Make a quick rundown of national rankings, regardless of which service used, and you will not find many freshmen. That’s normal at the Division I level. Yes, there have been plenty of first-year starters on the medal stand and a few national champions as well.
Just last March, Ohio State’s Nathan Tomasello beat West Virginia freshman Zeke Moisey on the big stage at 125 pounds. Isaiah Martinez, a freshman for Illinois, won the NCAA title at 157 pounds. A fourth freshman, Ohio State’s Kyle Snyder, advanced to the 197-pound final. A few others, including Iowa’s Brandon Sorensen and Buckeye 165-pounder Bo Jordan, received plenty of attention.
What about this year’s crop? After two-plus months of the 2015-16 campaign it is safe to say there is plenty of rookie talent floating around the DI ranks.
It starts in State College, Pennsylvania, where Jason Nolf and Bo Nickal made Southern Scuffle statements and added an exclamation point over the weekend in Champaign, Illinois. Nolf improved to 21-0 when he stunned Martinez and ended the Illini sophomore’s 54-match win streak.
Nickal (21-1) pinned top-ranked Zac Brunson late in their 174-pound battle. Combined, Nolf and Nickal have 17 pins this season.
“A lot of people say ̒oh, try and keep it close’ but I’m here to win … you have to attack the same match every way,” said Nolf, a native of Yatesboro, Pennsylvania.
Nickal, from Allen, Texas, suffered a surprising loss after taking over the top spot at 174 due in part to his victory over Cornell’s Brian Realbuto in Chattanooga. Nickal is sure to move back to No. 1, giving Penn State most likely four top-ranked individuals. Zain Retherford (149) and Morgan McIntosh (197), both unbeaten this season, are also No. 1.
“This is great,” Nickal said after the dual. “I love it. I love my team and coaches. It was a great environment (in Champaign). It was good to get a nice team win here today.”
PSU head coach Cael Sanderson knows a thing or two about talented freshmen, himself being one of the few to finish unbeaten and win a national title as a redshirt-freshman for Iowa State.
“They (Nolf and Nickal) both did a great job against top competition,” Sanderson said. “We’re just real consistent, we focus on effort and we enjoy the opportunity we have; that’s kind of our foundation.”
Nolf and Nickal are not the only rookie hot shots.
• Oklahoma State’s Joe Smith has two losses in 28 matches, one to Martinez at the Reno TOC in December and to Nolf in the finals of the Southern Scuffle. The son of Cowboy head coach John Smith, Joe completed his high school career at Stillwater High in May 2015 and was originally set to redshirt this season. Instead, he’ll be right in the mix at 157 pounds.
• Stanford 141-pounder Joey McKenna is another in a long line of talent emanating from Blair Academy in New Jersey. He is 16-1, the only loss coming to Oklahoma State’s Dean Heil in the Scuffle finals. McKenna should get another shot at Heil in a Feb. 14 dual in Stillwater.
• Missouri’s Daniel Lewis showed his talent by riding Oklahoma State’s Alex Dieringer for over four minutes in a 4-3 loss last Friday. Lewis, an Illinois product, is 17-4 at 165 pounds and ranked fifth.
• There has been a little water under the bridge since you last heard of Tanner Hall. The Arizona State freshman finished his high school career in 2011, winning his third state title for Meridian High School in Idaho. He made two Junior World Teams in freestyle, beating current World champion Kyle Snyder in the finals of the 2012 U.S. Junior World Team Trials.
Almost two years off the mat followed as Hall fulfilled his Morman mission in Uganda. Now, a bit older and wiser, Hall (19-8) checks in at No. 9 in the first NCAA coaches’ panel rankings released last Thursday.
McKenna is not the only talented rookie 141-pounder. Micah Jordan (Ohio State), Tommy Thorn (Minnesota), and Soloman Chisko (Virginia Tech) are all capable of making noise in New York City.
Big duals galore
No. 4 Missouri’s 37-match win streak ended at No. 5 Oklahoma State last Friday. The Cowboys won 7 of 10 bouts in a 23-9 victory that included Nolan Boyd’s 7-2 victory over fourth-ranked All-American Willie Micklus at 184 pounds.
“The streak was nice … but those first two matches we just gave away. (OSU) earned them, but we had big opportunities to win them,” MU head coach Brian Smith said. “They beat us on top all night. We know what (OSU) is going to do.
“But I’m glad we were exposed tonight. It’s January and you need to identify those things and correct them.”
Second-ranked Iowa continued its solid dual season with wins over Purdue and No. 11 Nebraska in Lincoln on Sunday. Against the Huskers, Iowa (13-0) earned seven decisions in a 21-11 outcome. It was UI’s 19th-straight Big Ten dual win. They host rival Minnesota this Friday.
Cornell’s EIWA win streak ended at 47 when No. 6 Lehigh beat a depleted Big Red squad in Ithaca, 25-13, Saturday night. CU was without top-ranked Nahshon Garrett (133, injury) and Gabe Dean (184, illness).
• After going 0-10 in 2014-15 and starting this season 0-11, the Campbell Camels, under first-year head coach Cory Kolat, could not go for a second straight victory last Friday against Gardner-Webb due to the nasty weather that hit the East Coast over the weekend. Campbell broke its 22-match losing streak Jan. 15 at VMI.
• Last Friday, Buffalo took advantage of a forfeit at 141 pounds to beat Old Dominion, 19-15. Trailing 15-12, Buffalo’s James Benjamin beat Austin Coburn, 3-2, in a third overtime tiebreaker, and Jake Gunning majored Andrew Snyder at 285 in the dual’s final bout.
• VMI hosts the All-Academy Championships in Lexington, Kentucky, this Saturday. The Air Force Academy won its first title in 12 seasons, edging Army by 3.5 points last season.
• Harvard and Columbia meet for the 85th time this Friday. The Lions have won five of the last six meetings and own a 50-32-2 series advantage dating back to 1923.
• Oklahoma State’s 38-3 win over Iowa State on Sunday was the largest margin of victory in the series since 1949.