Saturday, June 11, 2022

Down Goes the #1! - Part 15

2004 through 2006. I attended all three of these NCAA tournaments and I remember every single one of these upsets. The excitement, the exhilaration, these were marvelous times. 

2004 133 - #5 Zach Roberson Iowa State Upsets #1 Travis Lee Cornell 6-3 in Semi-Finals 

I attended the finals of the 1997 NCAA wrestling championships, but my first tournament in full was in 2003, my junior year of high school. There on a bus ride from the hotel to the arena I sat next to a man who had a button of Zach Roberson on his chest. Here I had thought I was the only one eccentric enough to wear anything other than Iowa Hawkeye gear on the H.A.W.K. bus & this guy had a huge button pinned to his chest of an Iowa State Cyclone. I struck up a conversation with the man, whose name was Bill. He told me that his son Derek who had passed away a few years ago was Roberson's best friend. I told him that I was a fan of Roberson's myself & I hoped to see him take runner-up honors. Bill laughed and asked, "Runner up? Why not national champion?"  My answer? "Because my favorite wrestler is Johnny Thompson."  Bill laughed so hard that the entire bus turned and starred at us.  "Here I thought I was insane for rooting for a Cyclone on this bus. You must be suicidal cheering for a guy from Okie State."  Bill became a good friend that I'd see year in and year out at the NCAA championships. 

The next season, as you can imagine, I was heartbroken when Johnny Thompson got upset by Penn State's Josh Moore in the quarterfinals. I told Bill that now that Thompson wasn't going to get title #3, I was rooting for Roberson to win. Bill assured me with no doubt in his mind that at the end of the day Johnny & Zach would be standing next to each other on the award stand. Now the beautiful thing about this that very few people know, is that at this tournament Bill introduced Roberson's grandparents to Thompson's grandparents. They sat together when Thompson defeated Boise State's Scott Jorgenson to capture his third All American honor & when Roberson knocked off #1 seed Travis Lee of Cornell 6-3 in the semi-finals. Lee had been the NCAA champion at 125 in 2003, a great win for Roberson. 

Roberson would go on to win the NCAA title as Lee finished in 5th place. Lee would win his second NCAA title in 2005, becoming the State of Hawaii's first ever four time NCAA Division I All American. Post Roberson's national title, Bill told me that Thompson took him aside and told him that if he wasn't going to be the NCAA champion, he was very happy to see him win it. Roberson is yet another NCAA champ, who never won a BIG 12 title.  About a week after the NCAA's were over, the UPS man came to the door looking for me. A framed poster arrived signed by Johnny Thompson thanking me for being his #1 fan. A gift from my friend Bill. 

2004 141 #5 Cliff Moore Iowa Upsets #1 Scott Moore Virginia 14-2 in SF

I sat next to my high school wrestling coaches Jeff Kirby and Gary Jarmes for this match. Coach Jarmes looked at me and said, "Who do you think will win this one?"  "Moore" is all I said. Truth is I thought both of these guys had what it took to win the national title.  Iowa's Cliff Moore had looked incredible. Two years at 133 lbs he wrestled well all season & then didn't live up to the lofty standards he set for himself finishing 6th twice. This season at 141 lbs was different. When I knew that gold was a realistic expectation for him is when he just manhandled 2003 NCAA runner-up Dylan Long of Northern Iowa in the dual. On the same hand, Virginia's Scott Moore was doing things I didn't even know were possible at the Division I level. He already had close to 50 matches under his belt & damn near every one of them were by pin. If that weren't enough, most of them he didn't take too long to stick either. Here he was going out on the mat with guys who had won multiple state titles in high school, guys that had all sorts of collegiate credentials and he was grabbing them by the head and putting them on their backs in the first period.  

"Cliff wants to beat Scott, he's gonna have to stay off his back," I said to Coach Jarmes. Boy was I in for a surprise! 

There was a lot of going to the back, but it was Cliff putting Scott on his back! Here's a guy that had been securing everyone's shoulders to the mat all season & he was fighting like Hell to stay off of his!  Dalton had it right in Road House when he said, "expect the unexpected."  I could see the match going either way, but I never would have thought in a million years that Cliff Moore would have dominated the way he did, nearly securing a tech in a 14-2 major decision.  

Cliff Moore would go on to win the NCAA title as Scott Moore took two first period falls in route to a Gorriaran Award and a 3rd place finish. Both BIG 10 champions, Moore had placed 4th the year prior competing for Penn State. Both Moores have since gotten into coaching at the collegiate level. 

2004 157 - #4 Jake Percival Ohio Upsets #1 Alex Tirapelle Illinois 4-2 in Semi-Finals 

By the time these two were done with their illustrious collegiate careers both Jake Percival of Ohio & Alex Tirapelle were well familiar with the term upset. Most of their careers were either them upsetting someone else or them getting upset by someone else. In this particular case it was Percival who upset Tirapelle 4-2 in the semi-finals. Percival would go on to be the NCAA runner-up as Tirapelle worked his way back to a 4th place finish.  As mentioned in part 14, Percival would then take 3rd place in 2005, as Tirapelle finished R12 in both 2005 & 2006. 

2005 125 - #5 Joe Dubuque Indiana Upsets #1 Sam Hazewinkel Oklahoma 3-1 in Semi-Finals

I've often referred to Sam Hazewinkel of Oklahoma as the modern day Ben Peterson. You meet the guy for 30 seconds, you automatically become a fan of his for life. He's such a friendly, genuine and sincere individual off the mat, that it can really mess with your head on a psychological level just how dominating he is on the mat. My friend Bill I talked about earlier also knew the Hazewinkels very well. He told me once at a big tournament Sam beat a kid who took the loss really, really hard. Sam found the kid later in the stands and went to him with one of his favorite Bible verses for how to get through a disappointment. If that isn't class, you tell me what is.  Truth is, Joe Dubuque of Indiana is an absolute class act too. When I first started doing media, I'll make no amends about it. Not everyone was friendly. Not everyone was approachable. Dubuque always was.  This semi-final match between the two was another one of those times when you just loved what you were seeing, while hating it at the same time. Loved seeing two of the absolute best going toe to toe, duking it out on the mat. Hated knowing that one of them was going to lose. 

Dubuque pulled it out in a tight 3-1 decision. Having been 8th the season prior he'd go on to win his first of what would eventually be two titles. Hazewinkel as he had the year prior and as he would again the following year, worked his way back to 3rd.  As a senior in 2007, Hazewinkel finally made the NCAA finals, but ended up taking runner-up honors. 3-3-3-2,  any way you slice it he's one of the best of all time to never win an NCAA title. As Hazewinkle would go on to make a World team, both Hazewinkel and Dubuque have since gotten into coaching at the collegiate levels. 

2005 157 - #8 Joe Johnston Iowa Upsets #1 Alex Tirapelle Illinois 6-5 in Quarterfinals 

As much as I love wrestling one thing that has always remained a constant truth is that at times it can be overbearingly unforgiving. I've never been shy of being vocal of my disapproval of how we as a whole, coaches, wrestlers, fans, ect overemphasize the NCAA tournament. I don't think there's anything wrong with treating like it's the most important event of the season, but I am 100% against treating it like it is the only event of the season.  Yes, Illinois' Alex Tirapelle fell short of placing his junior & senior seasons after placing 2nd & 4th his freshman and sophomore years, but look at all he DID achieve during this time. Three Midlands finals appearances/two titles, three BIG 10 finals appearances/two titles, not to mention all of the competition he beat during the season.  He obviously earned the #1 seed given to him in his sophomore & junior campaigns. The college wrestling season is long. 6 months long and there is so much more than the last 3 days of it. Agree or disagree, that is my opinion & I feel that JT#1 does his best to cover, hype up & properly recognize the other important events of the season. 

Now the other perspective to look at this match is through the eyes of Iowa's Joe Johnston & from that perspective, this turns into one of my favorite memories. As much as I love most of the black & gold faithful, let's be honest here. No other program's fans have higher expectations for their wrestlers than those who fill the seats of Carver Hawkeye Arena. They expect greatest out of you at day one & if you don't deliver, they aren't exactly forgiving of it. While Joe Johnston had done some promising things thus far in his career, his post season accomplishments thus far had left both himself & his fans feeling disappointed. If there's anything I cannot stand it's when a wrestler still has plenty of career left & people have already thrown the towel in on him. Nothing pleases me more than to see that same wrestler take that towel and shove it straight up their....  Johnston's junior season wasn't exactly going as well as what he had hoped. He had slipped to a disappointing 8th at the Midlands & while he did take 3rd at the BIG 10's, expectations weren't exactly high for him. The "experts" over at message boards were already chalking up Johnston's contributions towards the team race to be little to nothing and boy oh boy did he shut them up in a hurry. Making the quarter-finals, he pulled off a huge upset as he knocked off #1 Tirapelle 6-5 in one of the most exciting matches of the tournament. He'd turn around and do it again in the semi-finals when he upset Jake Percival of Ohio in the semi-finals, with Mike Zadick ironically enough coaching him through the match. It was very rewarding to see Johnston make the NCAA finals. He would finish in 6th place the next season as a senior. 

2005 165 lbs - #4 Mark Perry Iowa Upsets #1 Troy Letters of Lehigh 3-0 in Semi-Finals 

When the nephew of John Smith of Oklahoma State chose to compete at Iowa it was quite the shock to the wrestling community. He was one of the most sought after recruits in the nation & he more than delivered once he suited up in the black & gold. An unorthodox style that the Hawkeye faithful weren't used to, but welcomed nonetheless, Perry was limber, flexible, creative & deceptively strong. He didn't have the chiseled bodybuilder physique of semi-final opponent Troy Letters of Lehigh, but he was every bit as strong. When the two stepped on the mat, the young freshman couldn't get any offense going against the two time NCAA finalist/one time NCAA Champion, but Letters couldn't get any offense going against him either. Soon thereafter Perry used his creativeness to rack up some valuable backpoints & that was all she wrote. Letters who had a textbook crab ride himself was able to keep Perry on the mat, but no matter what he tried he could not turn the Hawkeye.  Perry advanced to the finals where he dropped a tight decision to Oklahoma State's Johny Hendricks. While happy for Hendricks it has to be the least enthusiastic that John and Pat Smith have ever been after a Cowboy won a NCAA title. While happy for their wrestler, it was more than obvious that they felt for their nephew who had came so close to his dream of being a national champion. Letters would come back to take 3rd. 

The next season Perry would take 3rd himself, winning his first NCAA title as a junior & following it up with a second NCAA title as a senior. Letters career unfortunately ended up being cut short by a severe neck injury that all but robbed him completely of his strength, speed and mobility. He did his best to fight through it, but it got the best of him.  Both Perry & Letters got into coaching at the collegiate level once their own college careers were over. 

2005 197 - #5 Sean Stender Northern Iowa Upsets #1 Jon Trenge Lehigh 5-3 in Semi-Finals 

As a sophomore in 2002, Lehigh's Jon Trenge had been the only wrestler in the nation to give undefeated four time NCAA champion Cael Sanderson of Iowa State a respectable match. While everyone else was getting pinned, tech'd or majored, he kept the untouchable one to a 6-1 decision the first time they met.  He himself had dominated nearly every other match he had wrestled, therefore making it seem inevitable in the two remaining years of eligibility that he had left, that he would win at least one national title if not two. Yet in his junior season of 2003, he made the NCAA finals & lost in the closing seconds to Minnesota's Damion Hahn. Taking an Olympic redshirt in 2004, he came back in 2005, in what most everyone thought would be his championship run.  All looked good until he ran into Northern Iowa's Sean Stender. A fellow senior who had thus far finished 4th & 6th in his career. Leaving Trenge on the mat in shock, as well as nearly everyone else in the arena, Stender walked off the mat headed to the NCAA finals. As he finished the NCAA runner up, Trenge battled back to 3rd. 

2006 125 - #5 Troy Nickerson Cornell Upsets #1 Nick Simmons Michigan State 2-1 in SF

Having developed an upper-body offense full of an arsenal of throws & a defense that often left you short of breath & feeling like you'd been tied to The Rack, Michigan State's Nick Simmons was tough to score on. It was as equally difficult to keep him from scoring on you. Yet somehow or another freshman sensation Troy Nickerson was able to keep the spladle master from getting to his offense, while at the same time using a strong ride to defeat in 2-1 in the NCAA semi-finals. Nickerson would go on to finish as the NCAA runner-up as Simmons battled back to a 4th place finish. Nickerson would finish 3rd as a true sophomore in 2007, taking 2008 off to redshirt. He'd come back in 2009 to win the NCAA title, then fight through a horrible shoulder injury to place 4th as a senior in 2010.  Simmons who had finished 7th in 2003, then 4th in 2005, would cap off his career with his fourth All American honor by placing 3rd in 2007.  Both Nickerson & Simmons have since gotten into coaching post their decorated collegiate careers. 

2006 133 - #5 Chris Fleeger Purdue Upsets #1 Shawn Bunch Edinboro 9-2 in SF 

Chris Fleeger of Purdue had a sensational start to his collegiate career placing 3rd at the NCAA's as a freshman, following it up with a BIG 10 title & a NCAA runner-up finish as a sophomore. Unfortunately he would run into some issues that kept him from competing his junior season, but he went to work, took care of those issues & came back as good as ever for his final year of eligibility.  Shawn Bunch of Edinboro who struggled a bit in his freshman & sophomore seasons, had developed a combination of speed, quickness & technique that made him extremely dangerous on the mat. He had taken NCAA runner-up honors as a junior in 2005.  The 2006 NCAA semi-finals at 133 lbs pitted two NCAA runner-ups who both sought for another shot at a national title. It was the calculated precision of strength & conservative tactic Vs the lightning strike attack of a never slow down pace. Yet in this particular case, Fleeger switched it up.  As did Mick & Rocky in Rocky II, when Mick had Rocky fight right handed to confuse Apollo, Fleeger went out and did what no one expected. He took one of the oldest tricks in the book, the element of surprise and took it to the next level. Coming into the match after a tough victory over Minnesota's Mack Reiter, no one was expecting Fleeger to take it to Bunch like a MG 08 on the beaches of Normandy. Yet, that's exactly what he did. He went on the attack & never came off of it. He stayed on top of Bunch like a bear on honey, never allowing the Fighting Scot even a second to get to his offense. It was a heck of a strategy that sent the Boilermaker to his second NCAA finals with a dominating 9-2 victory.  Fleeger would finish as the NCAA-Runner up as Bunch came back to finish 3rd.  Post college Fleeger took to the coaching route as Bunch went the direction of MMA after winning PAN-AMERICAN gold in 2007. 

2006 157 - #9 Joe Johnston Iowa Upsets #1 Trent Paulson Iowa State 6-3 in QF 

He did it as a junior & he came back and did it again as a senior. Iowa's Joe Johnston came in and knocked off the #1 seed Trent Paulson of Iowa State 6-3 in the quarterfinals. As he would eventually finish in 6th place, Paulson came back to claim 4th. It was his second 4th place finish, having also made All American status in 2005 as a sophomore. He would go on to capture the NCAA title as a senior in 2007.  He like Johnston would get into coaching post his collegiate career. 

2006 184 - #5 Shane Webster Oregon Upsets #1 Josh Glenn American 8-7 in Semi-finals 

For me it's always a treat to see two guys from schools not known for their wrestling programs go head to head in high profile matches. Oregon when they had wrestling was one of those schools that always fought hard at the conference level, while occasionally having a gem shine at the NCAA level. Shane Webster was one of those gems. After placing 6th as a true sophomore in 2003, redshirting in 2004, he came back with high expectations in 2005. He was met with a nightmare NCAA tournament, going 0-2. He vowed that 2006 would be different. This time he was going to get what he came for.  

American up until Josh Glenn earned this #1 seed had only had one All American in its 32 year history. While they had many notable wrestlers, it was Glenn who really helped propel the program & put the Eagles on the map. It often takes that first time for young wrestlers to know that they can achieve at a school. It takes someone having the courage and intestinal fortitude to be the guinea pig & take the risk. Josh Glenn (along with others such as Daniel Watters & Muzzafar Abdurakmanov) was that person. 

So when the Oregon Duck met up with the American Eagle in the NCAA semi-finals, it was a win-win situation for the sport of wrestling as far as I was concerned.  It would be Webster, in route of making good on the promise he had made advancing to the finals with an 8-7 decision.  As Glenn battled back to take 4th place, Webster did exactly what he made clear he was going to do, he won the NCAA title.  Glenn who was only a sophomore at the time would earn his own NCAA title as a junior, then finishing his career off with a 5th place finish. To date, he is still the most successful wrestler American has ever had. Since starting the legacy, American has produced 18  more All Americans.  

2006 197 - U.S. Chris Weidman Hofstra Upsets #1 Wynn Michalak Central Michigan 10-7 in R2

Two time NJCAA All American Chris Weidman who redshirted the 2005 season, made it  loud and clear that he would more than fill the void left by three time CAA champ/two time All American Chris Skretkowicz once he started rolling. He more than delivered on those words when he knocked off #1 seed Wynn Michalak of Central Michigan in what I would call the biggest upset of Round two at the 2006 NCAA tournament. Weidman would suffer injury in the semi-finals having to default to 6th place as Michalak came back to finish 8th.  Weidman would then finish off his career in 2007 with a 3rd place finish.  Michalak who had been 6th in 2005 as a freshman would finish one match shy of earning his third All American honor as a junior, but come back strong in 2008 to make the NCAA finals. Post college Weidman became a sensation within the octagon of the UFC as Michalak turned his attention towards coaching. 


Down Goes the #1! Part 16 coming soon!! 

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