When wrestling aficionados threw out their versions of “who to watch” lists before the 2011-12 season started, George Ivanov and Chad Hanke were probably not at the top of the list.

The Reno Tournament of Champions, an annual pre-Christmas tournament, quickly put the duo in the conversation. Hanke, taking an Olympic redshirt this year, will remain a bit under the radar until next November when he takes the mat as a senior for Oregon State. Ivanov, on the other hand, is thinking about big things when wrestlers take the mats after the short holiday break.

Ivanov, a two-time Division II All-American for Nebraska-Omaha, transferred to Boise State after the UNO program was eliminated following a run of three consecutive DII team titles last March. Earlier in December, he won the 157-pound title as he knocked off Oklahoma State’s Albert White, Oregon State’s RJ Pena and Binghamton’s Justin Lister at Reno. Lister was under the radar before he rolled to a fourth-place finish at the 2010 NCAA Championships.

The transition from Division II to Division I is never easy.

“I think the biggest change is in the room [and] if they can hold up,” Boise State head coach Greg Randall said. “The grind is tougher, the workout partners are tougher and the coaches are tougher. Everything in the practice room is harder to adapt to. There have been some really good Division II wrestlers that have performed well at the Division I level.

On the lookout

Some of the top talent in the country will be hitting two tournaments this weekend. A number of under-the-radar wrestlers will also be looking to get their name out there as well. Check out the action.

Midlands Championships
Southern Scuffle

“George is different. Not only is he from DII but he’s Bulgarian. So he has a different style and a different attitude. We really enjoy him. He works hard in his own way, not really a grinder yet, but he does really well.”

Ivanov brought his talents to the United States and wrestling-rich Iowa. As a senior at Lewis Central High School he was third at the Iowa state meet, compiling a 54-1 mark. Before heading to UNO, Ivanov was a double All-American in freestyle and Greco-Roman at the FILA Junior National Championships.

“It was good that I went to Iowa, to learn a style that I hadn’t seen,” Ivanov said. “[Nebraska-Omaha] was great. Coach [Mike] Denney was amazing. The staff was great. It really helped me develop.”

At the 2010 Division II Championships as a freshman, Ivanov lost in the final. Last March, after getting upset in the first round, the Bulgarian battled back to win three matches and take third.

His goals as a first-year starter in Division I?

“Once you hit a high level, the goal is always to be a national champion,” Randall said. “George has always been a winner, competing at a high level. You can’t have a goal less than being a national champion. If you don’t achieve that goal then you say All-American, but you have to shoot for the top spot.”

Added Ivanov, “I feel like I’m finally getting to my level. There are a lot of people who feel that Division II guys aren’t very good. They come at you 100 percent in the beginning, so it’s hard to prove yourself. I’m starting to feel more comfortable against these guys.”

The staff at USA Wrestling and fans of freestyle already know the talent level of Hanke, a former three-time state champion from Oregon. In three seasons at Oregon State, however, there have been plenty of victories (75) but no top-eight finishes at the NCAA Championships. In three seasons, the docket shows just one NCAA tournament, that coming last season as a junior.

His performance in Reno gave notice to 285-pounders.

One of the biggest changes for Hanke is the weight classification. Making 197 pounds was never easy. Last summer he was runner-up to World bronze medalist Jake Varner at the 2011 World Team Trials -- at 211.5 pounds.

“I’m not going to use that as an excuse, but it wasn’t easy making 197 pounds,” Hanke said. “I’ve gotten tired in matches in the past because of being at the lower weight. I feel really good where I am right now and I’m starting to do some of the things I felt I could always do.”

He showed it at Reno. As a 285-pounder, he knocked off Oklahoma State’s Alan Gelogaev and Arizona State’s Levi Cooper on his way to the final where he forfeited to teammate Clayton Jack.

“He was a 197-pounder last year which was tough for him,” Oregon State head coach Jim Zalesky said. “He’s getting better and better and putting on some weight. He’s one of those guys who’s a bit too big for 197, so he’s putting on some weight so he can wrestle heavyweight next year.

“Qualifying for that Olympic redshirt was a good thing for him. It’s going to give him another year of development which never hurts.”

Hanke can’t wait to get back on collegiate mats -- after making another run at the World Team next summer.

“I have big expectations,” Hanke said. “All it took was one tournament [University Nationals] for me to realize I was at a more appropriate weight. I kept the momentum going and it carried into the [World Team] Trials last summer. I’ve kind of gotten the ball rolling, and beating a couple of guys like I did [at Reno TOC] gets my name out there in the NCAAs.

“There are a lot of people who probably think I’m only any good in freestyle, but again, I think [Reno] shows that I can compete collegiately and with some of the top heavyweights.”

No doubt a few other under-the-radar wrestlers will be identified as wrestling returns to the mats. It could start as soon as this weekend with major events like at the Midlands Championships in Illinois and Southern Scuffle in Tennessee, among others around the country.

Maybe we'll see another wrestler to keep an ey on like Ivanov, who will join Boise State as it faces Arizona State and No. 14 Nebraska in Tempe, Ariz., on Dec. 29 and plays host No. 2 Oklahoma State on Dec. 30.