Top College Wrestlers Meet in St Louis for 2004 NCAA Division I Championships as Cowboys Gallop Off With Team Title (Again)

Article by Mark Palmer, Photos by Danielle Hobeika

2004 NCAA Outstanding Wrestler: Harvard's Jesse Jantzen turns Zach Esposito of Oklahoma State in the 149 lb NCAA finals to become Harvard's first National Champion since 1938

"Meet Me In St. Louis” may be a classic movie musical… but it also served as a call to the top-ranked college wrestlers to do battle in the 2004 NCAA Division I wrestling championships held at Savvis Center in St. Louis on March 18-20. 

For the second straight year, a Missouri city hosted the NCAAs.  Last year’s championships in Kansas City had more strange occurrences and plot twists than a murder mystery, with a bunch of top-ranked wrestlers knocked out of contention early on for various reasons, including illness… using a chokehold… and, in a couple first-day upsets, losing to an unseeded opponent. 

By comparison, the 2004 NCAAs lacked the sense of the bizarre… but proved to be no less dramatic or entertaining, with a number of early-round upsets that hurt some top-ranked wrestlers. 

Final Team Standings:
1. Oklahoma State    123.5
2. Iowa                    82
3. Lehigh, Ohio State  77.5
5. Nebraska               74
6. Iowa State            70
7. Illinois                   69.5
8. Minnesota              65.5
9. Oklahoma              62.5
10. Michigan             60.5
Other Honors
Outstanding Wrestler:
Jesse Jantzen, Harvard
Coach of the Year:
Greg Stroebel, Lehigh
Oklahoma State repeats as team title winner.  For the second straight year, the Cowboys managed to ride off with a team title before the finals even began.  By the time the last match was wrestled, the Pokes had racked up 123.5 points to earn their 32nd title.  This team championship was no real surprise, considering the preseason predictions of wrestling analysts across the country… Oklahoma State’s strong performance throughout the 2003-04 season… and the fact that there were three Cowboys in the finals. 
However, the big surprise in team standings was Iowa’s second-place finish with 82 points.  This was an incredible move up after placing eighth last year, the Hawkeyes’ worst showing in thirty years.  It was also sweet victory for a team that had struggled through much of the regular season, which prompted continual speculation on Jim Zalesky’s future as head coach.  
Another pleasant surprise was Ohio State sharing third-place honors with Lehigh; both schools earned 77.5 points, and each had an individual champion.   Only two weeks earlier, the Buckeyes had placed eighth at the Big Ten championships they hosted in Columbus, so the turnaround might be considered a major reversal. 
Ohio State surprised the crowd by tying Lehigh for 3rd place honors in the team race only 2 weeks after placing 8th at the Big Ten Championships
Nebraska’s fifth-place finish (with 74 points) could also be considered surprising, since the Cornhuskers didn’t break into the top ten last year.  On the other hand, three top ten teams from 2003 -- Penn State, Arizona State and Cornell – were no longer part of that elite club this year.
Parity may be a reality.  “Parity” has been a buzzword in college wrestling circles the past few years, as the wealth of top mat talent is no longer limited to a couple programs such as Oklahoma State or Iowa. 
The 2004 NCAA finals may signal that parity is indeed here.  Fifteen schools were represented in the finals – one of the most diverse assortments in years.  Oklahoma State had three finalists; Iowa, Nebraska and Penn State each had two. 
Eleven schools each had one finalist.  Some of these schools are familiar to recent finals-watchers: Iowa State, Illinois, Lehigh, Minnesota, Ohio State, and West Virginia.  However, there were some singlet colors not often seen in the championship bouts, including Harvard, Missouri, Northern Illinois, Ohio University, and Stanford. 
Lehigh's 125 lber Mario Stuart (left) upset 4th seed Tom Clum of Wisconsin in the preliminary round
Upsets aplenty.  It wouldn’t be an NCAA tournament without some unexpected surprises.  Among some of the early round upsets:
  • 125 lb unseeded freshman Mark McKnight of Buffalo got a 2-2 tiebreaker win over third-seeded Matt Valenti of Pennsylvania in the first round;
  • Also in round one, 2004 Big Ten 125 lb champ Tom Clum of Wisconsin lost to unseeded Mario Stuart of Lehigh 8-2;
  • Indiana’s Joe Dubuque, seeded sixth at 125, was pinned by Matt Pitts of Tennessee-Chattanooga in a pigtail match;
  • Ninth seed Mark Moos of Michigan was surprised by unseeded Jeremy Hartum of North Carolina State 5-4;
  • At 149 lbs, Iowa’s Ty Eustice was defeated by David Dies, the unseeded wrestler from Brown, 6-5;
  • In the same weight class, Trent Paulson of Iowa State, seeded fifth, lost in the last seconds of his match with West Virginia’s unseeded Mike Torriero;
  • At 184, Ohio State’s unseeded Blake Kaplan beat fifth seed Travis Pascoe of Nebraska 4-3.
Friday’s quarterfinals featured a couple more upsets…
  • Sixth-ranked Penn State wrestler Josh Moore of Penn State beat defending two-time champ Johnny Thompson of Oklahoma State 8-6;
  • Cal Poly’s Darrel Vasquez, ranked seventh, surprised second-seeded Mark Jayne of Illinois 9-8 in a thriller that took two tiebreakers to determine the winner.
Stanford's Matt Gentry defeated returning NCAA Champion Ryan Bertin of Michigan in the semifinals at 157 lbs. Gentry went on to win the Championship title, making him the first Stanford wrestler in history to become an NCAA Champion
In addition, there were some upsets in the semifinals outlined below.
St. Louis stories.  Some of the more interesting stories to come out of the 2004 NCAAs:
  • The year of the undefeateds.   Five wrestlers came to St. Louis with unblemished records: Stanford’s Matt Gentry, Greg Jones of West Virginia, Virginia’s Scott Moore, Jake Percival of Ohio, and Alex Tirapelle of Illinois.  Only one – Gentry – left the Savvis Center with his perfect record intact.
  • Only one 2003 NCAA champ in the finals.  Of the six NCAA champions crowned in Kansas City who competed this season in college, only one found himself in the finals:  Minnesota’s Damion Hahn at 197 lbs.  Travis Lee of Cornell, Oklahoma’s Teyon Ware, Michigan’s Ryan Bertin, and Oklahoma State’s Jake Rosholt and Johnny Thompson all failed to make it into the finals.  (Two 2002 NCAA champions who weren’t finalists last year made it to the finals in 2004: West Virginia’s Greg Jones, and Ohio State’s Tommy Rowlands.)
  • Three Big 12 losers became NCAA champs.  Three wrestlers from the Big 12 conference took home NCAA titles: Jason Powell of Nebraska, Zach Roberson of Iowa State, and Oklahoma State’s Chris Pendleton.  Interestingly, all three men lost in the Big 12 finals two weeks earlier in Ames, Iowa.
Semifinals.  Some of the most exciting match-ups of the entire three-day championship took place Friday evening at the semifinals, which determined which two wrestlers in each weight class would do battle for individual titles on Saturday night.  Here are the results of the semis:
Zach Roberson (right, Iowa State) defeated 2003 NCAA Champion Travis Lee of Cornell in the 133 lb semifinals
125:  Sixth-ranked Kyle Ott of Illinois defeated tenth-seed Vic Moreno of Cal Poly 3-2… and Nebraska’s top-seeded Jason Powell beat fifth-seed freshman sensation Sam Hazewinkel 6-2.
·         133: Penn State’s Josh Moore, seeded sixth, edged number seven Darrel Vasquez of Cal Poly 5-4… while fifth-ranked Zach Roberson of Iowa State stunned top-ranked defending champion Travis Lee of Cornell 6-3.
·         141: In another upset of a 2003 NCAA champ, Nebraska’s Matt Murray (ranked seventh) toppled Oklahoma’s Teyon Ware 5-4… and, in another shocker, fifth-seeded Cliff Moore of Iowa scored a 14-2 major decision over previously unbeaten Scott Moore of Virginia.
·         149: Oklahoma State’s Zack Esposito beat Cornell’s Dustin Manotti 5-2… while top-ranked Jesse Jantzen of Harvard racked up an 11-4 decision over Michigan’s Ryan Churella.
·         157:  Three of the five wrestlers who entered St. Louis undefeated were in this weight class… and all made it into the semis.  Unbeaten Matt Gentry of Stanford (seeded second) knocked off defending champ Ryan Bertin (ranked third from Michigan) by scoring a sudden victory takedown in overtime, 6-4.  In a meeting of the unbeatens, number-four ranked Jake Percival of Ohio handed Illinois’ top-ranked Alex Tirapelle his first loss of the season, 4-2.
·         165: In a battle of Pennsylvania colleges, number two Troy Letters of Lehigh beat third-ranked Matt King of Edinboro 4-2… while top-seeded Tyrone Lewis of Oklahoma State beat Minnesota’s fourth-ranked Jacob Volkmann 3-1 in overtime.
·         174: The only freshman in the finals, Missouri’s Ben Askren (ranked sixth), defeated second-ranked senior Tyler Nixt of Iowa 4-2… while Oklahoma State’s top-seeded Chris Pendleton pinned Purdue’s Ryan Lange (ranked fourth) at 2:08.
·         184:  Another defending champ falls: Third-ranked Jake Rosholt of Oklahoma State lost to Northern Illinois’ Ben Heizer (ranked second) 4-1… while top-ranked Greg Jones of West Virginia handled Iowa’s number four seed Paul Bradley 8-3.
·         197:  In a spirited bout, tenth-ranked Ryan Fulsaas of Iowa beat upstate rival Sean Stender of University of Northern Iowa (third seed) 8-7… while 2003 champion Damion Hahn of Minnesota proved his top-seed ranking by beating fourth-seeded Ryan Bader of Arizona State 2-1.
·         285: In another battle of the Keystone State, second-ranked Pat Cummins of Penn State edged University of Pennsylvania’s third-ranked Matt Feast 3-2.  In a match-up of agile big men, top-seeded Ohio State heavyweight Tommy Rowlands bested fourth-ranked Oklahoma Sooner Leonce Crump 5-2.
Nebraska's Jason Powell turns Illinois' Kyle Ott on his way to a technical fall in the 125 lb finals
Finals.  While the Saturday evening finals session didn’t have the upsets and surprises of earlier rounds, there was still plenty of drama as twenty individuals faced off to see who would be champ in each weight class. 
Like last year, two unbeaten wrestlers faced off against each other, this time at 157: Percival vs. Gentry.  Unlike last year when there were four freshmen in the finals, this year, only one made it to Saturday night – Missouri’s Askren.  In 2003, there were two defending champs in the finals; this year, there was only Hahn of Minnesota.
Adding to the drama: ESPN 2 televised the finals live in its entirety to a nationwide audience for the first time in years.
  • 125:  The opening battle was a demonstration of total domination.  Nebraska’s Jason Powell scored at will on Kyle Ott – including a three-point nearfall in the first period -- racking up an 18-2 tech fall victory over his Illinois opponent.
  • 133:  This match pitted two wrestlers who had defeated past champions on their way to this finals showdown.  Fifth-seeded Zach Roberson of Iowa State scored two takedowns to win the decision over Penn State’s Josh Moore who had been seeded sixth.  Final score: 7-3.
  • 141:  Sixth-seeded Cliff Moore of Iowa defeated Nebraska’s Matt Murray (ranked seventh) in a finals bout that saw only one point scored in the first two periods.  However, Moore got two takedowns in the third, making the final score 5-2.
  • 149:  Top-ranked Jesse Jantzen of Harvard built up a five-point lead in the first minute of his finals match with Oklahoma State’s Zack Esposito (seeded second). Despite being penalized for stalling and locked hands in the third period, Jantzen won the match 9-3.  The last time Harvard had an NCAA champ: 1938.
  • Troy Letters of Lehigh defeated #1 seed Tyrone Lewis of Oklahoma state by scoring an early takedown and backpoints in the first minute of the 165 lb finals match
    157:  Until this match, neither grappler had tasted defeat all season.  Second-ranked Stanford wrestler Matt Gentry started the action by scoring a takedown on Ohio’s Jake Percival halfway through the first period.  Percival scored two escapes to knot the score at 2-2… until near the end of the third Gentry scored a reversal, winning 4-2.  Gentry is the first Cardinal champion in the long history of the program. 
  • 165:  In a battle of #1 vs. #2, second-seeded Troy Letters of Lehigh built up a 4-0 lead in the first period over Oklahoma State’s top-rated Tyrone Lewis… and never looked back, winning by a 5-2 margin. For Letters, this was sweet salvation for last year’s heartbreaking finals loss to Matt Lackey of Illinois (who used a powerful footsweep in the closing seconds to put a close match out of reach).
  • 174: In their fifth face-off of the season, top-seeded Chris Pendleton of Oklahoma State found himself up against Big 12 rival – and first-year Missouri wrestler -- Ben Askren.  The Cowboy got a takedown, a two-point nearfall, and a cradle to rack up a 6-1 lead over the sixth-seeded Tiger in the first period… and added more points to amass a convincing 11-4 victory.  Pendleton was the only Oklahoma State wrestler to win an individual title in 2004.
  • 184: Greg Jones of West Virginia has experienced the best and worst of the NCAAs.  In 2002, he was crowned champion; last year, he was the first defending champ to be beaten in an opening-round match in the 70+ year history of the NCAAs.  This year, the top-seeded Mountaineer added a second title to his career resume with a 10-5 victory over second-ranked Ben Heizer of Northern Illinois.  Jones scored a total of four takedowns. 
  • Surprise finalist Ruan Fulsaas of Iowa shoots in on defending NCAA Champion Damion Hahn in the 197 lb finals
    197:  One of the great rivalries in collegiate wrestling is Minnesota vs. Iowa.  It’s only fitting that at least one NCAA title bout would feature Gopher vs. Hawkeye:  defending champ Damion Hahn – who swept victory away from Jon Trenge in the final seconds of their finals match last year – faced off against fierce rival Ryan Fulsaas of Iowa, who was seeded tenth.  It was what Hahn later described as a “streetfight” complete with a freakish collision that knocked a tooth from Fulsaas, and caused a bloody gash in the Gopher’s scalp.  Hahn held on to get a 7-2 victory.  He his only the third Minnesota wrestler to ever win two NCAA titles (the others being Verne Gagne in the 1940s, and Tim Hartung in the 90s.)
  • 285:  Another great rivalry: Ohio State’s Tommy Rowlands met familiar foe Pat Cummins of Penn State.  In fact, Rowlands’ only loss the entire season came at the hands of the Nittany Lion.  But the Buckeye big guy managed to score two takedowns in the first two periods to hold onto a 6-2 victory.  It was Rowlands’ second NCAA title, having won in 2002, but knocked out of title contention last year due to a serious ankle injury at the NCAAs. 
Chris Pendleton of Oklahoma State wrestle Ben ASkren of Missouri in the 174 lb finals
All-Americans:  Oklahoma State led the way with seven wrestlers who placed eighth or higher at the NCAAs. Ohio State had five All-Americans, while Iowa, Iowa State, Lehigh, and Nebraska had four each.  Here’s the entire list of wrestlers and their schools, in the order of placement first through eighth:
  • 125: 1. Jason Powell (Nebraska); 2. Kyle Ott (Illinois); 3. Sam Hazewinkel  (Oklahoma); 4. Mario Stuart (Lehigh); 5. Matt Valenti (Pennsylvania); 6. Vic Moreno (Cal Poly); 7. Rob Rebmann (Drexel); 8. Joe Dubuque (Indiana)
  • 133: 1. Zack Roberson (Iowa State); 2. Josh Moore (Penn State); 3. Johnny Thompson (Oklahoma State); 4. Darrel Vasquez (Cal Poly); 5. Travis Lee (Cornell); 6. Foley Dowd (Michigan); 7. Mark Jayne (Illinois); 8. Matt Sanchez (Cal State Bakersfield)
  • 141: 1. Cliff Moore (Iowa); 2. Matt Murray (Nebraska); 3. Scott Moore (Virginia); 4. Jason Mester (Central Michigan); 5. Nate Gallick (Iowa State); 6. Teyon Ware (Oklahoma); 7. Cory Cooperman (Lehigh); 8. Coyte Cooper (Indiana)
  • 149: 1. Jesse Jantzen (Harvard); 2. Zach Esposito (Oklahoma State); 3. Ryan Churella (Michigan); 4. Dustin Manotti (Cornell); 5. Jeremy Spates (Missouri); 6. Jeff Ecklof (Oklahoma); 7. Travis Shufelt (Nebraska); 8. Jeff Ratliff (Ohio State)
  • 157: 1. Matt Gentry (Stanford); 2. Jake Percival (Ohio); 3. Ryan Bertin (Michigan); 4. Alex Tirapelle (Illinois); 5. Johnny Hendricks (Oklahoma State); 6. Travis Paulson (Iowa State); 7. Kenny Burleson (Missouri); 8. Phillip Simpson (Army)
  • 165: 1. Troy Letters (Lehigh); 2. Tyrone Lewis (Oklahoma State); 3.Matt King (Edinboro); 4. Jacob Volkmann (Minnesota); 5. John Clark (Ohio State); 6. David Bolyard (Central Michigan); 7. Jacob Klein (Nebraska); 8. Tim Foley (Virginia)
  • 174: 1. Chris Pendleton (Oklahoma State); 2. Ben Askren (Missouri); 3. Tyler Nixt (Iowa); 4. Brad Dillon (Lehigh); 5. Ryan Lange (Purdue); 6. Eric Hauan (Northern Iowa); 7. Pete Friedl (Illinois); 8. Nate Yetzer (Edinboro)
  • 184: 1. Greg Jones (West Virginia); 2. Ben Heizer (Northern Illinois); 3. Jake Rosholt (Oklahoma State); 4. Paul Bradley (Iowa); 5. Blake Kaplan (Ohio State); 6. Brian Glynn (Illinois); 7. Kurt Backes (Iowa State); 8. Travis Frick (Lehigh)
  • 197: 1. Damion Hahn (Minnesota); 2. Ryan Fulsaas (Iowa); 3. J.D. Bergman (Ohio State); 4. Ryan Bader (Arizona State); 5. Chris Skretkowicz (Hofstra); 6. Sean Stender (Northern Iowa); 7. Matt Greenberg (Cornell); 8. Kyle Cerminara (Buffalo)
  • 285: 1. Tommy Rowlands (Ohio State); 2. Pat Cummins (Penn State); 3. Leonce Crump (Oklahoma); 4. Cole Konrad (Minnesota); 5. Matt Feast (Pennsylvania); 6. Greg Wagner (Michigan); 7. Will Gruenwald (Oklahoma State); 8. Scott Coleman (Iowa State)
Taking attendance:  Host city St. Louis was hoping to break attendance records set four years earlier at the 2000 NCAAs in the same arena (then called Kiel Center), with a stated goal of surpassing 100,000 total attendance.  Unfortunately, actual numbers didn’t fulfill those goals.  The announced attendance for the finals was 15,081 fans -- almost 1,500 less than last year.   The 2004 total attendance figure of 87,675 was 9,000 less than four years ago. 

St. Louis will have another opportunity to break its own record.  Next year, the NCAAs will return to Savvis Center.  Wrestlers and fans are already saying “Meet Me In St Louis” again next year for the 75th edition of the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships.   



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