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Big Ten Wrestling Championships Preview

No. 8 Nebraska looks for another strong showing at the Big Ten Championships

Big Ten Championship
Seen here after downing Iowa’s Max Murin in last year’s Big Ten Championships, Chad Red Jr. will need to navigate a stacked field to earn his first conference title.
Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images

The Big Ten Wrestling Championships are finally here, and the Huskers look to pick up where they left off last year when they earned their best team finish since joining the Big Ten. Nebraska finished second with 132 points while Iowa won the team title with 157.5 points. The Huskers beat No. 3 Ohio State pretty soundly as the Buckeyes scored 112 points.

The Huskers will compete in the 2021 Big Ten Championships Saturday and Sunday. The tournament is being hosted by Penn State with the action taking place in the Bryce Jordan Center.

The Team Race

This year, it’s again the top-ranked Hawkeyes (5-0) who are the prohibitive favorites to win the team title, but there is a trio of teams jockeying for second. No. 2-ranked Penn State went 5-0 this year and has arguably the second-best team in the conference. Michigan (5-1) is ranked No. 4 in the country but may lack the type of depth that will propel the Wolverines up the team standings. The Huskers are No. 8 currently with a 7-1 record and boast the type of depth that can help them make a deep run, much like last year when they ran away with second place without a single individual champion.

In fact, a year ago, Nebraska only had one conference finalist (Eric Schultz at 197 pounds) but secured the necessary team points in the consolation brackets as five Husker wrestlers finished in third place.

This year, it’ll be tough for anyone to catch Iowa, as the Hawkeyes have seven of their ten wrestlers seeded No. 1 or No. 2. For comparison, Nebraska and Penn State each have 3. Michigan has two.

How to Watch

The Big Ten Network announced its most in-depth coverage ever of the Big Ten Wrestling Championships with coverage on both BTN and BTN+ (details below) with the first session starting at 9 a.m. Central time and ending at 1 p.m. The semifinal round will begin at 6:30 p.m.

On Sunday, consolation matches will start at 11 a.m. with the Finals starting at 3 p.m. followed by the third and fifth-place matches.

Weight-By-Weight Analysis

125 pounds

Nebraska’s Liam Cronin (7-1) comes in as the 2-seed as a senior. The Indiana transfer has been impressive this year, racking up seven wins while losing one match to the best 125-pounder in the country in Spencer Lee of Iowa. Possibly best ever.

So, Cronin receives a first-round bye and avoids Lee until the finals. Cronin figures to see either 7-seed Devin Schroder of Purdue or 10-seed Justin Cardani of Illinois. Cronin recently beat Cardani 4-3 in a very tight match but hasn’t seen Schroder this season.

With a win, Cronin would most likely see 3-seed Malik Heinselman of Ohio State. Heinselman is 7-1 on the year with his lone loss a 1-0 decision to Schroder. This will be a very exciting match between two of the Big Ten’s best who unfortunately never crossed paths in the regular season.

If Cronin can take out Heinselman, he will face top-seeded Spencer Lee in the final. Lee is the reigning Hodge Trophy winner, the reigning Big Ten Champion, and a two-time NCAA Champion. Also, he pinned Cronin in the regular season in 1 minute, 21 seconds. I don’t expect Cronin to back down, but I also don’t see him having much of a shot for a championship.

133 pounds

Nebraska’s Tucker Sjomeling (3-3) gets the nod at 133 pounds for the Huskers and he received the No. 10 seed. Actually, he was originally seeded No. 11, but when Rutgers’ 3-seed Sammy Alvarez was pulled everyone moved up a seed. Sjomeling is a tough wrestler who just finished the regular season pushing Illinois’ Lucas Byrd in a 10-8 loss. Byrd is the No. 4-seed this weekend.

So Sjomeling will face 7-seed Jordan DeCatur of Ohio State. Decatur is 6-4 on the year but has lost his last two, including a 27-8 tech fall loss to top-seeded Roman Bravo-Young of Penn State.

If he’s able to pull off the win, Sjomeling will have the unenviable task of taking on 2-seed Austin DeSanto of Iowa, who took out Nebraska’s Alex Thomsen 21-6 by tech fall early in the year. So, Sjomeling and DeSanto have never wrestled, but I don’t see the Husker pulling the upset, sending him to the consolation bracket.

141 pounds

Nebraska ‘s Chad Red Jr. (8-1) is going into his fourth conference tournament and has historically turned things up a notch in March. As a freshman, Red upset his way into the final. Last season, Red finished in third place.

With his lone loss this season to No. 1 Jaydin Eierman of Iowa, Red earned the 4-seed this weekend. In the first round, Red will face 13-seed Colin Valdiviez of Northwestern who Red defeated earlier this season 6-4. In the quarterfinal, Red should see a rematch of the season-ender against 5-seed Dylan Duncan, a match Red won but only because of a successful challenge and an acrobatic reversal.

Granted Red gets past Duncan, he’ll get his second shot at Eierman in the semifinal round. It’ll be a tough match for Red, but he was in that match earlier this year. And like I said, March Chad Red is different than January Chad Red. Do not count this man out.

Let’s just say he wins against Eierman, Red will face either 2-seed Nick Lee or 3-seed Sebastian Rivera. Lee has owned Red throughout his college career while Rivera is a phenom who has already won Big Ten titles at 125 pounds (2019) and 133 (2020).

This bracket is stacked. If Red wins, he’s really going to have to earn it.

149 pounds

This is the first weight where I see a chance for the Huskers to crash the party. Originally, Nebraska went with true freshman Brock Hardy, but sophomore Ridge Lovett took over the spot after moving up in weight. After starting last year at 133 pounds, Lovett is 5-0 this season at both 141 and 149 pounds. He won Junior Nationals this past fall so he hasn’t lost a match since last year’s Big Tens when he finished 7th at 133 pounds as a true freshman.

Lovett will be seeded No. 7 and takes on 10-seed Graham Rooks of Indiana in the first round. With the win, Lovett will move on to face 2-seed Max Murin of Iowa. It will be a tough test for the young Husker but I think he has a lot to offer, as he pushed Iowa’s DeSanto last season at Big Tens.

With a win, Lovett would be a true Cinderella story at this point and would head into the final against top-seeded Sammy Sasso of Ohio State. Sasso is 9-0 on the year and was the runner-up last year as a freshman. Also, he pinned the 2-seed Murin during the regular season. Sasso is a level above the field at this point, but let’s just sit back and see what happens with Lovett in the fold.

157 pounds

Nebraska’s Caleb Licking is the hard-nosed Nebraska kid who worked and toiled in the room until he got his shot, and this year was his year. As the full-time starter at 157, Licking is 3-4 on the year and earned the 10-seed. He’s had his ups and his downs, but he’s gone up against some of the best in the country.

In the first round, Licking will face 7-seed Chase Saldate of Michigan State. Although the Huskers faced Michigan State, Saldate beat Nebraska’s Jevon Parrish 8-0 by major decision in that dual.

With a win, Licking would face 2-seed Kaleb Young of Iowa, who downed Licking 17-5 in the regular season. Licking will likely have to battle through the backside of the bracket to bolster his team’s chances.

165 pounds

Nebraska’s Peyton Robb is 6-3 on the year at his new weight class. He’s lost matches to the top two seeded guys. He’s coming off a 9-6 loss to the 2-seed Dan Braunagel of Illinois, while he lost to top-seed Alex Marinelli 9-3 earlier in the year. He then rattled off six-straight wins in the middle of the season.

Robb is an extremely tough and strong wrestler and it seems he’s improved up from 157, where he finished third at the Big Ten Championships as a freshman. This year, he’s looking to do more.

Robb takes on 10-seed Nick South in the first round. Robb won a 10-2 major decision earlier this year against South. With a win, Robb will move on to face 2-seed Braunagel again after ending the regular season losing a close contest. It’ll be a tough matchup, but that’s the nature of the beast in the Big Ten.

If Robb can knock off Braunagel, he’ll likely face 3-seed Ethan Smith of Ohio State, who’s 8-1 and has been on a tear this year, or Penn State’s 6-seed Joe Lee. Lee is 4-2 and the younger brother of Nick Lee. Robb did not face either wrestler this season.

If Robb manages to navigate his side of the bracket, he’d face top-seed Marinelli again. Robb stood toe-to-toe with Marinelli their first time meeting, so I don’t see Robb backing down or being intimidated by “The Bull”. It’ll be an uphill climb, but Robb may be up for it.

174 pounds

This is the first weight class where a Husker champion wouldn’t be a BIG upset. Nebraska’s Mikey Labriola is 8-0 on the year and will receive a first-round bye with the 2-seed. In the quarterfinal, Labriola will face either 7-seed Jackson Turley of Rutgers or 10-seed Drew Hughes of Michigan State. Labriola shouldn’t have much of a problem with either.

In the semifinal round, Labriola will face either freshman phenom 3-seed Carter Starocci of Penn State or 6-seed Kaleb Romero of Ohio State. Starocci got the best of the senior Romero in the regular season, but you never know. Labriola has historically fared well against Romero and I don’t see him losing his shot at a title to a true freshman.

In the final, Labriola will finally get another shot at top-seeded Michael Kemerer of Iowa. After not wrestling against Labriola in the dual, this match needs to happen. Kemerer beat Labriola 3-1 last season, but Labriola has been a machine this season, winning five of his eight matches with bonus points.

184 pounds

Nebraska’s Taylor Venz will take part in a wild 184-pound bracket. Venz is the 6-seed with a 4-2 record on the year, a year where he was in and out of the lineup. His performance was up and down as well, but he seems to be peaking just at the right time. Last time out, Venz downed No. 14 Zac Braunagel 12-1 by major decision.

Venz will face 11-seed Kyle Cochran of Maryland in the first round. Venz downed Cochran 4-2 earlier this season. With a win, Venz will likely face 3-seed Layne Malczewski of Michigan State who pinned Venz’s backup Nathan Haas in Nebraska’s dual against the Spartans.

If Venz gets past Malczewski, he’ll face 2-seed Chris Weiler of Wisconsin in the semifinal round. In the regular season, Venz lost a tight 11-10 decision to Weiler.

If Venz can get past Weiler, he’ll face top-seeded Aaron Brooks of Penn State, the presumptive favorite to win another Big Ten title. The thing about Brooks is that he’s 21-1 in his career. His lone loss was a 9-5 loss to Venz last year in their dual. I mean, Brooks did pin Venz later that year at Big Tens, but Venz is the only guy to beat the Nittany Lion. That’s worth something.

197 pounds

Nebraska’s Eric Schultz (8-0) has earned the top seed at the tournament and looks to make his second straight trip to the Big Ten final. Schultz comes in undefeated with three wins over Top-10 wrestlers.

He’ll start in the quarterfinal round against either 8-seed Matt Wroblewski of Illinois or Gavin Hoffman of Ohio State. Schultz beat Wroblewski 4-1 this season and he should cruise into the semifinal against either 4-seed Cam Caffey of Michigan State or 5-seed Lucas Davison of Northwestern. Schultz beat both Caffey and Davison this season, but both matches were one-point wins so this round will really push Schultz.

With a win, Schultz heads to the final and will likely face 2-seed Myles Amine. Amine just arrived on the scene a couple weeks ago for Michigan. The former 174-pounder, Amine took an Olympic redshirt last season and earned an Olympic Qualification for San Marino with a fifth-place finish at the 2019 UWW World Championships. Before that, he was a three-time All-American and two-time Big Ten finalist. He’s looked good so far up at 197 pounds, so Schultz will have his hands full if he and Amine meet in Sunday’s final.

285 pounds

Nebraska’s Christian Lance (6-3) has been solid all year with some big wins and some tough losses. Unfortunately, he finds himself in the middle of a golden age of heavyweights (as my colleague Todd Wolverton called it in our Big Ten Preview podcast). This field is stacked with some generational talent.

Lance earned the 5-seed this year and will face 12-seed Dorian Keys of Purdue in the first round. Keys is coming off a win, but Lance should have his way with Keys.

Next up would be a quarterfinal matchup against 4-seed Luke Luffman. This would be a rematch of the season-ending match that Luffman won in the second sudden victory period. With a win against Luffman, Lance will face top-seeded Gable Steveson of Minnesota. Steveson beat Lance 23-8 by tech fall to open the year.

No matter when Lance hits the consolation bracket, I expect him to string some wins together.

Final Prediction

This Husker team isn’t only deep, it has some top-shelf talent that can win a title. That’s something Nebraska hasn’t always had in years past. The Huskers will probably need a few guys to outperform their seeds, but I see Nebraska to surprise everyone again and finish second as a team. Nebraska gets an individual champion or two along the way.

One Really Bold Prediction

After having only one finalist a year ago, Nebraska will field four or more this season. Schultz finished second last year and five other Huskers finished third. With Schultz and three of those third-place finishers back and some new blood, this Husker team has multiple guys that could make it to the finals.

Schultz, Labriola and Cronin are probably favored to get there, while Red, Venz, Robb and Lovett have outside shots at a deep run into a finals appearance.

So yeah, I said it: Nebraska will have at least four finalists.