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Wrestlers practice for the NCAA 2011 Division I Wrestling Championships at the Wells Fargo Center, in Philadelphia, Wednesday, March 16, 2011. The NCAA Division I wrestling championships are scheduled to begin Thursday in Philadelphia, with Cornell and Penn State considered serious contenders to bring a national championship back East for the first time since 1953.

It’s not often that college wrestling’s premier meet takes place east of the Mississippi River – and with good reason, given wrestling’s deep roots in the Midwest.

This week, though, the focus shifts away from the nation’s heartland.

And for the first time in a long time, Eastern powers have a chance to pin down a title in their own backyard.

The NCAA Division I wrestling championships begin today in Philadelphia, with Cornell and Penn State considered serious contenders to bring a national championship back East for the first time since 1953. That year, Penn State won its only crown.

The Nittany Lions would sure like to celebrate a second title on home turf, in a tournament that will also shine a spotlight on Pennsylvania’s long, proud tradition with the sport.

“I think it’s real big for the East coast, because the Midwest, a lot of people think of that when they think of wrestling,” said Penn State’s Frank Molinaro, the No. 2 seed at 149 pounds. “Now, we get to have it in Philly and have all of our fans there.”

Omaha, Neb., hosted the tournament last year. And St. Louis hosted four of the previous six. The last time the NCAAs were in the East was 2002 in Albany, N.Y. In 1999, Penn State hosted.

Of course, a Midwest school won that year, rival Iowa, one of the school’s 23 titles. Another traditional power, Oklahoma State, is tops with 34 national titles. The Cowboys last took one in 2006.

But going into this year’s tournament, Cornell is ranked No. 1 in the NWCA/USA Today coaches poll, while Iowa – the current three-time defending champ – is second and Oklahoma State third. The surging Nittany Lions are fourth, and Minnesota, which took three titles between 2001-07, is fifth.

Virginia Tech, Rutgers and Lehigh are also ranked in the top 10.

Regardless, Penn State will undoubtedly take much of the spotlight following a resurgent season in just the second year of star coach Cael Sanderson’s tenure.

He surprised many fans when he left his alma mater, Iowa State, in 2009. A four-time NCAA champion and Olympic gold medalist, Sanderson might be wrestling’s equivalent to Michael Jordan given his achievements on the mat.

Now, his coaching accomplishments are starting to draw similar attention. When he arrived, he set goals of maintaining Pennsylvania talent, keeping it in state, and winning national championships. And he is off to a good start. Among his NCAA qualifiers are two freshmen, Andrew Alton of Lock Haven, seeded sixth at 141 pounds; and Edward Ruth of Harrisburg seeded second at 174.

A redshirt junior, Molinaro pre-dated Sanderson’s arrival, but the Barnegat, N.J., native is excited about being able to compete for a title just roughly 50 miles from his home.

Out-of-state standouts are also following Sanderson to Pennsylvania, like freshman David Taylor, of St. Paris, Ohio, undefeated and seeded third at 157.

“At the beginning of the year,” Taylor said, “everyone said we could be competing for a national title and (having), basically, home-field advantage is definitely something that is in our favor.”

There’s a healthy dose of Pennsylvania natives who will be returning home, too, for the tournament.

Cornell’s Steve Bosak, seeded third at 184, is from State College.

His coach, Rob Koll, is a former NCAA champion, and the son of former Penn State coach Bill Koll.

And among the most prominent returnees is undefeated Oklahoma State sophomore Jordan Oliver, of Easton, in the wrestling hotbed that is Lehigh Valley.

“It’s definitely going to be comfortable for me going home to wrestle for a national title,” Oliver said.

“It’s not just about an individual title though, because we’re also chasing the team title. To be able to do that in front of my hometown crowd is going to be awesome.”

Oliver honed his technique at the Pennsylvania wrestling championships, held annually each March in Hershey, where he won three state titles. That tournament itself is a unique experience for the wrestling novice. With six matches held simultaneously across six mats, the arena is filled with referees’ whistles and screaming parents.

Coaches from across the country scout prospective college talent here.

A scan of the program reveals the names of dozens of blue-collar towns or rural high schools across the state.

“Pennsylvania, in my mind, in a lot of people’s minds, it’s the toughest wrestling in the country,” said Luke Frey, a Montoursville senior bound for Penn State. “It means a lot to be a Pennsylvania wrestler.”

While there are varying styles, Sanderson says characteristics shared by many Pennsylvania wrestlers are the ability to attack the legs quickly, and being able to scramble.

Now, he has to get his wrestlers – whether from Pennsylvania or not – to come up with their finest matches of the season in order to bring home a title.

“Knowing that the tournament would be in Philadelphia, we wanted to be in the hunt there,” Sanderson said. “What could be better than winning that national championship in your home state?”


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