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ST. LOUIS—For the first time all year, the normally stoic Jesse Jantzen was finally willing to celebrate.
At the close of his national title-clinching bout, he threw his headgear to the ground and thrust his arms up into the air before running to the side of the mat and jumping into the outstretched arms of his coach, where—for a moment—he looked more like a five-year-old kid than the most successful wrestler in Harvard history.
The No. 1 Jantzen had just ended an incredible career with a 9-3 win over Oklahoma State’s No. 2 Zack Esposito to secure the NCAA National Championship, just the second in Harvard history and the first since 1938.
Jantzen was also named the Most Outstanding Wrestler of the NCAA tournament, the first Crimson grapppler ever to receive the honor.
“I really wasn’t expecting it at all,” Jantzen said about the award. “I had no clue. There were just so many good guys that had real good performances that I was real surprised.”
With the award, Jantzen has now become, “the first Harvard wrestler to...” more times than he can probably count. The “firsts” include winning the EIWA championship three times, becoming a four-time NCAA qualifier and earning All-American honors three time—also an Ivy League first.
Jantzen, who finished 38-1 for the season and 131-13 in his career had a vocal contingent of fans section rooting for him, which included the first Crimson national champion John Harkness ’38, who claimed the title at 175 lbs.
“It’s terrific,” Harkness said when asked about Jantzen’s accomplishment. “Jesse is really an outstanding wrestler. He’s way out of this league.”
Jantzen came out very aggressively and controlled the entire match, scoring five points in the first 90 seconds with a takedown and three near-fall points. The only points Esposito—whose team won the national championship for the second straight year—notched came in the third period.
“It’s kind of funny,” Harvard coach Jay Weiss said. “I asked [Jantzen] what the game plan was, and he [said], ‘I’m going right at him.’”
“I didn’t think it was so much that [Esposito made a mistake going down so early],” said Oklahoma State coach John Smith. “He wrestled a very good wrestler.”
After racking up over two minutes of riding time in the first period, Jantzen chose to start the second on bottom, and scored a one-point escape in the first five seconds. This would be the only scoring of the period, as the wrestlers headed into the third with Jantzen on top, 6-0.
He pushed that lead to a nearly insurmountable eight point gap after scoring another takedown with 1:10 remaining in the match. Still, Jantzen felt that there was never a point where he had secured the victory.
“Esposito’s really dangerous,” Jantzen said. “He’s real good at big point moves. There’s never really a spot where you are real comfortable. He can score or put you on your back at any time.”
Esposito did manage to score some points in the final period, but it was too little too late. The first one came as a result of an illegal hold by Jantzen with :56 remaining in the match, and the second came with :22 left after Jantzen was called for stalling. Both wrestlers had been warned about the infraction in the first period.
“That was a horrendous call,” Weiss said about the holding. “When you got a bottom guy going flat to his stomach it’s obviously a stall. It’s a dumb call.”
Esposito’s third and final point came in the closing seconds when he earned an escape. Jantzen earned a ninth because he had over a minute of riding time.
Winning the outstanding wrestler award was by no means a foregone conlusion for Jantzen. The other wrestlers in consideration for the honor were Nebraska’s No. 1 Jason Powell (125 lbs.), who scored a technical foul over Illinois’ No. 6 Kyle Ott, and No. 1 Oklahom State’s Chris Pendleton (174 lbs.) who defeated Missouri’s No. 6 Ben Askren 11-4 and had both a pin and a technical fall earlier in the tourney.
“I thought he was going to win, but I’m kind of biased,” Weiss said.
Jantzen had a very impressive NCAA performance of his own. He had two major decisions, a technical fall in the first round and his closest match, decided by three points. This nail biter was against Brown’s David Dies, who Jantzen beat by just one point the first time he saw him this year.
The crowd also seemed to be pulling for Jantzen more than any of the other wrestler that day. Though the Cowboys brought the largest cheering section by far to St. Louis—their sea of orange filled nearly three full sections in the stands—all the remaining fans seemed to be rooting for Jantzen to come out on top.
“I’ve never had so many coaches, wrestlers, retired wrestlers, fans, whatever, come up to me and just say, ‘Good luck; we’re out pulling for Jesse,’” Weiss said. “Because those people who know Jesse know that he deserved that medal.”Adding to the excitement was the fact that the Jantzen-Esposito match was one of just two where the No. 1 and No. 2 seed met each other in the final round. The only other occurrence was in the 165-lb. category, where Lehigh’s Troy Letters upset the Cowboys’ Tyrone Lewis, 5-2.
“He’s popular for a good reason,” Harkness said. “He’s a very appealing guy and very hard working, and he’s just done a wonderful job.”
As a team, Harvard ended up finishing in 22nd, thanks in large part to an outstanding performance by freshman heavyweight Bode Ogunwole. Sophomore Max Meltzer (141 lbs.) and co-captain Reggie Lee (197 lbs.) had less exciting performances, but rounded out the four NCAA qualifiers for the Crimson, the most since the squad sent six in 2001.
—Staff writer Evan R. Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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