STATE COLLEGE — Penn State begins its pursuit this week of a third straight wrestling national title, but that daunting quest might be overshadowed by the hype over a marquee matchup that could cap the NCAA championships.
If Nittany Lions junior David Taylor defends his individual title at 165 pounds, he would likely have to beat Cornell three-time champion Kyle Dake in the final.
Dake won his third title at 157 pounds last year, after winning the two years before at 149 and 141. He’s the only wrestler in NCAA history to win three championships at three different weights. He’s trying to become just the third four-time champion in a sport that’s been crowning champions since 1928.
The action starts Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa. The potential Taylor-Dake showdown is so anticipated that the NCAA — in an unprecedented move — announced that it would start the championship finals at 174 pounds and end at 165 pounds.
That means Taylor and Dake would hit the mat last — if they last that far.
But odds are good that they will. Taylor (26-1) was last year’s Hodge Trophy winner, wrestling’s version of the Heisman Trophy. Dake is 32-0 this season with 18 falls.
“When you see an MMA (card) or boxing, they save the biggest bouts for last,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said. “I think that’s what they’re trying to do. I can understand that.”
Taylor lost to Dake 3-2 in overtime in the championship finals of the Southern Scuffle Tournament on Jan. 2, and by a point in a November exhibition. He seemed to embrace the significance of the showdown.
“I think it’s great for the sport,” Taylor said. “You want to wrestle the best guys. You want to wrestle the best guys in the national tournament. You want to win matches that you’re going to be remembered for. That’s the kind of match that you win that people will remember.”
It might also be just the kind of buzz that wrestling could use after the sport was voted out of the Olympics by the International Olympic Committee.
Sanderson, an Olympic champion in 2004, has been an outspoken critic of the move. He and wrestlers worldwide have mobilized to try to persuade the IOC to reverse course.
“Fans are out there … You’ve got presidents of countries fighting for this. That shows you the importance around the world,” Sanderson said. Right now, he said, he’s concentrating his efforts into his own team.
“I’m just trying to do the best we can with our program now and do the best we can with the position we hold,” Sanderson said. “I hope that’s what every other college coach is doing right now, too, is just building their program up.”
Just don’t call Penn State’s quest for a third team title a “three-peat.”
“That’s not coming from our staff,” he said. “We want to win nationals this year … Everything in the past is great, but we celebrated that already. It’s time to do something else.”
Besides Taylor, junior Ed Ruth is looking to defend his title at 174 pounds, while senior Quentin Wright is also looking for a second career crown. After winning at 184 two seasons ago, Wright lost in the finals last year.
“They’re not defending anything, but there’s a big difference between a one-time national champion and a two-time national champion, and they have an opportunity to win a second national championship,” Sanderson said.