The Penn State domination narrative hung over the wrestling world at the start of the 2018-2019 wrestling season, and the Nittany Lions have continued to live up to their hype with two months to go. Cael Sanderson’s No. 1 ranked team has wrestlers leading four of the ten weight classes, three of whom are defending national champions and one who is a 2017 champ and 2018 NCAA finalist. Hodge contender Bo Nickal looks to dominate the 197-pound weight the same way he took over 184, and teammate Jason Nolf holds the same tight grip on 157. Vincenzo Joseph’s success at 165 shows a similar pattern, and Mark Hall, the current 174-pound top-seed could top the podium if he can take down defending national champion Zahid Valencia again.
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Throw in the names of a few more heavy-hitters, Michigan senior Stevan Micic at 133 and Ohio State senior Myles Martin at 184, and college wrestling may seem to be controlled by the big-name veterans, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The first two-thirds of the season have showcased upset after upset, as well injuries, strategic starts and highlight-worthy falls. This has been the year of the unexpected, and outside of Penn State and its top-ranked guys, the NCAA tournament is anyone’s game.
The real questions are: who has had an unexpected season? Which athletes have surprised the wrestling world? These are 5 wrestlers whose big wins and top 20 rankings have surpassed expectations so far this year. Look for these five to continue fighting for a podium finish in their weight classes as the conference tournaments near.
Rocco Caywood, 197, Army West Point
An Army senior, Rocco Cayward currently ranks No. 4 on the Intermat standings at 197 pounds, a valuable position for the 2018 NCAA qualifier. Cayward went 20-14 last year at 197 and finished seventh at the EIWA tournament to earn his first ticket to the national tournament through at at-large bid; this year, he could be poised for an even bigger run.
His most impressive win this year has come against Iowa’s No. 5 Jacob Warner at the Midlands tournament, the same tournament where he suffered one of his three season losses to Lucas Davison of Northwestern. Since Midlands, however, Caywood has stayed undefeated against Penn, Brown, Binghampton, Wyoming and American, bringing his season record to 19-3 with more EIWA competition still ahead. If the weight class allocations stay the same, Caywood will need to finish in the top six in the EIWA tournament at 197 pounds to book his spot to Pittsburgh, and, with No. 4 national ranking, all he has to do is hold on.
Mitch Finesilver, 149, Duke
Duke's Mitch Finesilver has experienced the thrill and heartbreak of the NCAA tournament, qualifying as a freshman, sophomore and junior, but missing the podium by one match in his last two years. Now, in his final campaign, Finesilver is chasing the All-American title that has eluded him thus far in his career, and he's on the perfect path to accomplish such a goal. Ranked No. 6 on the Intermat rankings in a fairly open weight class, Finesilver has the chance to make some noise at 149 this year. His three losses this year have all come to top-ranked athletes, and the experienced that he's gained this year, as well as of the course of his four-year career as a Blue Devil give him the tools to chase that podium spot.
Finesilver's certainly not an unknown wrestler in the ACC, and he did earn a Top-8 pre-season ranking, but Finesilver's lived up to and exceeded expectations this year. His runner-up finish at the Southern Scuffle, and his semifinal win over Penn State's No. 11 Brady Berge, shows that he can compete under pressure on the big stage, and he looks ready to take that confidence into March. With his three brothers competing along with him in the Blue Devil starting lineup, Finesilver is showing why he's a name that needs to be remembered. His recent big win over North Carolina State's No. 8 Justin Oliver suggests that Finesilver is finding his rhythm at exactly the right time, and now all he needs to do is maintain the intensity, find his shots and carry his success through the national tournament.
Ian Parker, 141, Iowa State
Ian Parker has been the steady, dependable winner for the Iowa State Cyclones this year, surging to a 19-2 record with four ranked wins on the season. His most recent victories, a 4-3 decision over No. 13 Dom Demas and a 6-3 decision over No. 15 Kaid Brock, earned him Big 12 Wrestler of the Week honors. Though Parker still has a big slate of top-ranked matchups ahead of him, a two-loss record heading into February is not a bad place for sophomore to be right now.
A former 133 pounder, Parker has excelled at 141, a more natural weight for the redshirt sophomore. He remains undefeated in duals, with his next test coming against No. 14 Matt Findlay of Utah Valley on February 3. Parker finished last season with nine losses and a fifth place finish at the Big 12 tournament, a solid performance but not enough to qualify him for the NCAA championship. Ranked No. 11 on Intermat as of January 28, Parker could be in contention for not just a ticket to the Pittsburgh but a chance to put himself on the podium.
Tristan Moran, 141, Wisconsin
In his first year as a starter for the Badgers, No. 6 Tristan Moran has made a statement at 141-pounds. He took an early loss against Buffalo during Wisconsin’s first dual, but since then, he’s lost just four duals and racked up 18 wins, the most notable ones coming against No. 6 Josh Alber and No. 7 Nick Lee. Moran pinned Alber in the third period of his match in the Cyclone Open and ended the tournament with a second pin against Tristain Lara of Northern Iowa. His winning streak continued up until the Utah Valley dual in mid-November when he dropped 10-5 to No. 14 Matthew Findlay. Moran's only other losses on the season came against No. 2 Ohio State in the dual against the Buckeyes and then two additional losses at the Midlands tournament. Since December, however, Moran has stayed undefeated in a competitive Big Ten schedule that puts him against ranked wrestlers almost every week.
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His most recent win, a fall against Minnesota's No. 10 Mitchell McGee sent a message that he is here to compete, and compete for an All-American spot. Moran will have a tough schedule ahead of him, and a bid to the NCAA tournament in his weight class is no guarantee. However, the 18-5 Badger's statement wins show that he has the potential to be an unexpected star in March.
Austin DeSanto, 133, Iowa
Was Austin DeSanto underestimated? Probably not, but he’s worth including on this list because of the noise he’s noise he’s made at what is possibly the deepest weight class in college wrestling. The Iowa transfer made it to the Bloodround last year before dropping to Scott Delvecchio and then losing in the consolation round to narrowly miss All-American honors his freshman year. Initially ranked No. 10 in the Intermat rankings to start the season, DeSanto has climbed his way into the top three with crucial ranked wins against No. 4 Nick Suriano, No. 8 Ethan Lizak, No. 19 Dylan Duncan, No. 14 Ben Thornton.
His one loss of the season came against No. 9 Austin Gomez in the Iowa- Iowa State dual, but DeSanto has not lost since and seems to be on a warpath for the podium. Tom Brands knew the 133-pounder would come in and be a force for the Hawkeyes (after all, he did hand Iowa 125-pounder national champ Spencer Lee his only loss in high school), and now the only surprise from DeSanto moving into March would be if he doesn’t earn a podium spot.
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