“How bad do you want it?”
That was the question written on a piece of orange paper found on the door leading out of Penn State’s Lorenzo Wrestling Complex on Monday.
Under the words written out in black was an outlined figure with Penn State written across its chest standing atop of the podium at the 2013 NCAA Championships in Des Moines, Iowa.
The drawing could turn into a reality after the three-day event concludes on Saturday night as the top-rated team, according to InterMat, has assumed the role as favorites in search of its third-straight NCAA team title.
Illinois coach Jim Heffernan said Penn State is the team to beat and it would take “Herculean” effort for his No. 11 Illini squad to upset the Lions for the team title.
“I think [Penn State is] an obstacle for everybody at this point,” Heffernan said. “They’ve got a lot of high end points and I think they’ve got a lot of depth.”
The Lions’ depth was shown when the NCAA released the championship brackets March 13 that revealed Penn State would send a full slate of 10 wrestlers, which gives the team the potential to earn points in each weight class.
Of the 10 wrestlers that the Lions will send to the Wells Fargo Arena, eight of them are seeded, an honor reserved for the top 12 competitors in each bracket.
Junior Ed Ruth said the depth of the team extends past just the starting lineup and the non-starters are crucial for the Lions winning titles.
“People never come in here and see just two starters going every single day, day in, day out. It’s not just the starters wrestling each other, you know, you have to get better off of somebody,” Ruth said. “They always say iron sharpens iron [and] the rest of this team, they’re all little pieces of iron.”
Junior David Taylor, who is seeking his second individual NCAA championship, said the key to winning the Lions’ third-straight title is to keep winning and stay out of the wrestlebacks, the consolation bracket.
Taylor described the wrestlebacks as a “war zone” and said that points are hard to come by in those brackets.
Ruth and senior Quentin Wright join Taylor as the three Lions that are eyeing their second individual title in Des Moines.
Oregon State coach Jim Zalesky, who lead Iowa to three-straight national championships from 1998-2000, said no team can beat the experience the Lions have at the national level.
“They have four guys that have been in the finals, so that’s a big advantage,” Zalesky said. “They’ve been there before and sometimes that’s a big advantage when you go to those tournaments [just] being there before.”
Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said the team’s veterans have confidence and they rub off on the wrestlers that have not been to the national championships before to better prepare them.
The Lions are rolling into Des Moines riding the momentum of capturing the 2013 Big Ten championship, which they also did in the previous two years before claiming the NCAA championship.
The Lions dominated the competition and took home four individual titles with Taylor, Ruth, Wright and 174-pounder Matt Brown being crowned on their way to a 12-point win over No. 3 Minnesota.
Minnesota coach J Robinson said anything can happen in the national tournament and when people think everything is laid out and set, it ends up not happening.
“Penn State’s going to do what Penn State’s going to do. We have to do what we have to do,” Robinson said.
Robinson also said in order for the Golden Gophers to knock off the Lions, they have to go in with emotion and intensity as well as wrestle above their given seeds in the individual brackets.
Ruth, the No. 1 seed at 184 pounds, said there was no pressure on him in his individual bracket, but the term “three-peat” has been thrown around and that puts pressure on the team.
Sanderson, however, said the Lions are not talking or focusing on accomplishing a “three-peat.”
“We want to win nationals this year,” Sanderson said. “We want to be the best this year.”