NATIONAL DUALS PREVIEW Wide open race expected when top college teams meet this weekend

By Craig Sesker | Jan. 11, 2008, 4:51 p.m. (ET)
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CEDAR FALLS, Iowa - None of the top teams have lost to Appalachian State like Michigan did in football.

But a wild first half of the college wrestling season still bears a striking resemblance to what happened in a topsy-turvy college football season where the top of the rankings changed on a regular basis.

Just consider what has already happened this season in college wrestling:

Returning NCAA tournament champion Minnesota started the season No. 1 before dropping a home dual to Iowa State. The Cyclones became the No. 1 team before falling at home to Iowa.

The top-ranked Hawkeyes then lost a home dual this past Saturday to Oklahoma State, who earlier was defeated at home by Penn State. OSU also finished second to Central Michigan at the Reno Tournament of Champions.

Parity has been a recurring theme among the top college wrestling programs this season. And that's what makes this weekend's National Wrestling Coaches Association National Duals so intriguing.

"There are a lot of great matchups individually and match-wise," said Penn State coach Troy Sunderland, whose team ascended to the No. 1 ranking this week. "There are some very good teams that aren't even seeded. You could probably wrestle this event a bunch of different weekends and get a different result every time."

Oklahoma State is headed to the Virginia Duals this weekend, but all the other top guns in the college ranks are expected to be at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls, Iowa, on Saturday and Sunday for the National Duals. Penn State is the No. 1 seed, followed by Iowa, Iowa State, Central Michigan and Minnesota.

The National Duals are being held at the UNI-Dome for the third straight year. In addition to Division I, team champions also will be crowned in Division II, Division III, NAIA, Junior College and women's college wrestling.

Minnesota has won the National Duals the past two seasons. The Gophers beat Missouri in the finals last year.

Minnesota is led by national champion Dustin Schlatter (149) along with All-Americans Roger Kish (184), Mack Reiter (133), Jayson Ness (125) and C.P. Schlatter (157). National qualifier Manuel Rivera, ranked fourth at 141, also is a top wrestler for the Gophers.

Even with all the firepower and experience in its lineup, Minnesota is still seeded fifth.

"I don't know how we're a No. 5 seed - that's kind of ridiculous," Minnesota coach J Robinson said. "You have to look at more than just who beat who because some teams obviously match up differently with others. It's kind of crazy, but I guess it will all change again next week anyway."

So what kind of impact will being the No. 5 seed have on the Gophers?

"I'm sure that will impact our team," Robinson said. "I'm sure it bothers our wrestlers a little bit and it will provide motivation. That's what I'm hoping it does. I'm real happy with how our team is progressing. We have a real good group of guys and they have great attitudes."

If Robinson is right about his team being seeded too low, the Gophers could meet Big Ten foe Penn State in the semifinals. Minnesota opens against West Virginia on Saturday morning.

Iowa looked impressive in knocking off Iowa State on the road without returning NCAA champion Mark Perry (165) in the lineup. Perry was back for the Midlands Championships as the Hawkeyes rolled to the team title.

But as has been the case this season, Iowa didn't stay on top for long. Oklahoma State, keyed by transfer Jake Dieffenbach's upset of Perry, scored a 19-14 win over Iowa before 14,000-plus fans last Saturday night in Iowa City.

"It shows you can't let your guard down against anybody," Iowa coach Tom Brands said. "We need to wrestle with the same mindset and intensity we had at Midlands. The match with Oklahoma State should spur us to get better. We obviously have some areas we need to get better in."

Iowa opens against Cornell on Saturday. One of the most anticipated matchups of the day will come at 165 when the second-ranked Perry faces talented freshman Mack Lewnes of Cornell. Lewnes is 24-1 and ranked third nationally. Cornell features another top freshman in seventh-ranked Mike Grey (133), who will battle No. 2 Joey Slaton of Iowa.

The Hawkeyes will be competing this weekend just an hour and a half drive away from their campus. Barring an upset, Iowa and Iowa State will meet again in the semifinals.

"This is a real important event and we're peaking for it as always," Brands said. "We're ready to go, we're excited, we're fired up. We're right up the road from Iowa City and we're competing in a hotbed of wrestling where Dan Gable grew up and where the (Dan Gable) Wrestling Institute is. We're looking forward to this."

Penn State is led by three-time All-American Phil Davis (197) and 2007 Junior World champion Bubba Jenkins (149). The Nittany Lions learned Tuesday they had become the fourth team to hold the No. 1 ranking this season.

"We talked about it at the end of practice," Sunderland said. "Being ranked No. 1, that doesn't change how we train and how we practice. We're not defending anything. We know we need to continue to get better. We want to be No. 1 at the end of the year. It's a nice position to be in and a nice acknowledgement, but we know we still have a lot of work to do."

Penn State meets Chris Bono's scrappy team from Tennessee-Chattanooga in the first round. The dual opens with a big match at 125 between No. 7 Mark McKnight of Penn State and No. 9 Javier Maldonado of UTC.

Iowa State, led by returning NCAA runner-up Jake Varner (184), also will be in the hunt to win the team title in Cedar Falls. The Cyclones placed second behind Iowa at the Midlands.

"It's anybody's tournament - it's just a matter of which team shows up and takes it," Iowa State coach Cael Sanderson said. "There obviously are no easy matches. You have to be on your game. This tournament is great preparation for the end of the season. We want to wrestle the best competition and we will see that this weekend."

The Cyclones open against Hofstra, a team led by All-American Charles Griffin at 141. An intriguing match in this dual will come at 133 when No. 4 Nick Fanthorpe of ISU faces Hofstra's Lou Ruggirello, who was ranked No. 1 earlier this season.

Iowa State has a young lineup that includes six sophomores who each wrestled in the NCAA Championships last year.

"We're making progress each week," Sanderson said. "The National Duals will give us an opportunity to see how much progress we've made. We're eager and anxious to get back out on the mat. We're coming along real well. We just have to come out there and fight. I like where we're at right now."

Michigan could be a tough draw this weekend as well. The Wolverines have All-Americans in their lineup in Josh Churella (149), Eric Tannenbaum (165), Steve Luke (174) and Tyrel Todd (184) along with stud freshman Kellen Russell (141). Tannenbaum and Russell are both ranked No. 1 nationally. Michigan opens with tournament host Northern Iowa. Tannenbaum is scheduled to face No. 8 Moza Fay of UNI.

Central Michigan is another team to keep an eye on this weekend. The fourth-seeded Chippewas are led by All-American Wynn Michalak at 197. Central Michigan faces a tough first-round opponent in Ohio State. The dual could come down to the heavyweight match where No. 2 J.D. Bergman of Ohio State is scheduled to face No. 8 Bubba Gritter of Central Michigan. The dual also may hinge on the 184 bout between No. 3 Christian Sinnott of CMU and No. 5 Mike Pucillo of Ohio State.

Seventh-seeded Missouri also will bring another strong team to Cedar Falls. The Tigers are led by All-American Tyler McCormick at 133, fourth-ranked Nick Marable at 165, sixth-ranked Raymond Jordan at 184 and No. 10 Max Askren at 197. Marable is scheduled to face No. 7 Matt Coughlin when the Tigers wrestle Indiana in the first round.

Eighth-seeded Northwestern is led by veterans Ryan Lang (149), Mike Tamillow (197) and Dustin Fox (heavyweight). Brandon Precin (125) placed second at the Midlands Championships. Fox is ranked No. 1, Tamillow third, Precin fourth and Lang fifth.

Unseeded Nebraska, which faces Northwestern in the first round, is another team capable of making a big splash in Cedar Falls. The Cornhuskers have seven NCAA qualifiers in their lineup. Nebraska is led by NCAA champion Paul Donahoe (125) and junior-college national champion Kenny Jordan (133). The Huskers were unseeded in this event two years ago before placing third.

The Donahoe-Precin bout which starts the dual at 125 could hold the key to this match's outcome. The dual also matches Tamillow against No. 4 Craig Brester of Nebraska at 197 and Lang against No. 6 Jordan Burroughs of Nebraska at 149.

"There are probably six or seven teams thinking they have a chance to win this tournament," Nebraska coach Mark Manning said. "There is a lot of parity and it's going to be interesting to see what happens. There are a lot of good matchups right away. I know we will have our hands full with Northwestern. They have a really good team."

National Duals - Division I First-Round Pairings

No. 1 Penn State vs. Tennessee-Chattanooga

No. 8 Northwestern vs. Nebraska

No. 5 Minnesota vs. West Virginia

No. 4 Central Michigan vs. Ohio State

No. 3 Iowa State vs. Hofstra

No. 6 Michigan vs. Northern Iowa

No. 7 Missouri vs. Indiana

No. 2 Iowa vs. Cornell