Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
High school football is a religion in the state of Texas. Wrestling has a similar following in the small towns of Pennsylvania, as high schools across the state are the perfect feeder program for the collegiate rank. It was only fitting then, that the pinnacle of the sport found its way to the Keystone State this past weekend in the form of the NCAA Wrestling Championships.
The Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia provided the backdrop for a three-day frenzy that both honored the sport itself and a much underrated fan base.
Credit has to be given to the NCAA and those from the Wells Fargo Center and Lincoln Financial Field, who all worked together to put on a show second to none. From the actual competition, to the fan friendly atmosphere in both venues, including "Fan Fest" over at the Linc, there was plenty to keep one's interest.
It couldn't have been easy. A fandom came out in full force from all over the country, as the six-session, three-day event resulted in a championship attendance record of 104,260, eclipsing the previous record of 97,334.
The throngs of fans were treated to some first-class wrestling from start to finish. The sport from a team standpoint, had long been dominated by the Midwest, but there was an anticipation this season, with powerhouses Penn State and Cornell posing real threats to Iowa's three-year reign as team- champion. When all was said and done it was the Nittany Lions, led by wrestling legend Cael Sanderson, who earned his first team title ever as a wrestler or a coach, while PSU claimed its first crown since 1953 (first East Coast program to win since then as well).
Penn State put three wrestlers in the finals, finishing with one champion and five All-Americans.
While there was plenty to talk in terms of Penn State's rise to the top, it was a pair of Arizona State wrestlers that stole the show.
First, at 125 pounds, senior Anthony Robles, completed a remarkable season, finishing 36-0 on the year and earning his first national title, topping defending champion Matt McDonough from Iowa in the title match. Robles was the number one seed coming into the event, despite being born with only one leg.
Anthony Robles (R) won the NCAA Championship at 125 pounds.
Robles, who came into the tournament with the notion that this would be his last as a competitor, closed out in grand fashion, finishing off an inspirational story with a fairy-tale ending.
When asked if his decision to retire from competition had changed with a national championship now in hand, Robles didn't waiver.
"No second thoughts. I've been thinking about it all year. People have been asking me if I want to try out for freestyle or anything like that. But I've had a great run, started wrestling when I was a freshman in high school. It's been a great ride. Wrestling helped me to mature. I got so much self- confidence from the sport. I love the sport. But from here on out my wrestling competition days are over and I'll be focusing on my next goal, which is to be a motivational speaker. I'll be around wrestling all my life. I love it so much."
Another weight class with a side story was at 157 pounds. Penn State freshman phenom David Taylor brought and undefeated record into his championship matchup with Arizona State's Bubba Jenkins.
With plenty of hype surrounding Cael Sanderson's superstar, there really was no need for any additional drama. However, Jenkins was a former Penn State Nittany Lion, who was released by Sanderson. The matchup was a thrilling four- plus minutes of action that came to an abrupt end, when Jenkins cradled up Taylor and earned the national title and perhaps a bit of vindication at the expense of Sanderson.
Jenkins holds no ill-will towards Taylor, but perhaps used the situation with Sanderson to fire him up. He had this to say about the personal nature of the matchup and the extra motivation.
"Not towards David. Definitely towards Cael. He didn't think I was good enough or the right kid to win it at that weight class or any weight class. I wanted to go 149. But he had other ideas. And he got rid of me. And one man's trash is a whole country's treasure.
Sanderson's golden boy (Taylor) is viewed in most wrestling circles as a tactical machine. Jenkins realizes that a lot of things had to go right to get the win, especially getting a pin against such an aggressive competitor.
"A lot of luck. I heard a quote it's better to be lucky than it is to be good.
And I can tell you right now they should call me lucky instead of Bubba.
I didn't have too many toys and too many machines (growing up) because I always broke them. Anytime my mom was buying machines for me, something electrical, something that was supposed to work or do something, I always found ways to break it. And that's a machine out there. That was the Penn State kid. That was the phenomena toy, I suppose and I found ways to break it and disassemble it."
From the "team" perspective, Penn State still had plenty to be happy about.
The Nittany Lions finished atop the standings when all was said and done with 107.5 points, with Cornell a distant second at 93.5. Three-time champion Iowa finished third (86.5), perhaps signifying the winds of change in a sport that certainly could use some national attention and support.
The recent three-day event in the City of Brotherly Love could definitely be considered a good place to start.