Penn State coach Cael Sanderson, who won four straight NCAA titles as a wrestler, is looking for his fourth straight NCAA title as a coach. USAW file photo.
OKLAHOMA CITY – David Taylor went in motion and crossed behind the quarterback before turning sharply to his left and then sprinting straight ahead.
Taylor got a step on defender Matt Brown and made a one-handed catch while never breaking stride.
On the eve of the NCAA Championships, the top-ranked Penn State Nittany Lions were literally having a ball during a simulated game of football on the Chesapeake Energy Arena mats Wednesday morning.
If they are feeling any pressure, the three-time reigning NCAA champions certainly weren’t showing it as they fired a handball around while laughing and playing around during their workout.
Penn State enters the NCAA tournament, set for Thursday through Saturday, as the favorite after winning its fourth straight Big Ten title earlier this month.
“We wrestled well against some very good teams in the Big Ten tournament,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said. “We obviously want to see all 10 of our guys scoring points and see guys wrestling with passion for our team. If you have a chance to score bonus points, you need to get them. You’ve got to win some close matches and get some upsets. That’s what it’s all about.”
Perennial powers Iowa, Oklahoma State, Minnesota and Cornell also are expected to be in the mix. Penn State edged Oklahoma State at the 2013 NCAAs in an exciting team race that wasn’t decided until the finals.
“It’s going to be a close race,” Sanderson said. “It comes down to key matches and who takes advantage of opportunities to score points. There isn’t a clear favorite and it will be a great team race, one people should be excited about. You have Iowa, Minnesota, Cornell, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, just to name the first teams that come to mind. There are a lot great teams here.”
The Nittany Lions feature one of the best 1-2 combinations in NCAA wrestling history with senior superstars in Taylor and Ed Ruth.
Penn State also returns two-time NCAA runner-up Nico Megaludis at 125 and NCAA runner-up Matt Brown at 174. Penn State has qualified athletes at all 10 weight classes for this event. Dylan Alton was third at NCAAs two years ago at 157.
True freshman Zain Retherford (141) and sophomore Morgan McIntosh (197) both placed second at Big Tens for the Nittany Lions. Retherford is a past Cadet World champion in freestyle wrestling. McIntosh was a Junior Nationals champion in freestyle.
Ruth and Taylor have combined for three NCAA titles, two-runner-up finishes and a third-place finish in their first three trips to this tournament.
Taylor won an NCAA title and the Hodge Trophy in 2012 as college wrestler of the year and is a three-time Big Ten Wrestler of the Year. Ruth is a two-time NCAA champion who was Big Ten Wrestler of the Year in 2013.
Ruth and Taylor also feature wide-open, go-for-broke styles that make them a joy to watch. Taylor is unbeaten and seeded No. 1 at 165 pounds. Ruth is seeded second at 184 after suffering a loss to No. 3 seed Gabe Dean of Cornell at the Southern Scuffle.
Ruth and Taylor are a combined 260-6 in their careers. Ruth is 131-3 and Taylor is 129-3 in four collegiate seasons.
“Ed and David have been very solid and very consistent since they were freshmen,” Sanderson said. “They have been in the finals multiple times. They’re experienced and they live for this tournament. We’re excited to be here and now we get a chance to see what we can do.”
Taylor is 29-0 this season and he has scored bonus points in every match but one this season. That came in a 5-2 win over Oklahoma State’s Tyler Caldwell late in the season. Caldwell is the No. 2 seed and has placed fifth, second and third at NCAAs.
Taylor has scored bonus points an amazing 121 times in 132 career matches. Ruth has scored bonus points 101 times in 134 career bouts.
“Bonus points are very important,” Taylor said. “Those make a huge difference in a tournament like this. All of the top teams have guys who are capable of scoring bonus points, and I know a lot of other teams are emphasizing that now. It’s important for our guys who can score bonus points to do that. I take that upon myself to score a lot of points and I take pride in doing that for our team.”
Taylor and Ruth have bright futures ahead at the Senior level internationally in freestyle.
Taylor won a bronze medal at the 2013 World University Games and placed third at the 2013 U.S. Senior World Team Trials. Ruth made the U.S. University World Team in 2013.
“David wants to be a World and Olympic champion, and Ed Ruth wants to be an Olympic champion,” Sanderson said. “They have all the tools to win consistently at the international level, no question about that.”
Taylor put his team’s quest for a fourth straight NCAA title in perspective when asked about the pressure and expectations the Nittany Lions face this week.
“It’s not necessarily pressure, it’s an opportunity,” Taylor said. “We have an opportunity to go out and do some special things. We have 10 guys who have an opportunity to compete and do something we’ve wanted to do our whole lives. We’re just excited. This is the national championships. For me, this is the last one. I’m not going to stop throwing the ball around and having fun and joking around. That’s just my personality. And that’s just something that makes it special at Penn State.”