The Penn State Nittany Lions started the 2018-2019 wrestling season atop the pre-season rankings, and, to no one's surprise, Cael Sanderson's squad has held that spot since then. Ohio State, Iowa, Oklahoma State and Michigan have held their spots, too. But it's the middle of the rankings and the remainder of the Top 25 that has provided some intrigue.
Here is a look at five teams who have surpassed expectations this season and put themselves in a position to compete for recognition in the postseason.
The Princeton Tigers have been one of the great comeback stories in college wrestling. Head coach Chris Ayres started his tenure in New Jersey with two back-to-back winless seasons, an 0-17 record in 2007 and an 0-18 record the following year. Now, over a decade later, the same coach has led his program to a Top 25 ranking, guided two athletes to Midlands titles and now looks to send a solid lineup to Pittsburgh next month. The Tigers are 8-6 this year with ranked wins against Lehigh, North Carolina and Virginia. Three of their losses come against top-10 teams, giving Princeton one of the most competitive schedules outside of the Big Ten.
Ayres has made a point all season to say that his team will wrestle "anyone, anytime, anywhere," and he lived up to his words in the New Jersey rivalry dual against Rutgers where he sent out then No. 1 149-pounder Matthew Kolodzik to wrestle then No. 2 Anthony Ashnault of Rutgers. The match ended up being a major decision loss for the junior Tiger, but the contest offered the excitement that Princeton has been known to bring, even in a loss. After a season of top athletes not always wrestling other top guys to protect seeds, Kolodzik earned respect for facing his top-ranked opponent. The Princeton star should still have the top seed at 149 in his EIWA tournament, with Ashnault taking the top seed in the Big Ten, but Kolodzik isn't the only Princeton wrestler to watch come March.
Princeton also has two other wrestlers in the Top 10, with Patrick Glory coming in at No. 10 at 125 pounds, and another Patrick, Patrick Brucki, earning a No. 3 rank at 197 pounds behind two-time NCAA Champion Bo Nickal and two-time Big Ten champion Kollin Moore. Kolodzik and Brucki both took home individual wins at Midlands, the first time a Princeton team has seen two athletes on the top of the podium at the competitive winter tournament; their accomplishments highlight the progress that this team has made over the last several years. Princeton finished fifth as a team at Midlands, its highest finish ever, and for a team that went 2-13 just six years ago, this shows that the program is on the rise and should be watched come March.
Be ready for the Tigers and their top athletes to make a run at the EIWA tournament this year and send multiple athletes to the national tournament in Pittsburgh next month.
Moving from No. 22 in the pre-season poll to No. 12 as of Tuesday, Wyoming has been holding strong in the Top 15 despite graduating superstar NCAA finalist Bryce Meredith. The 16-4 Cowboys have reloaded and have five athletes in the Top 20 heading into the Big 12 tournament, led by No. 9 senior Branson Ashworth at 165 pounds. The two-time NCAA qualifier will be chasing his third tournament bid and aiming to tack on a few more wins to his 28-3 season record. Ashworth's only losses on the year have come against No. 8 Mekhi Lewis, No. 7 Logan Massa and No. 5 Chance Marsteller, and his 28 wins have been a big part of helping the Cowboys surge to a historically successful season. He's also joined on the Top 20 list by junior No. 15 Cole Verner who racking up wins in his first season as a Cowboy starter, No. 12 Montorie Bridges, a redshirt sophomore at 133 pounds looking for a second All-American honor and No. 19 Sam Turner who is a 2018 NCAA qualifier competing in a lighter weight class than last year.
Head coach Mark Branch has guided this deep team to the winningest season under his tenure, posting 16 team wins, just one win short of the school record set in 1967. In this process of reaching this mark, the Cowboys have pulled out ranked wins against No. 10 North Carolina State, 23 Virginia and No. 13 North Carolina. The team finished just 11th at Cliff Keen and 4th at the Reno Tournament of Champions, making the Wyoming squad a group to watch this postseason and into next year.
Doubting the Cyclones in October, before they took the mat for the first time this year, would not have been surprising, but head coach Kevin Dresser has proven that doing so would have been a mistake. Iowa State (8-10 last year and 1-12 the year before) has surged to a 10-2 record and a second place spot in the conference. The Cyclones ranked No. 11 in the latest NWCA poll with five ranked athletes, headlined by No. 5 Willie Miklus at 197 followed closely by No. 9 Austin Gomez at 133. No. 11 Ian Parker sits just outside the Top 10 at 141 pounds, but he should not be ignored as the Big 12 tournament nears.
Though the Cyclones fell in their rivalry dual against the Iowa Hawkeyes, Dresser's team kept the match close, losing by just one point and scoring more points against Iowa than any other team this season. The only other loss on the Cyclone record this year came against No. 2 Oklahoma State, but Iowa State will be put to the test again this weekend when they face No. 5 Missouri. The dual, however, is just a preview to some of the excitement destined to occur when the Cyclones take the mat at the Big 12 tournament. They will not have to face Iowa or Missouri in the conference tournament and will hope to qualify a large squad of wresters for the national tournament in late March. Iowa State has not had more than three All-Americans since 2009, but this year, four athletes sit inside the Top 15 and could make a run for the podium. No. 14 Jarrett Degen nearly earned the honor last year, but missed out after losing in the Round of 12. Look for 149-pounder Degen and his teammates to surprise wresting fans in March and make some noise on the national stage.
The No. 15 Pittsburg Panthers are one of two ACC teams to burst on to the wrestling scene this year and rack up statement wins in the conference and around the country. Keith Gavin, the second-year head coach of the program, has guided his alma mater from a 4-11 record his first year to a 12-3 record this year, with its only three losses coming against No. 2 Oklahoma State, No. 14 Virginia Tech and No. 13 North Carolina. Of Pitt's 12 wins, two came against ranked teams with the highest ranked win coming against conference foe No. 10 North Carolina State. Within the ACC, the Panthers also have a win against Duke, and they'll face Virginia in their final dual before the conference tournament.
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Gavin's squad finished seventh nationally at the Cliff Keen tournament earlier this year, with 133-pounder Micky Phillippi bringing home a second-place honor after dropping to No. 4 Nick Suriano in the finals. Phillippi's Cliff Keen loss is one of just two for the redshirt freshman this year. His 16-2 record, and his big wins over No. 2 Daton Fix as well as No. 20 Gary Wayne Harding, No. 16 Cameron Sykora, No. 6 Luke Pletcher, No. 8 Ethan Lizak suggest that Phillippi could be a national contender in March, when his team hosts the NCAA tournament at PPG Arena. Phillippi's dominance has been a large part of his team's success this year, as he is one of just four ranked wrestlers on the team and the only one inside the Top 10. Taleb Rahmani comes in at No. 10 at 157 pounds while Nino Bonaccorsi holds the same ranking in the 184-pound weight class. Demetrius Thomas rounds out Pitt's ranked wrestlers at heavyweight in the No. 17 spot. All four ranked wrestlers picked up podium finishes at Cliff Keen, and they'll hope to do the same at NCAAs.
The North Carolina Tar Heels came into the season ranked No. 23 in the pre-season poll, but they've proven this year that they belong in the Top 15. An early win over then No. 11 Arizona State on Nov. 11 showed Carolina's strength, and the team carried that momentum through November to pick up a win against Appalachian State and finish 11th at Cliff Keen before dropping to Nebraska 22-15 on Dec. 15. Losses to Indiana and Minnesota slowed the Tar Heels, but they found their spark again against Lehigh and South Dakota State. Big conference wins against Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech have helped give Carolina its 11 wins and strong performances from UNC's three ranked wrestlers have helped them hold their high national ranking.
North Carolina ended last year with a 9-11 record, but that won't be the case for the team this year. Head coach Coleman Scott will guide his team through one more match, a rivalry dual against Duke, before heading to the ACC championship and chase a conference title.
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No. 4 149-pounder Austin O'Connor has led the Tar Heels this year with his 27-3 record, his only losses coming against No. 2 Matthew Kolodzik, No. 3 Micah Jordan and No. 7 Mitch Finesilver. O'Connor is 1-1 against Finesilver this year, and he'll face the Duke senior again this weekend one more time before the ACC tournament. No. 14 Chip Ness at 184 pounds and No. 20 Gary Wayne Harding at 133 pounds round out the ranked wrestlers for the Tar Heels, but those three, combined with their seven fellow starters, have been enough to keep the Heels in the national conversation.
No. 13 North Carolina, No. 15 Pittsburgh, No. 11 Iowa State, No. 12 Wyoming and No. 19 Princeton have solidified themselves as teams to watch this post season, but anything can happen in conference tournaments. If these five teams can perform to their potentials, they could send competitive squads to nationals and score big tournament team points, but they'll need all of their ranked wrestlers to compete at seed-level or higher to make the big impact they're hoping to make next month.