WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Derek St. John walked off the mat with his head down three weeks ago, unable to see his season’s future path through the clouds hovering above it.
The Iowa sophomore had endured one of the most lopsided losses of his college wrestling career. On the outside, it seemed the sky was falling on the all-American, who started the season ranked second in the country before a knee injury in December cost him nearly two months of competition. Outsiders wondered if it was time for the Hawkeyes to shut St. John down and let him heal for a run at Big Ten and NCAA titles in 2013.
“I guess you could say I was very frustrated,” he said. “I don’t know how my knee felt, but (I was frustrated with) everything in general (while) trying to bounce back and get in the right direction.”
St. John’s original goals were in his sight line Sunday as he stood at the top of the Big Ten medal stand inside Mackey Arena after a dramatic 4-3 victory against Northwestern’s Jason Welch.
Penn State blew past the Hawkeyes and Minnesota on the tournament’s final day to capture its second straight team title. The Nittany Lions won 13 of their 15 matches Sunday and swept all three of their championship bouts to pile up 149 points — 15 more than second-place Minnesota.
“We had a rough round (Saturday) night and these guys responded well,” Penn State Cael Sanderson said. “I was kind of excited — losing stinks — but to see how they would respond.”
Iowa finished third with 126 points after dropping four of its six championship matches. Eight Hawkeyes secured automatic tickets to the NCAA Championships while freshman Michael Kelly’s season rests in the hands of a wild card selection committee after he lost Sunday in match for the final spot at 149.
Matt McDonough captured his second Big Ten title, beating Minnesota’s Zach Sanders 6-1 at 125 pounds. It was the top-ranked Iowa junior’s seventh win in seven tries against No. 2 Sanders.
“People say the more times you wrestle someone the tougher it is to beat them every time, and that’s true,” McDonough said. “He’s going to come out every single time ready to scrap, ready to take my head off and I’ve got to come in there with a chip on my shoulder and a little ornery.”
The Hawkeyes entered the championship round with little room for error. Their title hopes evaporated by the third match.
Ohio State’s Logan Stieber scored a first-period takedown and frustrated Iowa sophomore Tony Ramos the rest of the way during a 5-2 win at 133. Ramos jawed at Stieber at the conclusion of the match and made a mock gesture at the Ohio State freshman for playing keep away.
Michigan’s Kellen Russell became the 11th wrestler in tournament history to win four titles and first since Iowa’s Mark Ironside in 1998. Russell defeated Iowa’s Montell Marion 7-2 at 141.
Penn State’s David Taylor, the Big Ten’s wrestler of the year, improved to 27-0, posting his 25th bonus-point win of the season with an 11-2 major decision against Iowa freshman Mike Evans in the finals at 165.
The other Hawkeye finalist, freshman heavyweight Bobby Telford, couldn’t escape in the third period in a 2-0 loss to Minnesota’s Tony Nelson that sealed second place for the Gophers.
St. John’s title run as the No. 6 seed eased some of the final round sting for the Hawkeyes. He won twice in overtime Saturday and trailed Welch until he scored a takedown with 14 seconds remaining to win 4-3 against the previously-unbeaten Northwestern junior.
“I came here to prove a point,” said St. John, who improved to 17-2. “I had to prove a point to get a seed at nationals. I felt like I didn’t do the best job possible of doing it, but I did it. I had to prove everyone else wrong – the rest of the country.”
“Am I surprised? No,” Iowa coach Tom Brands said. “I believe in him.”
Brands said there were underlying factors that contributed to St. John’s 9-1 loss three weeks ago against Oregon State’s R.J. Pena at the National Duals regional in Ames. It wasn’t just a product of St. John’s knee injury, Brands said.
St. John paused for a couple of seconds Sunday as he thought about a question. Is he back to where he was last year when he reached the Big Ten finals and placed fourth at the NCAA Championships?
“I feel good about it,” he said. “If I’m not, I’m pretty close.”
Final Big Ten team standings
Place Team – Points
1. Penn State – 149
2. Minnesota – 134
3. IOWA – 126
4. Illinois – 105.5
5. Ohio State – 91
6. Northwestern – 75
7. Michigan – 66
8. Nebraska – 65
9. Purdue – 51.5
10. Indiana – 41
Michigan State – 41
12. Wisconsin – 9
Iowa’s final session results
125 – No. 1 Matt McDonough (Iowa) def. No. 2 Zach Sanders (Minnesota), 6-1
133 – No. 1 Logan Stieber (Ohio State) def. No. 2 Tony Ramos (Iowa), 5-2
141 – No. 1 Kellen Russell (Michigan) def. No. 3 Montell Marion (Iowa), 7-2
157 – No. 6 Derek St. John (Iowa) def. No. 1 Jason Welch (Northwestern), 4-3
165 – No. 1 David Taylor (Penn State) maj. No. 2 Mike Evans (Iowa), 11-2
Hwt. – No. 1 Tony Nelson (Minnesota) def. No. 6 Bobby Telford (Iowa), 2-0
174 – No. 3 Ethen Lofthouse (Iowa) def. No. 9 Lee Munster (Northwestern), 7-2
184 – No. 4 Grant Gambrall (Iowa) def. No. 8 Ian Hinton (Michigan State), 8-2
174 – No. 3 Ethen Lofthouse (Iowa) def. No. 8 Jordan Blanton (Illinois), 9-6
184 – No. 7 Tony Dallago (Illinois) def. No. 4 Grant Gambrall (Iowa), 5-3