PHILADELPHIA — Penn State continued its impressive late-season surge, and several upsets caught the attention of the impressive 17,289 that turned out for the opening two rounds of the NCAA wrestling championships at the Wells Fargo Center on Thursday.
But it was a shoulder injury suffered by North Carolina State’s Darrion Caldwell that left a lasting image.
Caldwell, who struggled earlier this season with right shoulder problems, lost by injury default to Michigan’s Eric Grajales when the Wolfpack senior suffered an apparent separated shoulder at the 2:02 mark of their second-round, 149-pound match.
“I got away, but in the process, his shoulder extended and came out,” Grajales said. “I could see it right away. It was dislocated. He was real still and stopped moving. It was obvious something was wrong.”
Caldwell, who received an x-ray moments after the match, was the top seed at 149 after winning the national title in 2009.
“Nobody wants to win like that. Nobody wants to see somebody get hurt. I feel bad for him,” Grajales said. “I understand how painful it is for him because nobody wants to lose like that. I want to beat the No. 1 seed, but not like that. (But) I can’t let that affect me (on Friday).”
Meanwhile, the Nittany Lions — feeding off a homestate advantage — carved a path to the title, advancing seven wrestlers into the quarterfinals. Each won two bouts. The Nittany Lions ended the night in first place in team points and with plenty of steam heading into Friday.
“We definitely use the momentum gained from each other to move forward,” said 184-pound sophomore Quentin Wright, who beat Big Ten rival Kevin Steinhaus from Minnesota for the second time in as many weeks. “Those positive influences really help you wrestle hard.
“But we have to keep wrestling hard. We can’t just say we’ve wrestled well so far, and that will carry us.”
Wright’s 8-4 win, after a 4-3 win over Steinhaus in the Big Ten Final last week, helped him join sophomore Andrew Long (133), freshman Andrew Alton (141), junior Frank Molinaro (149), freshman David Taylor (157), freshman Edward Ruth (171), and junior Cameron Wade (285) with a chance to win an individual national title for Penn State. Add in senior 125-pounder Brad Pataky, who won his consolation match, 6-1, over Oregon State’s Jason Lara, and the Nittany Lions have eight wrestlers still alive.
The biggest upset of the night session was a 2-1 decision by Utah Valley’s Ben Kjar over fourth-seeded James Nicholson out of Old Dominion at 125 pounds. Nicholson pinned Cal State Bakersfield’s Tyler Iamura in 3:49 earlier, but didn’t have the same fortune against the scrappy Kjar.
“It’s all about being ready to go and winning the match before you step out on the mat,” said Kjar, who entered the weekend with a 25-6 record. “Look, I know all the pressure is on him. He’s the fourth seed. He’s the one that is supposed to win.
“I wasn’t nervous. I was optimistic that I had an opportunity to prove myself. This is my last year of college and I’m leaving it all out there on the mat. This is definitely my biggest win … so far.”
What came as no surprise was the early dominance of top-seeded Anthony Robles of Arizona State. The undefeated senior (33-0) has been the focus of the media since his arrival earlier this week. He was born without a right leg, but has been dominant using tilts. He recorded a pair of technical fall wins — his 23rd and 24th of the season — to advance to the semifinal round.
“I think, for me, it’s easier because of my style with so much tilting to go for a tech fall,” said Robles, who beat Virginia’s Matt Snyder 17-1 in 4:23, and Harvard’s Steven Keith 15-0 in 3:32. “To me, pinning takes too long. It’s easier for me to build my lead. If I see a pinning opportunity, I’ll take it. But I’m looking for a tech first.
“It’s super important to get off to a good start. To be a national champion, you need to win five matches. This tournament is a reset from the year. Coming in, everyone has the same record. Everyone has a fresh start and you can’t take any match easy.”
At 157 pounds, No. 12 seed Paul Young of Indiana upset fifth-seeded Jesse Dong of Virginia Tech, as he scored four takedowns en route to a 9-4 decision. While that was happening, fourth-seeded Bubba Jenkins of Arizona State survived a scare from SUNY Buffalo’s Mark Lewandowski, who built a 4-0 lead, before Jenkins rallied and eventually won by pin in 5:41.
Also, eighth-seeded Scott Winston of Rutgers beat Cornell’s Jeff Kerber in a 2-1 tiebreaker. Cornell was left with just five wrestlers still in the championship round, seriously hampering its team title hopes.