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As Jim Zalesky, Iowa's incomparable 158-pounder, got ready to wrestle in his final collegiate match last Saturday, Dan Gable nervously left the spectator section at the Byrne Meadowlands Arena in New Jersey and replaced assistant coach Mark Johnson in a chair in Zalesky's corner. A win would give Zalesky his 90th consecutive victory—second in college wrestling history only to Gable's 100 in a row—and a third straight NCAA title. Fourteen years before, in his final match, Gable had gone for his third title, and 101st straight win, only to lose.
"He didn't have to say anything," said Zalesky after the match, in which he dominated Mark Schmitz of Wisconsin for a 9-5 win. "I know if I saw Gable in the corner of somebody I was wrestling, it would give me some doubts."
Which may help explain why Iowa triumphed over talented but inconsistent Oklahoma State l23�-98 to win a record seventh consecutive national championship. For a lot of reasons, not the least of which was that Gable had curtailed his head-coaching duties at Iowa to concentrate on leading the U.S. Olympic team, this wasn't supposed to be the Hawkeyes' year. But since Gable rejoined Iowa full-time after it was drubbed 24-6 by Oklahoma State in a dual meet in Stillwater last month, the Hawkeyes have regained the same clutch wrestling form that has led them to nine of the last 11 NCAA titles.
This wasn't Iowa's most talented team; Zalesky was its only individual champion. For its part, Oklahoma State had two shoo-ins: Mike Sheets at 167 pounds and Kenny Monday at 150. On the strength of the massacre in Stillwater, the National Mat News favored the Cowboys to win the NCAAs.
Gable had turned over the head-coaching duties to his longtime assistant, J Robinson, in September. When he rejoined the team as co-head coach after the Oklahoma State debacle, he immediately instituted three-a-day workouts, with wrestling at 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. and conditioning at 8:30 p.m. It's a measure of Gable's stature as a competitor and coach that he could upstage Robinson without damaging their friendship. At a victory party Saturday night, Robinson said, "I just want to be an assistant again."
Perhaps even more remarkable is that he could put a tired team through physical torture at the end of a long season and still improve morale. "If Gable said we needed three-a-days, we needed three-a-days," said Greg Randall, a 134-pound freshman who lost a 13-7 decision in the finals to Scott Lynch of Penn State. "We started taking his approach in practice with each other, which is, 'I'm going to kick your butt, and there's nothing you can do about it.' It got us closer, and it made us better. That's Gable."
Two weeks after Gable returned, Iowa won the Big Ten tournament for the 11th consecutive time. Even Gable had to admit that he had struck a chord. "They were already good, but you put little edges on people," he said. "It's just the way I act. My being around. Who I am."
In the semifinal round on Friday, Oklahoma State came undone. Going in, Iowa led by only four points. The tournament looked like the Cowboys' because five of their six semifinalists were seeded higher than five of Iowa's six. But only Monday and Sheets survived the round. "It was possibly inexperience at that point in the game," said Sheets. "I'm not saying we choked, but part of it had to do with that."
Meanwhile, on an adjacent mat, Iowa's semifinalists were making hay. Mark Trizzino, a 126-pounder, lost in the last seconds to Kevin Darkus of Iowa State, but it was a case of it's Darkus before the dawn. Iowa won the remaining five matches and entered the finals with an all but insurmountable 30.25-point lead.
Iowa's team title overshadowed the individual brilliance of Monday, the tournament's most adept practitioner of the sudden, match-ending cradle, and Sheets. "Explosive, explosive," grunted an admiring Gable as he watched a typical Monday pin. Sheets, who won his last 70 college matches, specializes in paralyzing opponents with creative leg clamps. "He almost broke my back," said Chris Edmond of Tennessee after being pinned in the quarterfinals. And Sheets can take as well as give. In his first match of the tournament, against Greg Fatool of North Carolina State, Sheets whipped himself against the mat so hard he knocked himself out and was nearly pinned before an injury timeout was called. After partly regaining his senses—he couldn't remember the early stages of the match—Sheets made moves that turned a 7-2 deficit into a 16-8 victory. "He's one of the best ever," said Wolfpack coach Bill Guzzo.