Hawkeye wrestlers face Cornell at Duals event
Mat Mayhem lived up to its moniker during its inaugural year.
The National Wrestling Coaches Association changed the format, time, place and name of its National Duals last year in an attempt to revive a tournament that lost luster in previous seasons with the absence of the sport’s top box-office draws.
The changes resulted in mayhem — or perhaps planning pandemonium — when the championship site wasn’t announced until a week before the four-team final event.
The NWCA fixed that issue this year when it expanded the championship weekend to eight teams and gave four an automatic pass to the final series. One of those teams, Minnesota, plays host to the two-day tournament that begins tonight at Williams Arena.
But the quest to make all of the pieces align remains a Rubik’s Cube for the NWCA.
“I certainly feel better that things were set a lot further in advance,” NWCA executive director Mike Moyer said. “In my heart — and I don’t have a vote — I’d love to see a model one day where the outcome of every regular-season dual meet determines who gets in and who doesn’t. We just have to get there in baby steps.
“There’s lot of moving parts that prevent you from going from point A to point B. Every year, it’s tweaking things and trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t work and making adjustments.”
Ultimately, though, Moyer realizes Mat Mayhem’s success comes down to the product on the mat. This year’s tournament has the makings of a captivating event.
The top three seeds — Oklahoma State, Iowa and Minnesota — have already clashed in gripping duals that were essentially determined by one scramble, a late takedown or criteria.
The Cowboys knocked off the Gophers 22-15 in December when Keokuk’s Julian Feikert came out on top of a flurry to pin Nick Dardanes in an upset at 141 pounds. Oklahoma State topped Iowa 18-12 in January when Chris Chionuma used a takedown in the final minute to win a 3-2 decision against Ethen Lofthouse at 184.
The Hawkeyes outscored Minnesota in match points last month to win 16-15 on criteria.
Iowa (19-1) opens the tournament at 8 p.m. Friday against seventh-seeded Cornell (14-3) in the quarterfinals.
“They’ve ironed some things out,” Iowa coach Tom Brands said of Cornell. “They’ve had some young guys in there who maybe took their lumps a little bit and now they seem to have them running in the right direction.
“Their coaching staff is passionate about wrestling with coach (Rob) Koll and (assistant) Damion Hahn and those guys. I think they’re after the same turf that the top programs in the country are after.”
Brands and Koll were on opposite sides of the sport’s hottest offseason topic last fall when the NCAA wrestling committee unveiled a plan to reshape how it determines its national team champion.
Koll was one of the advocates for switching to a dual format while Brands was in the camp that favored sticking with the system that has been in place since 1929, which awards the NCAA title to the team that finishes with the most points individuals accrue at its season-ending traditional tournament each March.
The NCAA wrestling committee could revisit the topic again in April.
For now, though, Moyer is trying to raise the profile of the NWCA-sponsored Mat Mayhem.
Two-time defending NCAA champion Penn State, the only top-eight team that isn’t in the tournament this year, has agreed to rejoin the field next year.
“We’ll participate … ,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said. “I’m certainly not too excited about it. I just don’t think that the timing’s good.
“We’re three weeks out from the Big Tens and then the national championships, so it doesn’t make sense to me. But, reluctantly, I agreed to it.”
Moyer said the NWCA is trying to address concerns voiced by Sanderson and others. He said the timing is a tricky issue. On one hand, he sees a championship-cluttered last month of the season. On the other, he’d like to make Mat Mayhem a culminating event to the dual season. Moyer said the NWCA is looking into expanding the field to 32 next season with four, eight-team regionals and the top two teams in each regional advancing to the final weekend on a pre-determined campus for the championship.
“We’re trying to put all of our energy into 2014 and trying to put together one heck of an event that everyone wants to support going forward,” Moyer said. “Really, this is all about strengthening our sport. We want everyone to feel good about it.”
“What’s tricky is many coaches have different opinions on how best to peak their wrestlers for the traditional tournament, and that’s what makes this so complicated. It’s hard to come up with a model that everyone feels great about.”
The Hawkeyes are the only team from Iowa in this weekend’s final.