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  • Photo: Tony Rotundo

    Photo: Tony Rotundo

    What I Liked from the 2024 NCAA Championships

    Another collegiate wrestling season is in the books! When you’re not on the mat getting beat up, the wrestling season really flies by. The NCAA Tournament closed out the season in spectacular style and proved to be one for the memory books. 

    Even with no college action for seven-plus months, there will still be plenty to talk about. With the intensity that the wrestling lifestyle breeds, sometimes those thoughts can come out negatively. Rule changes, stall calls (or no calls), challenges, seeding/brackets, transfer portals, and NIL deals are all things that will likely come up this week on the message boards and on social media. There will be plenty of arguing and some negativity about all of the aforementioned topics and more. 

    Today, we’re only doing good vibes (mostly). Here’s what I liked about the 2024 NCAA Tournament and/or NCAA Tournaments, in general, that really has nothing to do with the actual results. Most of these items are things that all fans can understand. I’ve thrown in a couple from a personal standpoint, but I think you can relate to those too. 

    I liked Kansas City as a host city

    Saying I liked Kansas City as a host city would be a vast understatement. I mentioned to several people that I wouldn’t mind if it were in Kansas City every year. That might be too much, but it would be great maybe every other year. 

    Kansas City is a big city, but not too big. The travel/lodging situation seemed decent. Maybe a little more pricey for flights than other options. It’s located in an area that’s conducive to midwestern fans. They don’t mind going for a “little” eight-hour trip - obviously, it’s closer than that for many others. 

    The entertainment with the Power and Light District and Kansas City Live was awesome. There were plenty of dining options around the stadium for fans between sessions. I rarely get enough time to experience some of the other attractions in the area like museums, shops, and general tourist attractions, but it seemed like there were sufficient options if you felt so inclined. 

    The host site, the T-Mobile Center, was very nice. It’s still relatively new (2007) and is downtown, next to the Power and Light District. I’ve seen some comments from fans about not-great views from the 200 section, but it seemed like most were impressed by the venue. 

    I like the city having a signature dish

    One of the things you associate Kansas City with is barbeque. One of the questions that frequently came up was, “Have you had BBQ?” I’m sure many fans partook and maybe had a couple just for comparison’s sake. InterMat’s resident expert of all-things Kansas City, Cody Goodwin, had his top-five list of barbecue joints and I’m sure you probably had someone’s list, as well. 

    Next year works in this aspect too. Philly. Philly Cheesesteaks. I’m sure our Philly friends will be sure to warn you to avoid Pat’s and Geno’s as they are tourist traps and there are better options out there. 

    I liked the family reunion aspect

    NCAA’s are the best. Everyone gathered in one central location and it all revolves around wrestling. My best friends in the world were made through wrestling and I’m sure many readers can say the same. Getting a large number of those people together is incredible. It seems like each year after traveling to nationals, the list grows longer. 

    Speaking of traveling. I know a lot of you have your NCAA crew. You may not get to hang out too much during the year, but lo and behold, you all block off NCAA week come hell or high water. On the way home, I ran into a father/son duo with no real affiliation to any school, but NCAA’s is just “their thing.” A 55-year-old father and his 30-year-old son bonding for five days. You can’t beat that. 

    It’s not even limited to“best friends” per se. There may be some people that you never really keep in touch with but run into each other every year at NCAA’s. There are others that you sat next to, met on the plane, or shared a drink with whom you happen to stumble across a couple years after the fact, but you pick up right where you left off. 

    I liked one big wrestling-central environment

    It was cool having NCAA’s in New York. Philly should be good. Las Vegas has been a fine host city for freestyle/Greco events. What’s missing from places like that is that the NCAA Tournament is not the number one attraction. As soon as you stepped outside of Madison Square Garden, you immediately walked in between a dozen other people none of whom knew or cared that the crown jewel of collegiate wrestling was held footsteps away from them. 

    Kansas City is a decent-sized city; however, wrestling seemed to take over the city - or at least the area surrounding the T-Mobile Center. I enjoy going into a restaurant and seeing a crew of Iowa fans at one table, Lehigh fans next to them, and Minnesota fans behind them in a booth. If you’re the outgoing type, maybe you congratulate one of them on a good round or tease them about an upcoming match between their star and yours. 

    Some may not care, but I enjoy getting on the plane and seeing high school and wrestling gear. Team colors in the hotel lobby and out at the late-night spots. In Virginia, I can’t just walk around and talk wrestling with people. I appreciate being able to just say to anyone “Fun round..eh,” and the conversation goes from there. 

    I liked the milestones

    I said this wasn’t about the actual results and maybe this is, but we’re going with them anyway. As expected, Penn State had plenty of them. They broke the 27-year-old NCAA team score record, and they added two wrestlers to the four-time champion club, becoming the first teammates to earn their fourth in the same year. Oh yeah, and their 11th national title since Cael Sanderson took over in 2009-10!

    Aside from Penn State, we saw two wrestlers claim their second national titles with Vito Arujau and David Carr. 

    On the team front, Little Rock rocked with a pair of freshman All-Americans. In only their fifth year of existence!

    California Baptist and Long Island both had their first DI national qualifiers and each school had at least one win. 

    Kevin Ward (Army West Point), Scotti Sentes (Campbell), and Zach Tanelli (Columbia) all joined Little Rock’s Neil Erisman in getting their first All-American’s as head coaches. A few others got their first at their current program. 

    This falls under the same category, so I’ll touch on something briefly I don’t like. I don’t like the format for the consolation finals. In each of the past two seasons, all of the seventh-place matches are wrestled across four mats and as soon as a mat is available, the fifth-place matches start. And so forth, for the third-place matches. 

    Previously, they used three mats and wrestled the third, fifth, and seventh-place matches at 125, waiting until all were done, then moved to 133 lbs. In either scenario, the great PA announcers Jason Bryant and Bryan Hazard, make sure to get “senior sendoffs” in. They’ll announce a winner and then say how many times that respective wrestler placed at nationals. That leads the crowd to give the wrestler a nice ovation following his final collegiate match. Not only the home fans, but most of the rivals join in in what happens to be a special moment. 

    With three mats and weight classes being held there was more attention devoted to each wrestler. Jason and Bryan do their best to salute the wrestlers, but it doesn’t feel the same. 

    I liked the networking aspect

    I’ve tried to encourage people on our team to get to events outside of the actual wrestling tournament. It could be a Beat the Streets event, Fan Fest, or simply the local watering hole. Anywhere to meet wrestling fans. Put a name with a face. Get yourself out there. Make connections with coaches, wrestlers, and parents. It’s one thing to connect via email, text, DM’s - but talk to these people. Show who you are. Who knows what it may lead to? Maybe just a fun night, but maybe a friendship, or a business opportunity, or a potential pipeline for information. You don’t know until you put yourself out there. 

    This isn’t just for wrestling media. I’m sure wrestlers who just finished their careers are chatting with coaches. Perhaps they’ll end up working together. Maybe they meet a high school coach who brings them in to run camps. 

    I liked the rumors

    Ok, so people say they don’t like rumors and gossip. And then they gossip and spread rumors. It’s fun talking to fellow media members, the InterMat team, coaches, fans, whoever, and getting the tea. Who’s getting the Central Michigan head coaching job? Who’s ready to enter the portal? What are their destinations? Are there any job openings on the horizon? 

    Rumors can amount to nothing. But hearing the same things from various sources makes me want to dig deeper as a journalist. Maybe there is something there. 

    Getting 15k plus wrestling-related people together in one central location brings lots of rumors. We’ll have to work and see what’s true and what’s not, but it’s fun. 

    I liked the emotion

    There’s plenty of emotion to go around at the NCAA Tournament. From the fans, coaches, wrestlers, whoever. Professional sports can’t replicate the bond that fans have with colleges. Two backups from Penn State and Iowa can wrestle in a dual and 15,000 people are hanging off the edge of their seats, screaming instructions and living and dying with every point. Two NCAA champions can wrestle in freestyle at the US Open and the quality of wrestling is exponentially better, but only a handful of fans feel invested. 

    That passion is evident as you look at each corner of the arena and see the Cornell section, the Iowa section, and the NC State section. They erupt when their respective wrestler scores or wins, they may team up and cheer when a Penn State wrestler loses (which only happened nine times this tournament). 

    And then the emotion from the wrestlers. Wow. 330 of them start the tournament with the same goal and only 10 leave as champions. 80 got All-American plaques. 

    After the tournament, I casually spoke with a coach whose team had a really good showing, by all accounts. He was spent. “This tournament is a roller coaster,” he said. In one instance, you can have a wrestler post a stunning upset and earn All-American status, while moments later the roles are reversed and your guy is crushed. 

    I’ve encouraged our InterMat team, especially those new to the tournament, to spend significant time in the tunnel. Especially on Friday, as the intensity and stakes ramp up. You want to see sheer, unabashed joy and soul-crushing sorrow? Go to the tunnel. One wrestler wins in the blood round and the loser likely follows steps behind, seeing teammates embrace the opponent who just crushed his dreams. 

    Really, it’s nasty stuff. At the same time, you won’t get to see such a polar opposite range of emotions, simultaneously. For a journalist, who is likely trying to understand a situation you’ve never encountered while competing….go to the tunnel. 

    I liked a random interaction with Jordan Burroughs

    In between sessions Friday afternoon, InterMat’s Ryan Holmes, Kevin Claunch, and I grabbed a bite to eat. Claunch left early and when Holmes and I stepped out, the man himself, Jordan Burroughs walked by. Jordan stopped and chatted as he has a good relationship with Holmes. Then we walked to the arena together. I don’t feel it’s appropriate to write what Jordan said to us, as it wasn’t completely off the record - it wasn’t on the record either, but he said some extremely insightful things about his career and the future of USA Wrestling. It was very cool to get a brief glimpse into the mind of Jordan. 

    I liked seeing an InterMat team member in a leadership position

    Almost three years ago, to this day, Willie Saylor bought InterMat and brought me in as the site editor. He gave me the power to assemble a team of kick-ass writers. One of the first ones to come aboard was Rachel Gallardo, to cover the SoCon. Rachel had just finished up school, was studying for tests to become a dietician, and was looking for a full-time job. She probably would admit that she spent too much time on social media. 

    Fast forward to three years later. On the Wednesday before the tournament, she organized her second annual “Women in Wrestling” event. Assisting her was her lovely mother, Donna, and InterMat’s Madison Hollenbeck. 

    The event brought out female media members, administrators, trainers, coaches, SID’s, TV production team members, photographers, ex-wrestlers - really anyone with a role in wrestling. 

    This wasn’t anything that Willie or I planned. It was all Rachel’s brainchild. As a leader of this crew we have at InterMat, it makes me extremely proud to see how Rachel has grown and stepped up to assume a leadership role our her own in women’s media and the overall promotion of women’s wrestling or women in wrestling. There wasn’t anything tangible she hoped to get from her event, just camaraderie and bonding. 

    If there are any women out there who feel uncomfortable about their place in this sport; and believe me, there are people who don’t want to embrace women in wrestling media and/or all of the other roles I mentioned above - Rachel is an ally. Reach out to her. 

    I liked an interaction we had with an aspiring journalist

    After the Thursday night session, Kevin Claunch and I got our first taste of Kansas City Live, which was awesome. Late night, after the band was finished, Claunch and I were close to wrapping up and went inside one of the establishments to hang out. While swapping war stories and recapping the day on the mat, a female college student came up and apologized for interrupting. She saw my shirt and wanted to know if we were with InterMat. 

    We confirmed we were and she asked if we would mind answering a few questions for our journalism class. We did. It was quick and painless. No bother at all. 

    I still think that she thought she was intruding, which was nice of her. Once I thought more about it, I relished the opportunity to have our quick chat. 

    When Willie and I were throwing around ideas for the site in April of 2021, he told me he wanted to find the next “Greatest Mind in Wrestling” (his moniker, of course). I was once in that spot, willing to do anything to cover the sport I loved. Luckily, I had a great mentor (Jason Bryant) and that helped me on my way. 

    So, like the thought above regarding Rachel, if you are an aspiring wrestling media member in search of guidance and direction, talk to me. Whether it’s related to InterMat or not. I’d love nothing more than covering the next 40 NCAA tournaments, but at some point, the next generation will be ready to take over and I only hope that wrestling media is in a better place once I’m done.

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