St. John, McDonough Capture Big Ten Titles
By KJ Pilcher, Reporter
WEST LAFAYETTE, Indiana – Actions speak louder than words.
But, Derek St. John followed up his performance with the best comment to describe it.
“Wrestle tough,” St. John told a BTN reporter.
St. John gutted out his third straight win, scoring a takedown with 13 seconds remaining to beat Northwestern’s top-seeded Jason Welch for the 157-pound title of the Big Ten Wrestling Championships on Sunday at Purdue University’s Mackey Arena. He was one of two champions for the Hawkeyes, who finished third with 126 points.
The Hawkeyes 157-pounder entered the tournament as the sixth seed, missing almost two months of competition due to a knee injury. The conference championship was gratifying.
“It’s up there,” said St. John, who was a runner-up last year. “The wins weren’t in the greatest fashion, but I just stayed tough, wrestled unbelievably stingy and came out here and proved people wrong.”
The one he didn’t have to prove anything to was Iowa Coach Tom Brands, who wasn’t fazed by St. John’s performance. Brands has praised St. John’s toughness many times, especially during the injury,
“Am I surprised? No.” Brands said. “I believe in him.”
St. John (17-2) was unbeaten against Welch, but needed some late heroics for his fourth win career win over the Wildcat. With the score tied 2-2 and St. John on top, he had to release Welch for an escape and a 3-2 deficit with less than a minute remaining. Then guts took over and St. John dropped in on Welch’s legs, finishing in the waning seconds.
The final score was more of a product of instinct.
“I don’t really know,” St. John said of how the takedown was set up. “I just went, got to that single leg and finished.”
Brands had a clearer take on the winning move and the hectic moments that preceded it.
During the final period, Welch was close to a reversal but St. John fought it off, creating a scramble where the two lost contact. Thinking Welch escaped, St. John dove to Welch’s legs and then fought for a takedown on the edge while maintaining control. Vital seconds ticked off the clock.
“There was confusion there (but he) stayed focused,” Brands said. “You unravel that confusion in your head and sort it out.
“It’s one of those things where the sense of urgency picked up because time was running out. He had a pretty good attempt where he missed the whole body, the whole leg. The guy fell down in front of him and went right back in.”
St. John reached the finals with two consecutive overtime victories, earning sudden-victory takedowns to drop Nebraska’s third-seeded James Green and Penn State’s No. 2 seed Dylan Alton. He leaped a giant hurdle in his first period of the tournament, surrendering an early four-point move to Green.
He showed his resolve overcoming that deficit and in persevering in tight matches.
“If you do, stay focused and centered,” St. John said. “Keep marching forward.”
That proved to be true in the finals against Welch, who scored the first takedown for a 2-0 lead. He continued to battle and put himself in position to win in the end.
“Just stay composed,” St. John said of his approach, “and get yourself back in the match as fast as possible.”
As St. John had familiar finishes, Matt McDonough had a familiar opponent on a familiar stage.
McDonough wrestled in his third straight 125-pound Big Ten championship bout, winning the 2011 title. He also had faced Minnesota’s second-ranked Zach Sanders six times in his career. The outcome was the same.
McDonough remained unbeaten against Sanders, posting a 6-1 victory, setting up another NCAA title run.
“I feel good,” McDonough said. “I feel strong, comfortable. There is still 10 days until the tournament starts and that’s plenty of time to make leaps and bounds. That’s what you have to do every single day when you step into that training room and competition mat.”
After a scoreless first, McDonough began to pull away from Sanders in the second. McDonough led 3-0 after the next two minutes with an escape and takedown, adding a third-period takedown and earning a point for riding time.
“Getting to my fakes and two hands to a leg,” McDonough said. “When you get in on scores, you can’t slow down. You have to speed up. I think those are adjustments I made in the match. I could have done it earlier, for sure.”
Top-ranked McDonough (31-1) has continually topped Sanders, one of the top contenders to keep McDonough from reclaiming the NCAA crown he won as a freshman. McDonough said there is truth to the idea that beating a high-quality opponent multiple times is tough.
“He’s going to come out every time ready to scrap, ready to take my head off, and I have to come in there with a chip on my shoulder and a little ornery because when you get into that many times beating a guy is tough,” McDonough said. “It always is. You have to be ready for it.”
Brands has a simple explanation for it, and has seen it throughout his own competitive and coaching careers.
“That’s called consistency,” Brands said. “That’s the way it should be. It’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
Iowa positioned itself to be able to recapture the Big Ten title, placing six of eight semifinalists in Sunday’s championship bouts. Tony Ramos (133), Montell Marion (141), 165-pounder Mike Evans and heavyweight Bobby Telford had to settle for runner-up finishes.
Ramos (28-3) dropped a second match to Ohio State freshman Logan Stieber, losing 5-2 in the finals. Ramos started in a fury, scoring a quick takedown but didn’t score again with Stieber collecting his own takedown, two escapes and a riding-time point.
Marion (26-3) faced off against Michigan’s defending NCAA champion Kellen Russell. The pair of had a history of close matches with Russell winning both last year in overtime. It wasn’t as close this time as Russell got three takedowns for a 7-2 win.
Evans (25-6) and Telford (24-7) reached the finals in their Big Ten tournament debut, but the red-shirt freshmen came up short. Telford gave up an escape and riding-time point in a 2-0 loss to Minnesota’s Tony Nelson. Penn State’s David Taylor, named Big Ten Wrestler of the Year, handed Evans an 11-2 loss in the finals.
Ethen Lofthouse (29-7) rebounded from a disappointing semifinal loss to place third at 174, while Grant Gambrall (10-10) was fifth at 184.
Now, eight Hawkeyes will head to St. Louis, Mo., for the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships March 15-17. The focus will be to improve for the climax of the season.
“You go back home, analyze it and you get ready for the next tournament,” Brands said. “That’s the one that you talk about all year and the one you really stamp your name up there. We had nine opportunities and we’re down one.”
Iowa opened the day in second of a three-way team battle, trailing Minnesota by 4 ½ points and leading Penn State by one. The Nittany Lions crowned three champions, tallying 149 points and winning their second straight Big Ten tournament team title. Minnesota was second with 134 and two champions.
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