MADISON, Wis. – Any thoughts of Penn State walking away with a fourth straight conference title were put on hold.
At least after last night, the University of Iowa made sure the top-ranked Nittany Lions had a little company at the top of the team standings.
The Hawkeyes advanced five to the finals and remain in contention for the team title after the first day of the Big Ten Wrestling Championships at the University of Wisconsin’s Kohl Center. Penn State advanced all of its five top-seeded wrestlers to the finals, leading Iowa, 122-121.
Iowa went 5-2 in the semifinals, including five straight wins sparked by seniors Tony Ramos (133) and 157-pounder Derek St. John.
“We need to continue that string of matches,” Iowa Coach Tom Brands said. “Last year, we didn’t win a title, so we have to win a title. We have to win a bunch of individual titles.
“We have to win titles (today) and guys on the back side have to keep moving forward.”
The victories were a mix of gritty performances and come-from-behind heroics. For St. John and 174-pounder Mike Evans, revenge accompanied a trip to the championship bout.
St. John, the defending NCAA champion seeded fourth, had lost to Wisconsin’s top-seeded Isaac Jordan just two weeks ago, leaving him 3-3 in his last six matches before the postseason. St. John used an escape with three seconds remaining in the final tiebreaker period for a 4-3 overtime win. It’s his third trip to the conference finals.
“Even though it really wasn’t going my way I had to keep moving,” said St. John, who rode out Jordan for the first 30-second tiebreaker period. “I got my hips higher than his and I ended up kicking out of there.”
With much of the crowd in a frenzy, St. John (25-3) maintained the calm demeanor and resolve that has been a staple of his wrestling career. He never flinched, trailing in the third and needing a late reversal to overcome Jordan’s riding time. St. John said it is a natural trait that delivered success.
“I think it helps a lot,” St. John said. “It’s just part of my wrestling to where I work it in wherever it fits.”
The Badgers and their fans celebrated with Jordan's victory here Feb. 23. Forgive Brands if he enjoyed this win a little bit more than normal.
“That match was a lot of fun for me,” Brands said. “We were here two weeks ago and they were giving it to us pretty good.”
Evans lost to Penn State’s Matt Brown in last year’s championship match and lost to him in a December dual. This time, Evans denied Brown a chance to repeat.
Evans (25-3) hit an ankle pick for a first-period and notched his second straight finals appearance with a 3-2 victory.
“The biggest thing for me is keeping a good thing going,” Evans said. “It doesn’t mean I have to work backward and catch back up. It means I’m pushing in the right direction and this is where I want to be wrestling my best.”
Getting an early lead was key, and Evans stayed with some offense late to keep Brown from mounting an attack.
“It’s been a philosophy to score in the first period and keep scoring,” Brands said. “We have to keep doing that.”
Evans controlled his fiery disposition on the mat, despite a bloodied cut across the bridge of his nose that was aggravated by Brown. He thrived off the loud Iowa crowd and soaked up their cheers as he walked by after his win.
“It’s awesome,” Evans said. “I didn’t realize after we packed up all our food and our trucks got out that we brought Carver (Hawkeye Arena) with us.”
Ramos entered the tournament as the Hawkeyes’ only No. 1 seed. He survived a tough test, but needed a dramatic finish to return to the finals. Ramos scored a takedown with 18 seconds left to edge Purdue’s Cashe Quiroga, 7-6.
Ramos (26-2) was not to be denied.
“There could have been five seconds left,” Ramos said. “Time doesn’t matter to me, because I believe in my offense. I’m confident. I believe in my training so I wasn’t too worried.”
Quiroga scored two takedowns, going up 6-4 in the third. Quiroga kicked out of a late attempt by Ramos, leaving him 26 ticks after a restart. Ramos exploded in right after the whistle and dropped Quiroga to the mat and rode him out.
“I might not hit it a lot during matches but I have a good double-leg,” Ramos said. “It was open and I hit it. Once I get my hands locked I’m finishing.”
Ramos will compete in his third straight Big Ten final, placing second the last two years and third as a freshman. The NCAA runner-up and two-time All-American is still in search of his first major college title. He is motivated by those previous performances.
“It helps the most, because I felt the pain every time,” Ramos said. “I’ve never had the glory in here. I’m excited for it.”
Nick Moore (165) and 184-pounder Ethen Lofthouse beat Minnesota opponents, helping the Gophers to a rough 1-8 semifinal after a 9-0 mark in the quarters. Minnesota had the team lead after the first session but was third with 86 points after last night.
Third-seeded Lofthouse (20-2) beat No. 2 seed Kevin Steinhaus, 5-4. Moore (21-2) beat Danny Zilverberg, 8-5.Iowa has nine wrestlers alive and all of them are assured of top-six finishes, including 125-poud freshman Cory Clark and Nathan Burak at 197. Both dropped one-point decisions in the semifinals. Josh Dziewa (141) and Heavyweight Bobby Telford win two consolation matches for Iowa.