OKLAHOMA CITY — Penn State is favored to win its fourth consecutive NCAA wrestling title this weekend, despite challenges from traditional powers Iowa, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Minnesota.
"I think the parity is great," Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said. "It takes time. Not too long ago, I think you only had three teams with a chance to win, Now, I think there are 10 or 15 that think they can win and have the resources to do so."
Thursday's first-round matchups
(Missouri wrestlers listed first)
133 — Matt Manley (23-14) vs. Mackenzie McGuire, Kent State, (27-13)
141 — Lavion Mayes (23-11) vs. No. 2 Logan Stieber, Ohio State, (25-1)
149 — No. 1 Drake Houdashelt (34-1) vs. Alex Kocer, South Dakota State University, (29-11)
157 — Joey Lavallee (27-8) vs. Immanuel Kerr-Brown, Duke, (25-11)
165 — Zach Toal (26-5) vs. Pierce Harger, Northwestern, (23-5)
174 — Mike England (19-14) vs. No. 2 Andrew Howe, Oklahoma, (24-1)
197 — No. 2 J'den Cox (33-2) vs. Mario Gonzalez, Illinois, (10-4)/Blake Rosholt, Oklahoma State (12-8)
HWT — Devin Mellon (24-10) vs. No. 9 Connor Medbery, Wisconsin, (24-7)
A pair of seniors — two-time national champion Ed Ruth and three-time national finalist David Taylor — lead Penn State.
Ruth (29-1), who has lost once in the past three years, is the No. 2 seed at 184 pounds. Maryland's Jimmy Sheptock (28-0) is the No. 1 seed. Cornell freshman Gabriel Dean (35-2) defeated Ruth this season, and a rematch is possible in the semifinals.
Taylor (29-0), who won the 165-pound title in 2012 and finished second last year, has won 13 matches by pinfall, eight by technical fall and one by major decision this season.
The finals will be Saturday at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Taylor said he appreciates the past four years, and the opportunity he has this weekend.
"I guess the biggest thing is thinking back to how grateful I am that I chose Penn State, and how grateful I am that Ed Ruth and I are on the same team at the same time and pushing each other the past four years," Taylor said.
Penn State could be a factor in several other classes.
Jessie Delgado of Illinois (25-2) returns to defend his title at 125, but last year's runner-up, Penn State's Nicholas Megaludis (26-3), is back.
Ohio State's Logan Steiber (25-1), the No. 2 seed at 141, won 133 last year and is a two-time national champion. Mitchell Port of Edinboro is undefeated (26-0) and seeded No. 1. Penn State freshman Zain Retherford (29-1) beat Steiber early in the season, but Steiber beat him in the Big Ten final.
Oklahoma State has qualifiers in every class. The Cowboys have won the national title the past two times the championships were held in Oklahoma City.
"Driving down the road here makes it real easy for us," Oklahoma State coach John Smith said. "Sometimes, that translates into great wrestling. We have to get focused, and we have to wrestle our best three days that we've wrestled all year."
Oklahoma State's Chris Perry (25-1) returns to defend his title. Oklahoma's Andrew Howe (24-1), a past national champ, also is in this class and is seeded No. 2. Perry's only loss this season is to Howe, but Perry beat him 3-2 in the Big 12 tournament for Howe's only loss.
"You have to take one match at a time and get ready," Perry said. "If we meet up again, so be it. I'll be excited."
Kendric Maple (22-4) leads Oklahoma, He won 141 last year and is the No. 4 seed at 149 this year. Missouri's Drake Houdashelt (34-1) is the top seed. Houdashelt beat Maple 3-2 in their only meeting this season.
Minnesota has nine qualifiers, led by reigning back-to-back national champion Tony Nelson at 285. Nelson is familiar with the competition - seven of the top 10 seeded wrestlers in his class are from Big Ten schools.
Iowa's Derek St. John (25-4), the defending champion at 157, is seeded second. Nebraska's James Green (29-1), the No. 1 seed, beat St. John at the Big Ten Championships. Wisconsin's Isaac Jordan (27-5) is the only wrestler to beat Green this season.
Iowa has 10 qualifiers and feels confident.
"We've got to be tough for three days, and I think that's a pretty comprehensive formula all across the board for all of our guys," Iowa coach Tom Brands said. "They believe, and we believe in them."