Wrestling: Iowa's Ramos, St. John Tough Out Trip To Finals
By K.J. Pilcher and John Campbell, Reporters
DES MOINES, Iowa – It wasn't easy for Tony Ramos and Derek St. John.
It was probably just as tough for University of Iowa fans to watch, but both produced gutsy victories in gut-wrenching performances.
Ramos and St. John forged their way to the finals with extended overtime wins in Friday night's semifinals of the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships at Wells Fargo Arena. They were the lone semifinalists and two of four All-Americans for the Hawkeyes, who were in fourth place in the team race, heading into the third and final day.
Tony Ramos punched his ticket first, battling back from a 4-1 deficit to Wisconsin's Tyler Graf to score a takedown in the second sudden victory overtime period for a 6-4 win at 133.
St. John rode Oklahoma State's Alex Dieringer for a tiebreaker period and then used an escape in the following 30-second frame for a 3-2 win in tiebreaker-2, reaching the 157-pound championship for the second-straight year.
"Everything is very hard for us in this tournament," Iowa coach Tom Brands said. "You can see the strategy come out of some of these teams where they want to win close matches and they're going to keep it close to win. They want it to go long and we have to eek everything out."
Emotions flowed for Ramos. He spotted his family, friends, his high school wrestling coach and a large Hawkeye crowd in the stands. Ramos also had to handle the shock of watching 125-pounder Matt McDonough eliminated from the tournament. He channeled it into his bout.
"It was exciting," Ramos said. "I had to stay focused through that still. I gave the fans something to cheer about. We have a finalist now."
Graff looked in control early in the second after a first period takedown and then a quick reversal put him up three. Ramos was still confident, chipping away at the lead with escapes in each period to pull within one early in the third. He wasn't worried.
"He had a takedown," said Ramos, noting that he could sense and somewhat fed off the crowd's cheers, especially to start the third period. "So? If you want to beat me you got to take me out two or three times, maybe four or five because I'm going to keep on coming."
Ramos did, forcing the action and a second stall call in the final minute that led to overtime. In the first sudden victory, Ramos continued to pressure Graff, despite no score. The pair rode each other in the first tiebreaker.
In the second sudden victory, Ramos aggressiveness created Graff to shoot and Ramos quickly spun around for the winning move. He praised his workout partners for being fight through for a takedown.
"So I knew I had to go and to go and I got the takedown," Ramos said. "The pressure was on him. I knew I might get hit again, so I was ready for him to come and had to get my takedown."
Ramos, who was third, last year losing in the semifinals, cleared one hurdle, and faces another. He will take on Ohio State's top-seeded Logan Stieber for the championship. Stieber (25-0) has beaten Ramos (31-1) all four times they faced in college, including a 3-1 sudden victory win for the Big Ten Championship.
"See you guys back here Saturday night," Ramos said. "Hard wrestling. No game plan. Everyone has a game plan and a strategy. You got to go out there and you got to fight, fight and keep on fighting. That's how I'm going to win."
St. John and Dieringer exchanged escapes in regulation and both added escapes in the first tiebreaker. St. John got close to nabbing low singles in the third period and in overtime, but Dieringer kicked away. He felt like he chased his opponent, but couldn't secure points.
"I never really finished a takedown to win that match," St. John said. "I needed to get a takedown to get an exclamation point on that match instead of going to the second overtime or fourth overtime, whatever it was."
A strong ride powered St. John past Dieringer. In the second tiebreaker, St. John accrued 32 seconds of riding time, assuring him of riding time advantage, which could be a decisive factor in tiebreaker-2. It forced Dieringer to let him up for the escape to attempt a takedown, since a rideout wouldn't work.
Letting up was not an option.
"No, I came down on his ankle a couple of times, could have easily kicked out, but just keep crawling back up the leg and getting to your tight waist rides," St. John said, "and just stayed heavy on him."
St. John improved his third-place finish at the Big Ten. He also is less than a month removed from his first loss of the season. He turned things around at the right time.
"You know, it's not like I haven't lost before," St. John said. "It's no different. You bounce back, like any other time in your career. There's even more of a reason to bounce back, per se, going into the biggest tournament of the year. It's do or die. If you don't do it, you're not going to be on top of the podium, essentially."
St. John (30-2) faces Northwestern's Jason Welch (34-1) in the finals. He is 5-0 against Welch, who won the Big Ten title March 10. They have not met yet this season. St. John won't change his approach from a year ago, when he finished second to Kyle Dake, who reached the 165-pound final and is trying to become the third four-time NCAA Division I champion.
"I'm assuming there is going to be more energy and more of an exclamation point than any other times we have met," St. John said. "He's going to be ready to go and fired up. It's for a national title."
The finalists will make it hard to soothe the sting of McDonough being knocked out of the tournament in the round of 12. McDonough entered the tournament, attempting to become the fourth four-time NCAA finalist and the seventh three-time national champion in program history. He lost an overtime match to Cornell's Nahshon Garrett, 4-2, in the quarterfinals and then fell to North Dakota State's Trent Sprenkle, 3-1, in sudden victory.
McDonough finished with a 122-9 record with two national and two Big Ten titles.
"He's been a staple for this program," Brands said. "He's very reliable, and it's not the way to go out. We're going to have to help him over that. You don't just abandon him."
McDonough sat alone in a tunnel of WFA, watching a results screen after the semifinals concluded. Brands requested one thing and gave McDonough space after his second loss. Brands said mental and physical mending will be needed.
"I told him I'd leave him alone if he'd look at me," Brands said. "He looked at me and I walked away."
The Hawkeyes had a tough day overall. Iowa won just two of its six quarterfinal bouts and had two wrestlers eliminated in the first session, including heavyweight Bobby Telford, who defaulted from the tournament due to a knee injury suffered in his second-round win. Four All-Americans is the lowest total for the Hawkeyes, who had three in 2007, which was Brands' first year as head coach.
Mike Evans (174) and Ethen Lofthouse (184) also earned All-American honors for the Hawkeyes. Both won two consolation matches after dropping quarterfinals.
"Two wins on the backside to put them in the top six, going for third still," Brands said. "They're climbing the awards stand. "
Penn State pulled away in the team standings. The Nittany Lions have 114 ½ points with five finalists. Oklahoma State is second with 94 and finalists in 149-pounder Jordan Oliver and Chris Perry (174).
Heavyweight Tony Nelson is in the finals for Minnesota, which is third with 86 points.