Headlined by five individual national title winners, this weekend’s NCAA Championships performance by the Penn State wrestling team turned into the greatest tournament performance in program history. And considering the dominance that this modern dynasty has wielded in March since 2011, winning six of the last seven titles on the backs of 16 individual champions and 39 All-Americans, that’s saying something.
While the team’s point total of 146.5 is the most ever by a Penn State team at the tournament, it doesn’t even begin to tell the story.
The only other championship team of Sanderson’s that even comes close on the scoreboard is when Frank Molinaro, Ed Ruth, and David Taylor all won individual titles in 2012 and led the Nittany Lions to a 143.5-point finish. That 2012 team and the newly reigning champions have a lot in common. Along with finishing within 3.0 points of each other, both teams featured six All-Americans and sent five wrestlers to the NCAA Finals.
This year’s team however went 5-0 in the Finals with a royal flush of champions from 149-184-pound weight classes, while 2012’s Nittany Lions went just 3-2 in first-place bouts.
Despite the Nittany Lions yielding their highest point total ever this year, they had just the third-most All-Americans in program history. In 1987, Penn State had eight All-Americans yet failed to have an individual champion, scoring 97.7 points and finishing third. Three other times, Penn State had seven All-Americans, including 2014’s championship season, however that year, the team needed only 109.5 points to lock up the title.
The Nittany Lions’ 146.5 points were also the most scored by any program in 12 years when Oklahoma State posted 153. On the all-time list of most points scored at the NCAA Championships, Penn State’s performance over the weekend is sixth. Given how much the sport has changed in recent years with Penn State becoming the gold standard of college wrestling, this eruption in the midst of a relatively lower scoring era is demonstrative of Sanderson’s dominance.
In addition to the legendary run on Saturday night, what makes this weekend’s performance so incredible is that it came when Penn State may’ve been at its weakest and had the lowest expectations.
Everything that the Nittany Lions accomplished this weekend was done in an unusually difficult tournament where all of ten top seeds were undefeated. Furthermore, they were without true freshman 125-pounder Nick Suriano, who was seeded third before withdrawing from the tournament due to injury, and a qualifier at 133.
Heading into this tournament with a bit of unusual uncertainty given Suriano’s status and the team’s surprising second place finish at the Big Ten Championships, it seemed like Penn State would need a near perfect tournament in order to defend its title and hold off Oklahoma State and Ohio State, who both seemed bound to take down the Nittany Lions. And the Nittany Lions came about as close to doing that as possible.
Had Penn State scored points at more than just eight weight classes, the team very well could have cemented its dynasty status even further and potentially have bested Iowa’s 20-year old record of 170 points scored at the NCAA Championships.
Although we will never know what could’ve happened this weekend had Penn State been fully loaded, we may find out shortly. The Nittany Lions are only losing on starter and are returning all five of their finalists, as well as a healthy Suriano and 133-pounder Jered Cortez, who missed the last three months of the season due to injury.
Given the team’s youth and early dominance, don’t be surprised if you read an updated version of this post 365 days from now.