The collegiate wrestling schedule shifts into second gear this week as the annual tournament gatherings in Illinois and Tennessee commence. The Midlands and Southern Scuffle finish 2018 and kick 2019 off with a bang as some heavy hitters are expected to attend both. Will top-ranked Penn State and No. 3 Oklahoma State go head-to-head (with starters) at the Scuffle and will No. 4 Iowa claim yet another Midlands trophy? Perhaps the biggest question as we head toward January is whether everyone can get and stay healthy. Injuries have won the day the first semester; teams have had to shuffle dual lineups weekly.
1 – PENN STATE: Unchallenged so far, the Nittany Lions have outscored four opponents, 177-9. Do the math and it shows PSU has won 37 of 40 individual bouts in dual meets. Up next, head coach Cael Sanderson’s squad competes at the Southern Scuffle, Jan. 1-2, in a field that includes Oklahoma State, North Carolina State, Virginia Tech and Lehigh, among others. Will everyone bring a full complement of starters? If PSU does, that means four top-ranked individuals — Jason Nolf (157), Vincenzo Joseph (165), Mark Hall (174), and Bo Nickal (197) — will take the mat. It’s been a broken record so far this season, but this PSU squad might be better than the 2017 group that won five individual NCAA titles.
2 – OHIO STATE: Off the mat since a Dec. 9 victory over Wisconsin, the Buckeyes don't return until Jan. 6 when a good North Carolina State team visits St. John Arena in Columbus for an ESPN2 national telecast. The key for Tom Ryan’s troops is not what Luke Pletcher (133), Joey McKenna (141), Micah Jordan (149), or Myles Martin (184) does in March, but what the rest of the team does. Two youngsters, 165-pounder Kaleb Romero and heavyweight Chase Singletary, could be key to any championship run.
3 – OKLAHOMA STATE: Reno’s Tournament of Champions provided minimal challengers as the Pokes claimed top honors in seven weight classes. There is a logjam in John Smith’s lineup that includes a trio of All-Americans in Chandler Rogers, Joe Smith, and Jacobe Smith. At Reno last week Joe Smith competed for the first time this season at 174 pounds. Another All-American, Preston Weigel, suited up once in December, pushing Edinboro transfer Dakota Geer up to 197. Somebody will have to sit out with Rogers, Joe Smith, Jacobe Smith, Geer the most likely scenario from 165 through 197 pounds. The Scuffle provides another opportunity to figure some things out. It also gives the Cowboys an up-close look at the No. 1 team in the country.
4 – IOWA: The big December news around Iowa City is Mitch Bowman’s move from 184 down to 174 pounds. Bowman, a senior, is not a reincarnation of Mark Perry, but certainly gives the Hawkeyes a good, veteran option in a lineup that can ill afford to have any holes. Spencer Lee (125), Kaleb Young (157), and Alex Marinelli (165) have been the best this season, with transfer Pat Lugo (149) still trying to find consistency. The health of All-American heavyweight Sam Stoll and the progress of rookie 197-pounder Jacob Warner will depend the level of Iowa's success in March.
5 – NORTH CAROLINA STATE: Since arriving in Raleigh, head coach Pat Popolizio has not backed down from any challenge. North Carolina State remained unbeaten in duals with a thrilling 18-17 victory over visiting Nebraska, Dec. 16. In need of a technical fall entering the final bout (133 pounds), Tariq Wilson whipped NU’s Tucker Sjomeling, 18-2, to give the Pack the win. The return of 125-pounder Sean Fausz strengthens the lineup and 184-pounder Nick Reenan, a redshirt a year ago, continues to climb the rankings. This weekend, NC State wrestles in the South Beach Duals in Ft. Lauderdale against Wyoming, Purdue, Utah Valley and Indiana. Circle Jan. 6 … a trip to Columbus awaits.
6 – MICHIGAN: The Wolverines were fifth at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational to start December and will have had nearly a month break before next taking the mat January 3 at Oregon State and January 5 at Arizona State. The dual with the Sun Devils should be very competitive and should provide a Zahid Valencia vs. Myles Amine matchup at 174 pounds (Valencia was champion and Amine third at the 2018 NCAA Championships). It is not a matter of talent in Ann Arbor, but how first-year head coach Sean Bormet’s group competes at the Big Tens and NCAAs in March. 141-pounder Kanen Storr had a strong first semester and could cause problems in the weight class the rest of the way.
7 – MISSOURI: It required some dramatics, but Missouri moved its dual win streak to 26 with a 23-21 victory over Virginia, Dec. 20. Rookie 149-pounder Brock Mauller, now a starter with All-American Grant Leeth lost to injury, picked up a decision, and three-time All-American Daniel Lewis scored a first-period pin in the dual’s final bout to secure victory. Easily the best program in the Mid-American Conference, the Tigers' schedule includes duals with Lehigh, Purdue and Cornell this weekend at the South Beach Duals, and February dates with Arizona State, Oklahoma State and improving Iowa State. There is a good chance Missouri takes a 34-match win streak to Tempe for the Feb. 8 dual.
8 – CORNELL: The addition of Vitali Arujau at 125 pounds and a full-time Yianni Diakomihalis at 141 pounds proved big in Cornell’s 17-14 win at Northern Iowa on Dec. 16. Max Dean upended Drew Foster in the dual and continues his up-and-down 2018-19 campaign. The Big Red face North Dakota State, Wyoming, Missouri and Indiana at the South Beach Duals and open January with a battle against EIWA rival Lehigh in Bethlehem, Pa. What head coach Rob Koll’s squad looks like in March remains to be seen.
9 – MINNESOTA: Lehigh and North Carolina await the Gophers in Ft. Lauderdale this weekend. A loss to Oklahoma State is UM’s only blemish first semester with superstar heavyweight Gable Steveson highlighting the first two months. The Big Ten schedule opens with home duals against Rutgers (January 6) and Iowa (January 13) so wrestling fans will see just how good this Gopher team is. UM might not be able to challenge for top honors, but expect a return to the top 10 at the NCAAs.
3⃣-time NCAA Qualifier— Minnesota Wrestling (@GopherWrestling) December 22, 2018
"The goal I have set for myself is a national title. I've had that goal since I was six years old and that has not ever changed."
Get to know the #Gophers Sean Russell in his final season! ⬇️https://t.co/QfuU0qXZh8
10 – WISCONSIN: The Badgers won four bouts in a 23-13 loss at No. 2 Ohio State on Dec. 9, and return to the mat this weekend at the Midlands. How’s this for a January docket? At Rutgers, at Penn State and home against Northwestern and Minnesota. There are plenty of great matches in there with Evan Wick and Vincenzo Joseph, two of the best 165-pounders in the land, hopefully squaring off on Jan. 13 inside Rec Hall on the campus of Penn State.
Next five – Arizona State, Nebraska, North Carolina, Rutgers, Lehigh