1, 2 and 4 seeds on his path to the title and was rewarded when he was named Outstanding Wrestler.
Repeat after me: Five of the six wrestlers who came into the NCAA tournament as returning champions defended their titles: Iowa’s Spencer Lee, a Franklin Regional graduate, at 125 pounds; Diakomihalis at 141; Penn State’s Jason Nolf, who became a three-time champion at 157; Arizona State’s Zahid Valencia, who beat Penn State’s Mark Hall in the 174-pound final for a second straight year; and Penn State’s Bo Nickal, who won at 197 after winning the previous two seasons at 184.
Scarlet fever: Suriano came within a win of becoming Rutgers’ first national champion last season, losing to Lee in the 125-pound final. This time he came through with his victory over Fix. And Ashnault made sure the Scarlet Knights didn’t have to wait much longer for their second champion, pulling away in the third period for a 9-4 decision over Ohio State’s Micah Jordan.
Bo knows: Nickal was named the tournament’s most dominant wrestler after winning the 197-pound championship, his third national title. Nickal ended three of his five matches during the tournament with pins and finished his career second in Nittany Lions history with 59 falls, one behind fellow three-time champ Nolf.
Taking the fifth: The finals attendance of 18,950 ranks fifth in NCAA history. The total six-session attendance of 109,405 ranks sixth. All six sessions were sellouts.