It is March, meaning wrestling season hits its primetime. St. Cloud State won a Division II title in Cleveland, and Augsburg claimed top honors at the DIII Championships in Virginia. Pittsburgh hosts the DI Championships, March 21-23. As if the reigning kings, Penn State, need any more help, the wrestling-crazy fans in Pennsylvania might just be treated to an historic three days.
The NCAA record for points in a tournament is 170, that coming in 1997, Dan Gable’s last year as head coach at Iowa. Oklahoma State scored 153 points in 2005 with five individual champions. Does PSU have six NCAA champs? Here are the candidates: Nick Lee (27-2), Jason Nolf (26-0), Vincenzo Joseph (23-1), Mark Hall (26-0). Shakur Rasheed (19-0), Bo Nickal (25-0), and Anthony Cassar (25-1). Nolf, Joseph, Hall, and Nickal have already claimed seven titles over the last three seasons. No team has ever had six individual NCAA champions at an NCAA Tournament. That is what the field is up against.
Big 12 champion Oklahoma State made a late-season shift in its lineup and has potential. Ohio State battled PSU blow-for-blow in 2018 and was second-best. Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Nebraska saw PSU’s power at the Big Ten Championships last weekend in Minneapolis. MAC champion Missouri and ACC king North Carolina State, plus always contending Cornell, are among a short group of teams who could challenge. There is a given heading into the 2019 Championships: BONUS POINTS are required to be in the conversation.
1 – PENN STATE: All the chatter is done. Unbeaten in duals, again, and winners of the rugged Big Ten Championships by 30 points, Penn State is the team to beat in Pittsburgh next week at the 2019 NCAA Championships. Were the Nittany Lions perfect at the Big Tens? No. But this squad does not have to be perfect to out-duel any of the contenders. Jason Nolf (157), Mark Hall (174), Bo Nickal (197) and Anthony Cassar (285) claimed titles, and Vincenzo Joseph (165) fell in the finals. Cassar gave Minnesota superstar Gable Steveson his first collegiate loss. The trifecta of Nolf, Hall and Nickal, are a combined 77-0. Joseph, Cassar, and 184-pounder Shakur Rasheed, who defaulted his Big Ten finals bout, have combined to win 67 of 69 matches this season. The numbers speak for themselves. Nine Nittany Lions qualified for the NCAAs, and that group will be favored to win an eighth team title in nine years. Can this team set records? Can anybody make a run at head coach Cael Sanderson’s group?
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“We’re happy being the Big Ten champions,” Sanderson said post Big Ten Championships. “It’s important to us and something to be pound of, but the goal is to be a national champion in two weeks.”
2 – OKLAHOMA STATE: The Cowboys won a seventh straight Big 12 Conference title, outdistancing the field by over 40 points and qualifying nine in the process. Nick Piccininni (31-0 at 125), Daton Fix (31-1 at 133), Preston Weigel (11-0 at 197), and Derek White (28-1 at 285) are serious about getting to the finals, and Jacobe Smith (27-3 at 174) and Dakota Geer (25-5 at 184) could cause some problems in Pittsburgh. Kaid Brock (141) and Joe Smith (165) have each been All-Americans twice, while Kaden Gfeller (28-4 at 149) is a talented rookie. OSU has not won an NCAA title since 2006 and takes nine to Pittsburgh. Where a few Cowboys are seeded will be discussed before, during, and after the brackets are released on Wednesday.
3 – OHIO STATE: Ohio State made a run in 2018, but came up short. Are the Buckeyes as good as last season’s squad that included veterans Nathan Tomasello and Kyle Snyder? Probably not, but head coach Tom Ryan has plenty of experience and NCAA point potential with nine qualifiers. Unbeaten Myles Martin (20-0 at 184) and Micah Jordan (25-2 at 149) lead the pack with Joey McKenna (20-2 at 141), Kollin Moore (19-2 at 197) and Luke Pletcher (23-5 at 133) also ready for a high finish. Ohio State will have to get something from its “others” in order to challenge. The last team other than Penn State to win a title? Ohio State in 2015.
4 – IOWA: Alex Marinelli moved to 23-0 with a win over PSU’s Joseph in the Big Ten final at 165 pounds last weekend, leading the Hawkeyes to a third place finish overall. Marinelli, just a sophomore, has been strong all season and heads to Pittsburgh as the probable top seed. The 2018 NCAA champion Spencer Lee (18-3 at 125) was pinned by OSU’s Piccininni and fell to Northwestern’s Sebastian Rivera in the Big Ten final. Head coach Tom Brands has a solid lineup with the volatile Austin DeSanto (18-4 at 133), Kaleb Young (20-5 at 157), Cash Wilcke (21-6 at 184), and Jacob Warner (17-4 at 197) all fighting for the podium. Heavyweight Sam Stoll, who started the year ranked No. 1, will look for an at-large bid to Pittsburgh with a 9-5 record. Winners of 23 NCAA titles, Iowa will have to wrestle well above its seeds to raise the trophy.
5 – MISSOURI: Are the Tigers ready to make a run? Putting men in the finals is required, and head coach Brian Smith has bonus-point machine Jaydin Eierman (23-3 at 141) and three-time All-American Daniel Lewis (24-1 at 174) to lead a team that won an eighth straight Mid-American Conference title last weekend. For MU to challenge, or to finish inside the top five, senior John Erneste (18-4 at 133) and rookie Brock Mauller (29-2 at 149) will have to have a strong weekend at nationals. Eight Tigers qualified for Pittsburgh. MU has finished sixth, fifth, and sixth at the last three national meets.
6 – MINNESOTA: Minnesota freshman heavyweight Gable Steveson took his first loss in 31 matches at the Big Tens, but, most agree, he will bounce back. The athletic big man leads a Gopher team that wrestled well in front of the home folks in Minneapolis last weekend. Sean Russell (26-4 at 125), Ethan Lizak (28-5 at 133), Mitch McKee (20-5 at 141), Steve Bleise (17-7 at 157), and Devin Skatzka (26-8 at 174) all had good weekends and head to Pittsburgh with momentum. The Gophers were 17th a year ago after finishing seventh in 2017. Like Missouri, Nebraska, and Michigan, it will require Gophers wrestling above their seeds to finish inside the top five.
7 – NEBRASKA: The Big Red qualified seven for the NCAA Championships. Two Huskers, Chad Red (19-11), who made a nice run through the 141-pound bracket, and Tyler Berger (24-3 at 157) each lost in the Big Ten finals. Isaiah White (20-7 at 165), Michael Labriola (26-6 at 174), and Taylor Venz (21-7 at 184) will be tough outs at the NCAAs next week. NU has finished inside the top 10 four straight seasons; in 2008 and 2009 NU was fourth. Head coach Mark Manning’s group will be right in the thick of things after finishing behind Penn State, Ohio State, Iowa, and Minnesota at the Big Tens.
8 – MICHIGAN: Maybe the most dangerous of the contenders. The Wolverines have unlimited potential and the ability to score a lot of points, but slipped to sixth at the Big Tens. Stevan Micic, unbeaten in the monster 133-pound class, won a pair of matches at Big Tens, but defaulted out; will he remain the No. 1 seed? Myles Amine (17-3 at 174) has been ranked among the top three all season, while Alec Pantaleo (18-7 at 157) and Logan Massa (20-5 at 165) have the ability to beat anybody. Kanen Storr (24-6 at 141) is also dangerous. UM was fourth in 2018. It will require a better effort than seen at the Big Tens if they are to repeat that performance.
9 – CORNELL: With just six in Pittsburgh there is little margin for error and head coach Rob Koll’s Big Red. A runner-up finish to Lehigh at the EIWA Championships last weekend saw three champions and three runner-ups. The always entertaining Yianni Diakomihalis (24-0 at 141) and Max Dean (21-5 at 184) joined under-the-radar 133-pounder Chas Tucker (27-4) as champions. Rookie 125-pounder Vitali Arujau (26-2) is also one to watch.
“Those six guys are six guys who all can place,” Koll said. “And a good national championship makes a (loss at the EIWAs) go away really quick.
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“I don’t think we’ve ever had six that are going to be seeded in the top 12 in the country. It doesn’t win an Eastern tournament, but it can score a lot of points for a national championship.”
Congratulations to all of our wrestlers who wrestled hard and competed this weekend at the EIWA Championships. We couldn’t be more excited to travel and compete at the NCAA Championships in Pittsburgh. #YellCornell #LGR 🐻🔴⚪️ pic.twitter.com/VUYQ4dvZ4G— Cornell Wrestling (@BigRedWrestling) March 10, 2019
10 – NORTH CAROLINA STATE: The Wolfpack held off a good Virginia Tech team to win the ACC title last weekend. Three claimed titles led by 2018 NCAA finalist Hayden Hidlay (20-2 at 157); Jamel Morris (22-3 at 141) and Malik McDonald (18-9 at 197) also won ACC gold. The key for NC State is Sean Fausz (11-2 at 125), Justin Oliver (18-5 at 149), and Nick Reenan (15-4 at 184), who all could cause major problems in their brackets. Head coach Pat Popolizio continues to build a quality program, leading the team to a tie for fourth at the 2018 NCAAs.
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The best of the rest: Lehigh, Iowa State, Wisconsin, Rutgers, Northwestern, Virginia Tech