OKLAHOMA CITY — Led by former Wasatch High wrestling great Cael Sanderson, Penn State won its fourth-straight NCAA wrestling title Saturday. The Nittany Lions, who are coached by Sanderson, won two individual titles to slip past Big Ten rival Minnesota.
Penn State scored 109.5 points, while Minnesota scored 104. Oklahoma State was third with 96.5 points, while Iowa was a distant fourth with 78.5.
The Nittany Lions actually trailed the Gophers going into the championship finals and needed at least one of their two finalists to reach the top of the podium to claim the team title. Oklahoma State, with four championship finalists, had an outside chance for the gold trophy.
The championship matches actually started at 174 pounds, where the Cowboys secured their first individual title as Mark Perry beat Oklahoma's Andrew Howe in a 4-0 decision.
But Penn State responded when Ed Ruth won the 184-pound title. Ruth, who had previously won two NCAA championships, became the first Nittany Lion wrestler to grab three individual titles. Ruth, who was suspended for part of the season because of a DUI arrest, came into the tournament as the No. 2 seed. However, the past champion had no trouble rolling through the tournament and knocking off the No. 1 seed, Jimmy Sheptock from Maryland, 7-2.
Ruth's win was ultimately all the Nittany Lions needed as they went ahead of Minnesota by 1.5 points. The Gophers had two finalists themselves, but top seed and two-time defending champion Anthony Nelson was upset by North Carolina State's Nick Gwiazdowski, 4-2.
Gwiazdowski joined Tab Thacker as a Wolfpack champion in wrestling's largest weight class. Thacker, a character actor who might be best known for roles in the movies "Wildcats" and "Police Academy," won a heavyweight title for North Carolina State in 1984, and 30 years later Gwiazdowski duplicated his feat, playing an important role in determining the team title race.
When Minnesota's Dylan Ness lost his championship bout at 157 pounds to Oklahoma State's Alex Dierenger, it ended any hopes for Minnesota claiming its first NCAA team title since 2007.
Oklahoma State lost its chance for team gold when Northwestern freshman Jason Tsirstis (141 pounds) defeated Cowboy Joshua Kindig 3-1 in sudden-victory overtime.
This meant the last match of the championship finals at 165 pounds between Penn State's David Taylor and Oklahoma State's Dylan Caldwell wouldn't deliver the drama many had hoped when the championship finals started.
Taylor eased to a 5-0 win to give Penn State its second individual gold medal. It was Taylor's second title in his fourth-straight appearance in the NCAA championship finals.
Tsirstis wasn't the only freshman to take home a title as Missouri's J'Den Cox held off Ohio State's Nick Heflin 2-1 in a bout at 197 pounds.
Other titlists include Illinois' Jesse Delgaldo, who won his second-straight 125-pound title, Iowa's Tony Ramos at 133 pounds, and Ohio State's Logan Stieber at 141 pounds. It was Stieber's third title, and as a junior he has the opportunity to join Sanderson, Oklahoma State's Pat Smith and Cornell's Kyle Dake as four-time NCAA champions.
Penn State didn't place as many wrestlers in the tournament as Minnesota, but bonus points, or the ability to win matches by major decision (8-14 points), technical fall (15 or more points) or by pin played a key part in Penn State's eventual success. The Nittany Lions secured 20 bonus points in the tournament.
One of Penn State's All-Americans was former Cyprus three-time state champion Matt Brown. Brown placed fifth in the tournament at 174 pounds. Brown was beat in the quarterfinals by Iowa's Mike Evans, but avenged this loss by beating the Hawkeye for fifth place.
Former Mountain Crest four-time state champion Ethen Lofthouse (184 pounds) went 1-2 in the tournament wrestling for Iowa.
Meanwhile, Sanderson continues to follow the career trajectory of wrestling legend Dan Gable. Gable was a wrestling great at Iowa State, won an Olympic gold medal, and then created the Iowa wrestling dynasty that dominated college wrestling for nearly three decades. Now Sanderson has built Penn State into a wrestling dynasty as no other program, save Iowa, has won four straight team titles since the 1960s.
Brian Preece is a freelance sports writer who specializes in wrestling.