PITTSBURGH — It might seem insignificant to many, but a win in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Championships is a big deal to college wrestlers. Sure, there are those who have already seen the top of the podium, already earning a national title or finishing high up on the medal stand.
But for a few, Friday morning at the 2019 NCAA Championships fulfills a lifelong dream of becoming an All-American, something not easily attained in the grueling sport of wrestling.
For Daton Fix, Oklahoma State’s talented redshirt-freshman at 133 pounds, Friday morning’s win over Missouri’s John Erneste was expected by most. Fix (33-1) has seen the pinnacle of wrestling already in another style, freestyle, winning a Junior World Championship in 2017. Much like Fix, Minnesota big man Gable Steveson, another World champion in freestyle prior to college, his participation in tonight’s semifinals was expected.
For Virginia Tech’s Mekhi Lewis? Perhaps not so much after entering his first NCAA meet as a No. 8 seed at 165 pounds. Iowa’s Alex Marinelli entered unbeaten and as the top seed. But Lewis, who, like Fix and Steveson, claimed a Junior World gold medal in freestyle prior to suiting up in Blacksburg, had no fear and was the better of the two Friday morning in a 3-1 win. The supreme athlete from Bound Brook, N.J., takes a 26-2 mark into tonight’s semifinals.
“I wanted to get out there before the match to soak it all in because it is my first experience,” Lewis said. “I’m grateful to be wrestling in this tournament. As the match was going it was just getting louder and louder to where you can’t hear your coaches, just kind of wrestling on your own. I knew it was going to be a tight match; it was whoever wanted it more. Hand-fighting (against Marinelli) is key.
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“I don’t like to make a big deal out of matches. But it was crazy.”
Lewis squares off with fourth-seeded Evan Wick of Wisconsin tonight.
Oklahoma State senior Preston Weigel thought he might be done with wrestling just a few months ago. In 2017, the Russell, Kan., native earned All-America status at 197 pounds. A year ago, in the first round, a knee injury ended his tournament. He wrestled a brief schedule during the first semester of the 2018-19 campaign and did not return to the lineup until mid-February. He has been dominant since that return and during Friday’s quarterfinals he showed his physical prowess and horsepower with a first-period pin of Purdue’s Christian Brunner. The No. 3 seed takes an unbeaten 14-0 mark into a match with Ohio State’s Kollin Moore tonight.
“I would not have come back if I didn’t feel like I could win a national title,” Weigel said. “Feeling healthy again has be big for me, to have the confidence to know I can go hard for seven minutes if needed.
“I’m not just going (to Pittsburgh) to be an All-American, I’m going there to win it.”
North Carolina rookie Austin O’Connor entered his first NCAA meet with a salty 29-5 record. In an ACC battle at 149 pounds Friday morning, the Lockport, Ill., native beat Duke veteran Mitch Finesilver in overtime to advance to the semifinals and earn All-America status.
“It was important for me coming in as a freshman and wrestling a kid I’d lost to three times this year, beat him one time, so I knew what I needed to do,” O’Connor said. “I got it done and now I’m ready for my next match. I knew the first points (this time) were going to be big.
Freshman Austin O'Connor is into the semifinals! pic.twitter.com/evM3BcSEGo— FloWrestling (@FloWrestling) March 22, 2019
“I wanted to be a part of a program coming up. We had a great recruiting class and I love having those guys around me because we push each other hard in the practice room every day.”
North Carolina currently sits in 15th place in the team standings, thanks mainly to O’Connor and teammate Chip Ness, who took out second-seeded Shakur Rasheed of Penn State Thursday night at 184 pounds, then followed that up with a win over Iowa State’s Sam Colbray in the quarterfinals.
At Iowa, finishing in the top eight is almost required. Sophomore Kaleb Young did not qualify as a 174-pounder in 2018. This season, at 157 pounds, Young takes a 23-5 record into the national semifinals where he meets Nebraska’s Tyler Berger.
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“At Midlands (Northwestern’s Ryan Deakin) kind of beat me up, took me down two or three times,” said Young after his overtime win over Deakin Friday afternoon. “When you get taken down like that it wears on you; I knew I had to turn the tables.
“I had more nerves at the first of the year. I wasn’t letting loose. As the year’s moved on I kind of exorcized some demons and got to my attacks.”
Kaleb Young, a 2019 All-American with a semifinal match tonight: pic.twitter.com/HPcIpphLoQ— Iowa Hawkeye Wrestling (@Hawks_Wrestling) March 22, 2019
Tonight’s semifinals feature 40 wrestlers with sights set on Saturday night’s big stage. Those who lost in today’s quarterfinals must come back to win one match to earn All-America status. Friday morning is big, but so is tonight’s fourth session of the 2019 NCAA Wrestling Championships.
Penn State, with 80 points, leads the team race with Ohio State (66 ½), Oklahoma State (56), Iowa (43 ½), and Michigan (40) rounding out the top five.