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Wrestling: Early Season Observations

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Huskers looking impressive overall to start the year, led by starters and redshirts alike

Nebraska’s No. 7 Eric Schultz (bottom) is 6-1 on the year.
Jon Johnston / Corn Nation

The No. 9-ranked Nebraska wrestling team is one South Dakota State dual away from finishing its non-conference schedule and moving on to its conference slate. With another week until the Huskers take on the Jackrabbits, let’s take some stock of the season so far.

What’s happened so far?

  • Nebraska opened the year with dual wins over in-state Division II schools UNK and Chadron State.
  • Nebraska then saw Boo Dryden and Nathan Haas win titles at the Grand View Open.
  • The Huskers went on to dominate No. 14 North Carolina in Lincoln, as Peyton Robb downed 2020 NCAA Champion Austin O’Connor.
  • Four days later, Nebraska traveled to compete in the Daktronics Open. The Huskers had three champions that day in Mikey Labriola, Christian Lance and Silas Allred.
  • Then came Nebraska winning its second-straight team title at the Cliff Keen Invitational in Las Vegas against a stacked field. Labriola won Nebraska’s lone individual title.
  • That same weekend, Nebraska was paced by Dryden and Haas again as the Husker redshirts and backups competed at the Doane Open.

OBSERVATIONS

Labriola Leads the Way

As mentioned already when Labriola won Big Ten Wrestler of the Week honors earlier this week, the junior has been Nebraska’s best wrestler for the entire 2021 calendar year.

He’s ranked No. 5 in the country and is 10-0 on the year with four wins over ranked opponents. He’s a threat to win Big Ten and NCAA titles this season.

Back End of Lineup Solid

It’s no secret that the back end of Nebraska’s lineup is its strength. Starting at 174 pounds, Nebraska rolls out No. 5 Labriola, then No. 11 Taylor Venz at 184, No. 7 Eric Schultz at 197, and No. 11 Christian Lance at 285.

These four guys have so far combined for 36 wins and four losses this season. In addition to the undefeated Labriola, Venz is 10-2 with nine wins with bonus points (4 pins, 3 tech falls, 2 major decisions). Then there’s Schultz who just lost his first match of the season in the CKLV finals to No. 9 Stephen Buchanan, this after back-to-back wins over Top-11 opponents.

Lance has been impressive this year at heavyweight, holding a 10-1 record so far on the year with three wins over ranked opponents, including against Ohio State’s then-No. 6 Tate Orndorff.

With this closing rotation, Nebraska shouldn’t be considered out of any duals this year.

Sophomore Studs

Helping Nebraska solidify its middle weights is a pair of sophomores with big-time potential and talent in No. 6 Ridge Lovett (149 pounds) and No. 7 Peyton Robb (157).

Both Lovett and Robb have had similar seasons. Robb defeated a former NCAA Champ in Austin O’Connor of North Carolina (149-pound champ in 2020) before taking reigning 157-pound champ David Carr to overtime. Then, Robb was injured in a loss to No. 6 Quincy Monday at CKLV and was forced to medical forfeit out of the tournament, giving him a loss. Robb is 7-3 on the year with his losses to No. 1 Carr, No. 6 Monday and a medical forfeit.

Similarly, Lovett beat then-No. 6 Zach Sherman of North Carolina before taking out another No. 6-ranked wrestler in Stanford’s Jaden Abas (ironically, Lovett is now ranked No. 6 himself) at CKLV. Lovett then pushed two-time NCAA champ and No. 1-ranked Yianni Diakomihalis of Cornell to overtime before falling short 6-4. Lovett followed that up by beating No. 16 Mitch Moore of Oklahoma in the consolation bracket.

Lovett has a 10-3 record on the season, but it’s not indicative of his season so far. At the Daktronics Open, Lovett was forced to medical forfeit his final two matches, giving him two losses on his record without actually wrestling. In reality, Lovett is 10-1 with his lone loss to the top guy in the country. I’m excited to see his career play out (admittedly, Lovett is my personally favorite Husker wrestler).

A back-to-back duo like Lovett and Robb is going to give Big Ten teams fits for years to come.

Lightweight Woes

Nebraska has struggled at its light weights for a few seasons now. It’s not due to an absence of talent either. Nebraska has brought in some top recruits and even hit the transfer portal here. It’s just hard to put your finger on.

At 125 pounds, Nebraska has seen a split between senior Liam Cronin and freshman Jeremiah Reno. Reno burned his redshirt in the season-opening duals and represented Nebraska at CKLV, while Cronin wrestled in the dual against the Tar Heels before competing in the Daktronics Open.

Cronin earned a decision win against North Carolina, but he struggled at Daktronics. The senior won his first two matches by decision before losing three straight matches. He’s 3-3 on the year and didn’t compete for Nebraska at CKLV when almost all of Nebraska’s other starters competed.

Reno is 3-5 on the year, but experiences like going 1-2 at CKLV will pay dividends for the talented youngster going forward. It’s unknown how the timeshare will go here, so I expect Nebraska to give Reno a few opportunities during conference season to spell Cronin and keep him fresh.

Then there’s 133 pounds. This weight class is an absolute mess for the Huskers.

Sophomore Alex Thomsen has been Nebraska’s starter so far at this weight. He’s 2-3 on the year and missed CKLV due to illness (non-Covid). Thomsen was Nebraska’s 125-pound starter in 2019-20 as a freshman and went 16-18.

Behind Thomsen are junior Boo Dryden, sophomore Jordan Kelber and freshman Dominick Serrano. Serrano has been impressive this year, but he’s redshirting. And it looks like the Husker coaches have decided to redshirt Dryden as well.

Now, to figure out the pecking order is pretty easy as most of these guys have wrestled each other. Thomsen, the current starter, lost last season to Dryden while he was at Minnesota. Thomsen then fell to Serrano 18-8 by major decision this year at the Daktronics Open. Serrano also beat Kelber 14-6 by major decision at Daktronics. Then earlier this season, Dryden beat Serrano 8-6 by decision at the Grand View Open.

I think that proves that the current pecking order at 133 for Nebraska is Dryden-Serrano-Thomsen-Kelber.

Redshirts Impressing

With five senior starters returning this year, it’s clear that Nebraska will have a lot of holes to fill next season. The Huskers will lose Cronin, Chad Red Jr. at 141, Venz, Schultz and Lance.

Now, you don’t just replace guys like that, so I expect a regression next year. But with a few solid recruiting classes coming up the pipe, Nebraska is getting a glimpse of its future starters.

In fact, seven redshirting freshmen have eased a lot of those concerns going forward.

Dominick Serrano (133 pounds) 11-5 record

Blake Cushing (141 pounds) 9-4

Nic Stoltenberg (157 pounds) 11-5

Jagger Condomitti (165 pounds) 5-1

Elise Brown Ton (174 pounds) 10-6

Nathan Haas (184 pounds) 8-0

Silas Allred (197 pounds) 3-0

Haas has won titles at both the Grand View Open and the Doane Open to start the season. After impressing this season and last, I think it’s obvious that Haas will be taking over for Venz next year. At 197, Allred is 3-0 on the year with an individual title at the Daktronics Open, where he won two matches via pinfall and another by tech fall. In fact, Allred pinned Iowa State’s Yonger Bastida who just knocked off Iowa’s No. 3 Jacob Warner.

Then there’s Serrano and his 11-5 record. One loss came to Dryden while three losses have came to South Dakota State’s Derrick Cardinal. Both are very tall and lanky wrestlers, so that’s something Serrano will need to work on.

At 165, freshman Jagger Condomitti is 5-1 on the year with his first two matches wins via pinfall. He’ll challenge for a starting spot right away next year. At 174, Elise Brown Ton has been solid with a 10-6 record with five wins via pinfall and four major decisions.

Blake Cushing and Nic Stoltenberg have shown they have some real potential and will eventually challenge for starting spots while adding solid depth.

In-State Youngsters Getting Opportunities

The Huskers feature a handful of young in-state wrestlers who have gotten some real mat time this season.

Led by freshmen Stoltenberg (Omaha Skutt) and Cushing (Grand Island), fellow in-staters Quinton Chavez (Gering), Jordan Kelber (Valentine) and Joshua Licking (Norfolk) have also seen time at open tournaments.

Stoltenberg is 11-5 on the year, while Cushing is 9-4. Chavez is 4-4 on the season, while Kelber is 3-2. Licking has a 0-4 record so far this year.