Photo By Nolan P. Schmidt
“The biggest stage in wrestling.”
No, I’m not speaking about WrestleMania or any other Pay-Per-View fakery (although, I do enjoy watching people fall off the Hell In A Cell). I am talking about the widely underreported NCAA Wrestling Championships, which will take place inside PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh this Thursday through Saturday.
While many are focused on the Bison men’s basketball team and their run to the NCAA Tournament (rightfully so) there will be four Bison in Pittsburgh fighting for a national championship this week. Oddly enough, head men’s basketball coach Dave Richman made mention of those four men and coach Roger Kish in a press conference yesterday. Meaning, that while we are consumed with what men’s basketball is doing, we should also be taking note of what Bison wrestling is doing in Pittsburgh on the nation’s biggest stage.
Kish will take Brent Fleetwood (125 pounds), Cam Sykora (133 pounds), Andrew Fogarty (165 pounds) and Lorenzo De La Riva (174 pounds) to Pittsburgh to compete. This is the second most qualifiers Kish has had in the Big 12 era (the Bison had five in 2016-17). However, of the four heading to Pennsylvania this week, three were automatic bids based on their performance at the Big 12 Championships. Redshirt junior Cam Sykora is the only at-large competitor for North Dakota State.
“I guess I kind of thought I’d get one, but you never know,” said Sykora on getting an at-large bid. “I just tried to keep focused and prepare like I would be going either way. Once I found out I was going again, just get back, nose to the grindstone and get ready to compete.”
The Wheaton, Minnesota, native did not have the Big 12 Championship run he would have liked as Sykora missed out on competing during day two in Tulsa. However, it seemed late in the season that Sykora was not 100 percent healthy and that could have had an impact on his performance a few weeks ago. Never the less, the number 21 seeded Sykora will see a familiar face across from him on Thursday in Wyoming’s Montorie Bridges. He was the Big 12 runner-up at 133 pounds this season and is the number eight seed at the weight. Due to injury, the redshirt junior did not compete for the Bison against Wyoming this past December.
“I lost to him by one point last time and that’s the closest I’ve been. I’m just going to keep the gameplan the same, go out and let it fly and see what happens,” he said. “I’ve wanted this match for a while. I got injured at Vegas and I didn’t get to see him in the dual so I’ve wanted a shot at him for a while.”
It’ll be a tall task for Sykora as 133 pounds seems to be the most competitive weight in this year’s tournament.
Another challenging weight class is 125 pounds where Brent Fleetwood will be competing come Thursday. The redshirt senior is coming off a runner-up finish at Big 12s. He will open with Pennsylvania’s Carmen Ferrante on Thursday. Fleetwood will have to compete and defeat the wrestler he lost to in Tulsa, Nick Piccininni, in his quest for an NCAA Championship.
“No offense to Piccininni, because he is a very good wrestler, but I’ve wrestled names just as big or bigger,” Fleetwood said when asked about facing one of the favorites at 125 in Tulsa. “I feel like I didn’t really wrestle to my potential. In that match, maybe the pressure got to me or I just shut down, but he didn’t do a whole lot either. I think we both kind of danced a little bit and nothing really happened. It does add to my confidence because he’s number two and I think that’s a winnable match.”
Fleetwood lost to Piccininni 2-0 in the Big 12 final. He is the number 10 seed coming into the NCAA Tournament. His opponent, Ferrante is 24-8 on the year and the 23 seed. If all goes chalk, Fleetwood would meet Piccininni again in the quarterfinals on Friday morning.
Lorenzo De La Riva had one of the best Big 12 tournaments a few weeks back. Streaking through the consolation bracket, De La Riva received an automatic bid by taking third in the conference at 174 pounds and beating several ranked opponents in the process. He makes his second appearance at NCAAs this week, his first appearance as a Bison. De La Riva will match up with Minnesota’s Devin Skatzka, the number nine seed in his first match.
“Got to continue to build on the things that were successful at Big 12s,” said De La Riva on keeping up his Big 12 momentum heading into this week. “I think that the stuff the coaches have been working with me on all year is finally starting to click. So just continue to do the things they are emphasizing for me.”
De La Riva has a team-high 26 wins this season to just nine losses. His opponent, Skatzka, is 26-8 this season for the Golden Gophers.
Finally, there is Big 12 runner-up Andrew Fogarty, who will be the number 13 seed at 165 pounds. Following an eventful performance at Big 12s, Fogarty will match up with Gardner-Webb’s Tyler Marinelli, an opponent Fogarty has never seen before. “You have to look at film and be aware of what they have. At the same time, you can’t overthink it and let that stop you from doing what you do,” Fogarty said on facing a new opponent in Marinelli. “You got tell yourself how they’re going to stop you, your moves and your offense. If they haven’t wrestled me, maybe they know what I do, but they haven’t felt it yet. They haven’t stopped it yet.”
Marinelli has only lost twice this season, but Gardner-Webb is a part of the Southern Conference, which does not necessarily offer up wrestling giants on a program to program basis like the Big 12. Not to demean what Marinelli has done, but the conference he is in and the opponents he has seen do not compare to that of Fogarty. Whether or not that will be an advantage for the Jordan, Minnesota, native has yet to be seen.
The first round of competition gets underway at 11 a.m. on Thursday and can be found on ESPNU or ESPN3. The second round will be broadcast on ESPN and ESPN3 at 6 p.m. Thursday night. Friday’s action will begin with quarterfinals at 10 a.m. on ESPNU or ESPN3 and semifinal coverage will move to ESPN and ESPN3 beginning at 7 p.m. Friday. Finally, Saturday will begin with medal round matches at 10 a.m. on ESPNU or ESPN3. Championship matches will be broadcast on ESPN and ESPN3 at 6 p.m. on Saturday.
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