This is yet another unprecedented season for NCAA wrestling.
In 2019-20, the NCAA Championships were abruptly cancelled due to COVID. Then in 2020-21, the athletes received a free year of eligibility and the season was an abbreviated one with many teams wrestling just within their conference, like the Big Ten, before conference tournaments then NCAAs.
With that free year, many seniors had a decision to make. Would they come back for another senior year in 2021-22?
The overwhelming majority of them decided to do just that and will be super seniors this year. And many teams benefited greatly, like No 1 Iowa, No. 3 Michigan and No. 9 Nebraska, among others. Some more than others.
Then with the Olympics being pushed from 2020 to 2021, many wrestlers used Olympic redshirts in 2019-20 before also taking off 2021 to focus on freestyle training. They’re back now.
And the Ivy League, which features some powerful programs (Cornell, Princeton, Penn, Columbia and Harvard) comes back into the fold after cancelling all winter sports last season.
All in all, there are 13 wrestlers in the field that have won an NCAA title, with all 10 defending champions returning. Those 13 individuals have won a combined 16 total titles, led by 3-time champ Spencer Lee of Iowa.
Returning NCAA Champions
125 - Spencer Lee, Iowa - 2018, 2019, 2021 NCAA Champion
125 - Nick Suriano, Michigan - 2019 NCAA Champion (133 pounds)
133 - Roman Bravo-Young, Penn St. - 2021 NCAA Champion
141 - Nick Lee, Penn State - 2021 NCAA Champion
149 - Yianni Diakomihalis, Cornell - 2018, 2019 NCAA Champion (141 pounds)
157 - David Carr, Iowa State - 2021 NCAA Champion
157 - Austin O’Connor, N. Carolina - 2021 NCAA Champion (149 pounds)
165 - Shane Griffith, Stanford - 2021 NCAA Champion
174 - Carter Starocci, Penn State - 2021 NCAA Champion
174 - Mekhi Lewis, Virginia Tech - 2019 NCAA Champion (165 pounds)
184 - Aaron Brooks, Penn State - 2021 NCAA Champion
197 - AJ Ferrari, Oklahoma State - 2021 NCAA Champion
285 - Gable Steveson, Minnesota - 2021 NCAA Champion
On top of that, there’s a plethora of age-level international success in the field, led by Olympic Champion Gable Steveson of Minnesota at heavyweight.
So what does this all mean?
It means that there’s a glut of talent at the top, many of them fifth or sixth or even seventh-year seniors in some cases. Many of the top guys in the rankings have been there for years.
It also means that if you’re a fan of NCAA wrestling, this is the year to watch as much as you can. There are a lot of all-timers who are expiring their eligibility soon. Some big-time matchups will go down this year, especially at NCAAs.
Let’s start at 125 pounds. As I mentioned, No. 1 Spencer Lee of Iowa and No. 2 Nick Suriano of Michigan are the favorites to make the final (video below of their 2018 NCAA Final), but that’s absolutely not a certainty. Behind them is Cornell’s No. 3 Vito Arujau, who made it to the US Olympic Team Trials Final at 57 kg before falling to eventual Olympic Bronze Medalist Thomas Gilman. Arujau has been dominating this season, so he’s a legit threat.
Behind Arujau is No. 4 Pat Glory of Princeton, who is back after a cancelled year by the Ivy League. Glory was a 2021 U23 World Teamer and earned All-American honors as a freshman before going 24-0 in 2019-20 before the NCAA tournament was cancelled. The crazy thing here is that the guy who made the 2021 NCAA final against Spencer Lee, Brandon Courtney of Arizona State, is ranked No. 5 right now based on all these guys coming back.
If Spencer Lee wins his fourth NCAA title, he’ll have to navigate the toughest field of his life.
At 133 pounds, returning national champ Roman Bravo-Young of Penn State leads the pack against No. 2 Daton Fix of Oklahoma State, last year’s NCAA runner-up and a 2021 Senior World Team member. Then there’s two super seniors in No. 3 Austin DeSanto of Iowa and No. 4 Korbin Meyer of Virginia Tech.
We’ll likely see RBY and Fix in the NCAA final again this year as these two have proven to be a level above the competition. If you haven’t seen their match from a year ago, check it out.
The 133-pound weight class isn’t as affected by the influx of talent as 125, but it’s a deep weight class nonetheless.
Then there’s 141 pounds. This weight class has been heavily influenced by the return of super seniors.
The entire Top-5 are super seniors and seven of the Top-9. Returning NCAA Champ Nick Lee of Penn State is No. 1, then there’s No. 2 Jaydin Eierman of Iowa who is a four-time All-American (Finishes of 5th, 4th, 3rd and 2nd). Rutgers’ Sebastian Rivera is No. 3, Michigan’s Stevan Micic is No. 4, Illinois’ Dylan Duncan is No. 5, Central Michigan’s Dresdon Simon is ranked No. 8, and Nebraska’s Chad Red Jr. is ranked No. 9. All are using their extra year of eligibility.
One of the nation’s best at 141 pounds the past few years, NC State’s Tariq Wilson, has returned and moved up to 149 and is ranked No. 3. Also jumping back into the field at 149 is top-ranked Yianni Diakomihalis of Cornell, who sat out 2019-20 due to an Olympic redshirt and 2020-21 due to the Ivy League’s cancellation as well as training freestyle getting ready for Olympic Trials and Worlds. After missing out on the Olympics, Diakomihalis made the US World Team at 65 kg. Already a two-time NCAA champion at 141, the junior Diakomihalis has a chance to build on his resume this year and will be a staple of USA Wrestling for years to come.
Watch Yianni Diakomihalis of Cornell win five matches at the NCAA championships to claim a second consecutive title.#NCAAWrestling pic.twitter.com/rRHj6mOFMn— NCAA Wrestling (@NCAAWrestling) August 8, 2019
At 157 pounds, there are a few big-hitters who are returning. No. 2 Ryan Deakin is back and has been dominant so far. He’s fresh off making the US World Team Trials Final vs multi-world medalist James Green. Also super seniors are No. 7 Luke Weber of North Dakota State and No. 10 Kaleb Young of Iowa.
This is another weight that boasts two NCAA champs in defending titlist David Carr of Iowa State and 2021 149-pound champ Austin O’Connor of North Carolina who has since moved up to 157. O’Connor is using his extra year of eligibility as well.
David Carr is a prime example of why Iowa State Wrestling, and really wrestling as a whole, is important.— Jacqueline (@JacquelineCord) March 6, 2021
He is by far one of the most talented athletes I’ve had the privilege of covering thus far and he’s only a redshirt sophomore! pic.twitter.com/juVRuUKBDm
At 165 pounds, the field has added top-ranked Evan Wick, who just beat defending NCAA Champion Shane Griffith at the Cliff Keen Invitational. Wick, the former Wisconsin wrestler, took the past season off to train in freestyle and returns as a transfer to Cal Poly.
Evan Wick of Cal Poly beats reigning NCAA champ Shane Griffith for 1st place at CKLV @CalPolyWrestle #keptStanfordWrestling pic.twitter.com/ywohwypNOt— Hylighter Photography (@HylighterPhoto) December 5, 2021
Also returning are super seniors No. 4 Alex Marinelli of Iowa, No. 6 Jake Wentzel of Pitt, and No. 9 Anthony Valencia of Arizona State, among others.
The return of talent hasn’t affected 174 pounds as much, but it’s one of the country’s toughest weights nonetheless. Defending NCAA Champion Carter Starocci of Penn State returns as a freshman, while No. 2 Michael Kemerer comes back for his seventh year at Iowa. Also returning as a super senior is No. 6 Logan Massa of Michigan.
One big addition to 174 is former NCAA Champion Mekhi Lewis of Virginia Tech, making 174 the third weight class that has two NCAA champs in the field. Lewis, who won the 2019 NCAA title at 165 pounds, had to default out of last season’s NCAAs due to a shoulder injury. Fully healthy and up at 174 this year, Lewis has looked as dominant as ever.
The 184-pound weight class returns NCAA Champion Aaron Brooks, but the weight class doesn’t have many big-name super seniors or Olympic redshirts returning. Nebraska’s No. 11 Taylor Venz leads the pack of super seniors returning at this weight, although Michigan’s Myles Amine has moved down to 184 for his extra year and is ranked No. 2 right now after wrestling at 197 last year. He won a bronze medal at the 2021 Olympics.
At 197, a few super seniors return in No. 3 Nino Bonaccorsi of Pitt, No. 7 Eric Schultz of Nebraska, and No. 9 Kordell Norfleet of Arizona State. Oklahoma State’s AJ Ferrari returns as the defending champ here and looks to be the favorite to repeat.
Then there’s the heavyweight field. Man, this could go down as the toughest field ever at any weight. There’s an Olympic Champion, a U23 World Champ, a Junior World Champ, a Cadet World Champ, and a Greco-Roman Senior world-teamer in the field
Minnesota’s top-ranked Gable Steveson is fresh off an Olympic Gold, NCAA Championship and Big Ten Championship in 2021. He’s the heavy favorite to repeat as NCAA champ.
GABLE BY MILLISECONDS. @GableSteveson x #TokyoOlympicspic.twitter.com/qjEtZaK5Xa— Team USA (@TeamUSA) August 6, 2021
No. 2 Mason Parris is a junior World Champion, No. 3 Cohlton Schultz of Arizona State was a 2021 Greco-Roman world-teamer and was the nation’s top-ranked recruit coming out of high school a couple years ago.
Then there’s No. 4 Greg Kerkvliet of Penn State, a former cadet World Champ and junior world silver-medalist. He earned All-American honors as a redshirt freshman. Iowa’s Tony Cassioppi is ranked No. 5 and is fresh off a U23 World Championship, while Wisconsin’s No. 6 Trent Hillger returns for his extra year of eligibility. Also super seniors are No. 7 Jordan Wood of Lehigh, No. 8 Matt Stencel of Central Michigan, No. 9 Gary Traub of Oregon State, No. 10 Brian Andrews of Wyoming, and No. 11 Christian Lance of Nebraska.
With eight of the Top-12 heavyweights in the country seniors, this year’s field is stacked.