IOWA CITY, Iowa – The Big Ten Championships had ended about 45 minutes earlier when members of the victorious Penn State wrestling team gathered on the center mat to pose for photographs.
Carver-Hawkeye Arena was mostly empty by then, with exception to the Penn State fans who stuck around on Sunday to savor the program’s latest milestone.
The Nittany Lions finished first at the Big Ten Championships for the fifth time in the last six years, compiling 150.5 points and winning three individual titles under head coach Cael Sanderson, who is building a dynasty.
As for the host team, which knows something about building a wrestling dynasty, Iowa had to settle for being second best, edging Ohio State for second place by a 127 to 126 margin.
Iowa coach Tom Brands had mixed emotions afterwards. He was pleased to have two individual champions, with juniors Cory Clark and Sammy Brooks capturing titles at 133 and 184 pounds, respectively.
But Brands wasn’t pleased with finishing in second place because he expects a lot from himself and from his wrestlers.
“I feel like I feel every other time that we’ve gotten beat,” Brands said when asked how he felt about the weekend as a whole. “There is a lot of things to be said for positives, and it’s an individual sport. So that’s how you go forward going into nationals because this isn’t the final.
“But I give congratulations to Penn State, job well done and we’ve got to get ready for (the NCAA Championships.”
The Big Ten Championships unfolded as most had expected with Penn State being in charge from start to finish.
There was hope that the Iowa wrestlers would gain strength from the home crowd and pull off the upset. But the Nittany Lions were just too deep, too talented and too focused to be denied.
“It’s a good test here for your focus,” said Penn State’s Zain Retherford, who defeated Iowa sophomore Brandon Sorensen 4-0 in the 149-pound title match. “A lot of things could go wrong if you wrestle the crowd.
“So you just stay focused. I think that’s the biggest thing I can take away from it. Just focus on what you’re doing.”
Retherford was named the Big Ten’s top wrestler, while Sanderson earned Coach of the Year honors. Former Iowa wrestling coach Dan Gable awarded Sanderson with the coach of the year plaque.
It was significant that Iowa had two individual champions after having none at last year’s Big Ten Championships.
“That’s important,” Brands said. “There was a drought and then you get two champs. That’s a badge of honor, not the badge of honor, but it’s a badge of honor.
“So that’s a tribute to those two guys for sure.”
Clark hung on literally and figuratively to win his title match at 133 pounds 2-1 over previously undefeated and No. 1 seed Zane Richards from Illinois.
Richards tried desperately to escape from Clark’s hold as the finals seconds ticked away in the third period, but Clark refused to let go as the crowd cheered loudly.
“It’s kind of unique feeling,” Clark said of having his hand held high as a Big Ten champion. “It’s almost like all the work that I’ve been putting in through all the years, you start to feel it pay off.
“It’s kind of hard to explain the feeling, but you feel a sense of relief a little bit. But the season is not over. I’ve still got improvement and my focus has to be at a prime.”
Clark always will cherish his 2016 Big Ten title, but the former Southeast Polk star has a bigger mountain to climb.
“This isn’t how I want to define my season,” Clark said. “The NCAA is. This is just kind of moving in the right direction. It’s easier to move forward with a Big Ten championship than a second, third or fourth or whatever.”
Sorensen won’t have that luxury after losing to Retherford. Both wrestlers entered the match with a combined record of 53-0.
Retherford led 3-0 after two periods and never let Sorensen mount any offensive attack while improving to 29-0 on the season.
Brooks captured Iowa’s second individual title with a 6-4 victory over Nebraska’s T.J. Dudley at 184 pounds.
“It’s sweet being here and wrestling in front of this many people,” Brooks said of the 11,904 fans who attended Sunday’s title round. “It’s a great opportunity. I’m just real thankful for it.”
Brooks is also thankful to finally have made it on the famed wall in the Iowa wrestling room where Big Ten and NCAA individual champions are recognized.
“I’m in that wrestling room so dang much, every time I walk in I see those names,” Brooks said. “I see the pictures going into the lockerroom of every national champ. I see the Olympic rings on the wall.
“So how could you not want to be on that wall?"
Iowa senior Nathan Burak just missed making the wall, losing the 197-pound title match 3-2 to Penn State’s Morgan McIntosh.
Iowa junior Thomas Gilman won by major decision (12-4) against Nebraska’s Tim Lambert to claim third place at 125 pounds, while Iowa’s Edwin Cooper Jr., lost 2-1 to Michigan’s Brian Murphy in the third-place match at 157 pounds.
Iowa junior Alex Meyer defeated Nebraska’s Micah Barnes 4-1 in the fifth-place match at 174 pounds.
Brands and his crew now have 10 days to prepare for the NCAA Championships, which will be held March 17-19 at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
“I’ve got one on the right plaque of names,” Brooks said of his Big Ten title. “Now I’ve got to get some on that left plaque.”