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Shannon Scovel | NCAA.com | August 1, 2019

25 returning college wrestlers to watch in the 2019-20 season

The 2019-2020 wrestling season means the return of 2019 NCAA champions Spencer Lee, Nick Suriano, Yianni Diakomihalis, Mekhi Lewis, Zahid Valencia and Anthony Cassar, along with nearly 50 other 2019 All-American wrestlers. This year's field breeds a whole new set of storylines and excitement with all eyes on Minneapolis for the 2020 wrestling championship.  

FILM STUDY: Relive how Spencer Lee beat Jack Mueller in the 2019 NCAA finals

Penn State won the team race last year with 137.5 points behind championship performances from Cassar, Jason Nolf and Bo Nickal, but the graduation of Penn State's three-time NCAA champions Nolf and Nickal left an opening in the 157- and 197-pound weight classes for the Nittany Lions. Those points will be missed by head coach Cael Sanderson and company, but a new set of incoming and returning talent is anxious to fill those spots. Ohio State, Oklahoma State and Iowa all also earned trophies in Pittsburgh last year and those teams have restocked with new top elite wrestlers and will be aiming to take down the defending champs. 

Here are 25 returning wrestlers to watch, including at least two athletes from each weight class. Incoming freshman are not included on this list. These athletes are in weight class order but are not ranked specifically. They were selected based on previous NCAA tournament performance and potential to finish near the top of the podium in 2020. 

Spencer Lee, Iowa, 125 pounds

Watch Spencer Lee earn both of his takedowns against Jack Mueller in the NCAA finals

Two-time NCAA champion Spencer Lee returns for his junior year looking for his third consecutive trip to the top of the podium, and he'll be the favorite heading into the 2019-2020 season. Lee fought for his spot last year after taking losses to Sebastian Rivera and Nick Piccininni prior to the national tournament, but he once again proved he's Mr. March. Piccininni and Rivera both return this year and will aim to take down the champ, and they proved last year that Lee is beatable. However, if Lee wrestles like he did in last year's tournament, he could be in a good position for a three-peat. And as Lee said in his press conference following his 2020 win, he can't be a four-time champ until he is a three-time champ. 

 

Jack Mueller, Virginia, 125 pounds

If Mueller can stop Lee and the rest of the strong 125-pound weight class this year, he'd be Virginia's first national champion in program history. Mueller went undefeated his entire junior season until his championship bout against Lee, where he took the 5-0 loss. Now, in his final season, Mueller will be looking for revenge. The senior Cavalier will be an ACC leader at 125, and he's the only 2019 All-American returning in his conference at this weight. Mueller's biggest win last year came against top-seeded Sebastian Rivera from Northwestern in the NCAA semifinals, and that match, combined with his 21-1 record and conference championship, makes him a name to watch again in this year's 125 battle. 

 

Sebastian Rivera, Northwestern, 125 pounds

Rivera became the first wrestler to defeat NCAA champion Spencer Lee in 15 matches when he topped the defending champion Hawkeye 7-3 at the Midlands Tournament in December 2018 , and that win set the stage for a successful sophomore winter. Rivera won every regular season dual he wrestled last season with the exception of a loss to Stevan Micic after bumping up to 133 for the Northwestern-Michigan dual, and he also took home the Big Ten title. His accomplishments during the season earned him the top seed in the NCAA tournament, but a loss to Mueller in the semifinals put him the third-place match where he beat Vitali Arujau for the bronze, two spots lower on the podium than he expected. Rivera will look for another dominant regular season and conference tournament, but Lee will be back to challenge him once again. Five of the six other All-Americans at 125 last season also return which means contenders Arujau, Piccininni, Patrick Glory and Rayvon Foley will be on the mat battling for the top spot. The 125-pound weight class will be loaded, but Rivera should be near the top of the mix. 

 

Seth Gross, Wisconsin, 133 pounds

Gross wins first title for Jackrabbits

For the third time in his collegiate wrestling career, Gross will have a different university name across his singlet, this time the bold white letters of Wisconsin. The 2018 NCAA champion sat out the 2019 season with a back injury after winning the tournament at 133 pounds the previous year, and he’ll return looking to end his career on top. Gross’ transfer from South Dakota State to Wisconsin, and his journey back to the mat, creates an interesting storyline in one of the deepest weight classes in the country. If Gross can stay healthy and find the same rhythm that he did under head coach Chris Bono back at South Dakota State, the senior could go out a champion again. 

 

Nick Suriano, Rutgers, 133 pounds

RUTGERS WRESTLING: Nick Suriano and Anthony Ashnault win national titles and make school history

One of the biggest threats standing in the way of another title for Gross is 2019 NCAA champion Suriano. The Rutgers workhorse made history for his school last season when he became the first wrestling national champion for the Scarlet Knights after topping redshirt freshman Daton Fix 4-2 in the championship final. Now Suriano will look to defend his crown at 133 pounds and end his career on top of the podium again. A national finalist in 2018 at 125 pounds, Suriano has established himself as a dangerous lightweight, but he’ll face challenges from Fix again as well as Gross and the five other 2019 NCAA All-Americans at this weight class. 

 

Daton Fix, Oklahoma State, 133 pounds

Oklahoma State's Daton Fix reads heartfelt letter from his parents

Fix was ten seconds away from winning at national title at the 2018 NCAA wrestling championship when the referees called a stalemate, and Suriano escaped Fix’s hold to force a second sudden-death overtime. Now the Oklahoma State sophomore returns for revenge, and after a successful summer that culminated in a World Team spot, Fix is ready to take on Suriano and the rest of the 133-pound weight class. The sophomore Cowboy lost just twice last season — once in the finals to Suriano and once in the regular season to Micky Phillippi — but he has the potential to ruin Suriano's senior sendoff and deny the Scarlet Knight a second title this time. Both times those two athletes have wrestled, the match has gone to a second tie-breaker, and given the controversial way the finals match ended last year, there is no doubt Fix is aiming for a different result in 2020. 

 

Yianni Diakomihalis, Cornell, 141 pounds

Letter to future wrestlers, from Yianni

Diakomihalis will be the man to beat at 141 pounds after winning his second national title at the 2019 tournament with a 6-4 sudden victory win over Ohio State senior Joey McKenna. The Cornell junior also put up an impressive summer showing, winning the U.S. Open over three-time NCAA champion and two-time Hodge Trophy winner Zain Retherford. Without McKenna at 141 pounds, Diakomihalis will be the clear favorite, with his biggest challenges coming from Oklahoma’s Dom Demas and Penn State’s Nick Lee, both opponents that he has easily handled in the past. Looking for his third title in three years, Diakomihalis should be in a solid position to fight for the top spot once again. 

 

Nick Lee, Penn State, 141 pounds

Lee has been Mr. Consistency for Penn State the last two seasons, finishing fifth at the NCAA championships in 2018 and 2019 and posting a 67-12 career record as a Nittany Lion. Wrestling in the shadows of Anthony Cassar, Jason Nolf and Bo Nickal last year, Lee didn't always receive the spotlight that his wrestling would normally have earned, but now, Lee could be in contention to chase a title in his weight class and bring some more attention to lighter weights on the Penn State lineup. Lee's run in the 2019 NCAA championship included wins over Nate Limmex, Sa'Derian Perry, Max Murin and Mitch McKee, but his losses against Oklahoma's Dom Demas and Ohio State's Joey McKenna ultimately ended his championship quest with a second fifth-place finish. McKenna graduated, but Demas and 2019 champion Diakomihalis return, creating a fun, young weight class, with Lee right in the middle of the championship conversation. 

 

Dom Demas, Oklahoma, 141 pounds

The top-three ranked pre-season athletes at 141 present an interesting situation, as none of these three athletes come from the same conference. Demas, for his part, owned the Big 12, picking up a conference title with a viral inside trip and earning a No. 9 seed in the national tournament. On the big stage in Pittsburgh, Demas barreled past Mitch Moore, Kanen Storr, Matthew Findlay and All-Americans Kyle Shoop and Nick Lee on his way to a fourth-place finish. Third-place finisher Jaydin Eierman is expected to take an Olympic redshirt, opening up the weight class even more for Demas. The young Sooner really hit his stride in February of his redshirt freshman campaign, not losing a match for six weeks before taking an L against eventual 2019 national champ Diakomihalis in the quarterfinals of the national tournament. Now back for his redshirt sophomore year, Demas will be a threat at 141 again and will look for a shot at the national finals. 

 

Austin O’Connor, North Carolina, 149 pounds

Talk about peaking at the right time. North Carolina's O'Connor finished third in last year's NCAA tournament after entering the tournament as a sixth seed, advancing to the semifinals and then wrestling back with wins over Brock Mauller and Mitch Finesilver. O'Connor will enter this season as the likely No. 1 seed in the weight class following the graduation of national finalist Micah Jordan and 2019 champion Anthony Ashnault. Fourth-place finisher Mitch Finesilver also graduated this spring, leaving just O'Connor and Princeton's Matthew Kolodzik remaining from last year's top five. As a sophomore in what is an increasingly competitive ACC conference, O'Connor has the opportunity to do some damage at 149. He'll face higher expectations, but after finishing third as a freshman, he's shown he knows how to perform when the pressure is on. 

 

Matthew Kolodzik, Princeton, 149 pounds

The graduation of Ashnault breaks open the 149-pound weight class and creates an easier path to the top for Princeton's three-time NCAA All-American Kolodzik. A man familiar with expectations and success, Kolodzik held the No. 1 seed in this weight for the first half of last season and picked up a win at Midlands, but a major decision loss to Ashnault in the Rutgers-Princeton dual dropped him in the standings. Now, he will enter this year as the likely No. 2 pre-season rank behind O'Connor, but Kolodzik has an equal chance to challenge for the championship title. The senior Tiger has been breaking records for Princeton since his arrival on campus, becoming Princeton's first freshman All-American in 2017, Princeton's highest NCAA finisher since 2002 in 2018 and the first three-timer in 2019. A national championship would be the cherry on top of a tremendous, legendary career in the orange and black for Kolodzik. 

 

Brock Mauller, Missouri, 149 pounds

Aside from having one of the most intense last names in wrestling, Mauller also has the ability to make another podium run this year and finish even closer to the top. As a freshman, the Tiger grappler finished sixth in the national tournament with just five losses in his entire season. Two of those losses came against Kolodzik, two came against Iowa State's Jarrett Degen and one came at the hands of Austin O'Connor. Mauller's resume is impressive for a young star, and another year of training in the Missouri wrestling room will only improve his chances of making a title run. Mauller wrestled open tournaments only for the first half of the year, but after having his redshirt pulled in December, he went on a run, picking up 12 wins before the first loss to Degen. Mauller's a MAC champion at 149 pounds, and he'll be one to watch in the weight class this year as he begins his sophomore campaign. 

 

Hayden Hidlay, North Carolina State, 157 pounds

Hidlay finished fourth in the 2019 tournament, but his most memorable moment came in the semifinals match against then-two-time NCAA champion Jason Nolf. Hidlay nearly scored a takedown in the first period against the Nittany Lion to take a 2-0 lead, but the referees overturned the call. He then went for a winning takedown in the final seconds of the third period but couldn't finish his move and dropped down to the consolation semifinals where he faced No. 3 Ryan Deakin of Northwestern. Hidlay handled Deakin before losing to Alec Pantaleo of Michigan in the third-place match. The Wolfpack junior now returns for another attempt at the NCAA title, and with the graduation of Nolf and Pantaleo, he will be one of the top contenders at this weight class. Hidlay has proven himself to be a consistent force at 157, finishing second his freshman year and fourth his sophomore year. 

 

Ryan Deakin, Northwestern, 157 pounds

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Deakin’s summer performance reinforced his strength on the mat, and with another year of experience under his belt, the 2018 NCAA All-American is back for more. Deakin won the 2019 U.S. Open this summer with an upset win over World Team Member James Green 8-6 to earn a spot at Final X, but after dropping his two World Team Trials matches to Green, Deakin's senior world team hopes slipped away. With folkstyle season coming back, however, Deakin is in a good position to make another championship run at 157 pounds. Nolf and Nebraska's Tyler Berger have both graduated, leaving the field more open for Deakin, Hidlay and the other stars at this weight. The Northwestern senior finished sixth in last year's tournament after a loss to Kaleb Young in the quarterfinals and then another loss to the Hawkeye in the fifth-place match, and he'll have to battle Young again this year if he wants to reach the top.

 

Vincenzo Joseph, Penn State, 165 pounds

A two-time NCAA champion, Joseph has earned his place in the 165-pound title contention conversation, and he'll battle this year for the right to call himself a three-time champ. The Penn State senior fell to Virginia's Tech's Mekhi Lewis in an upset loss during the NCAA finals last year, so he'll look for revenge in his final national tournament. In addition to chasing a championship, Joseph will aim to pick up his first Big Ten title, after dropping to Isiah Martinez his first two seasons and then losing to Iowa's Alex Marinelli in the 2019 conference championship. Joseph and fellow Penn State senior Mark Hall became the first two freshman national champions in program history when they won their titles in 2017. Both dropped their finals matches last year, but winning together in their final tournament would be the perfect way to Joseph and Hall to wrap up their careers with the Blue and White. The only other Penn State wrestlers to win three titles? Jason Nolf, Bo Nickal, Ed Ruth and two-time Hodge Winners Zane Retherford. 

VIRGINIA TECH WRESTLING: Mekhi Lewis captures first national title for the Hokies after taking down Vincenzo Joseph

 

Alex Marinelli, Iowa, 165 pounds

The two-time NCAA All-American entered the 2019 NCAA wrestling championship with high expectations. As the No. 1 seed in the tournament and the 2019 Big Ten champion, Marinelli was picked by many analysts as the man to beat in the national tournament. His title run came to end after a loss in the quarterfinals to Virginia Tech freshman phenom Mekhi Lewis. He then lost to Lock Haven's Chance Marsteller before beating Northern Iowa's Bryce Steiert in the seventh-place match. Marsteller now has a sixth- and a seventh-place finish at the national tournament, but he showed the talents and capabilities of a champion over the course of his regular season. The test for Marinelli will be whether or not he can string together the right wins on the big stage next year and walk away with the national championship trophy that he's missed out on the last two years. 

 

Mekhi Lewis, Virginia Tech, 165 pounds

The 2019 NCAA Wrestling tournament Most Outstanding Wrestler will return to the mat for his sophomore season looking to defend the national title that he won in dramatic fashion as a freshman in PPG Paints Arena last March. Lewis, a New Jersey native and Junior World Team champion, shocked the wrestling world when he stopped No.1 seed Alex Marinelli in the national tournament, earned a spot in the finals and took down two-time champion Vincenzo Joseph. Lewis made Virginia Tech history, becoming the program's first champion. The only thing harder than winning a national championship is defending it, just ask Mark Hall, and Lewis will see Marinelli and Jospeh again this season, along with the rest of the deep 165-pound weight class. He's the man to beat, but he'll need another incredible season to pull off that same feat. Watch for Lewis to tear through the ACC and battle in some fun duals at Cliff Keen, Southern Scuffle and the NCAA tournament. 

Mekhi Lewis shocks Vincenzo Joseph to win first title for Virginia Tech

 

Mark Hall, Penn State, 174 pounds

Hall came in as a freshman for the Nittany Lions in the 2016-2017 season and made an immediate impact, winning an individual title his first year and earning runner-up honors the following two seasons. With one more shot at a championship trophy, Hall will enter his senior campaign with his eyes on the prize. Standing in his way is the same rival who has stopped him the last two years: Zahid Valencia. The Hall-Valenica rivalry is one for the books, as the two 174-pounders have battled in the NCAA finals for the last two years, with Valencia taking both wins. Hall beat the Arizona State grappler in the Penn State-Arizona State dual last fall in Rec Hall, and he also beat him in the 2017 NCAA semifinals; he'll have one last chance to take down his opponent this year on an NCAA stage. A two-time Big Ten champion, Hall owns this weight class among East Coast teams, now the question is whether or not he can re-stake his claim to the national title in March and end his career as a two-time champ. 

THROWBACK: Hall plays recorder mid-interview for worthy cause at Big Ten championships

 

Zahid Valencia, Arizona State, 174 pounds

Valencia has taken just one loss in his three trips to the NCAA tournament. As a freshman, the Arizona State star dropped to Mark Hall in the semifinals of the 174-pound weight class and then won his consolation matches to finish third. The following two years, he stormed through the bracket and stood on top of the podium as a national champ. Valencia has one more season in the Maroon and Gold, and he'll be the favorite this year, but he'll need to keep his eye on Hall. The Penn State senior gave Valencia one of his only two losses last year (the other coming against now-graduated Daniel Lewis of Missouri), and he's been responsible for two of Valencia's five collegiate losses. These two will have one more year to battle in college, and if they do take the mat against each other, it will be must-see action. Valencia could go up a weight, to 184 pounds where he wrestled as a redshirt freshman, but that remains to be seen. Regardless, he's a standout wrestler and national-champion contender to watch again this year. 

Zahid Valencia vs. Mark Hall: Every takedown and the final escape in the 2019 NCAA finals match

 

Max Dean, Cornell, 184 pounds

Max Dean earned perhaps one of the biggest wins at the 2019 NCAA wrestling championships when he took down No. 1 -seeded Myles Martin from Ohio State in the semifinals. The Cornell then-sophomore squeezed out a 5-4 win over the 2016 NCAA champion to earn a spot in the finals against Drew Foster of Northern Iowa. Foster ultimately took down Dean to win the title, but now that the Panther champion has graduated, 184 pound could be Dean's weight class. The Cornell program continues to rise in caliber, and now, as a junior, Dean has another chance to leave a mark of greatness on his Big Red legacy. As a freshman, Dean finished eighth in the national tournament, and improved to second as a sophomore. He'll enter the 2019-2020 season with a big target on his back, but with four-time NCAA champion and Hodge Trophy winner Kyle Dake as well as his two-time NCAA champion brother Gabe Dean in his corner, Dean could be dangerous again as a veteran 184-pounder.

 

Shakur Rasheed, Penn State, 184 pounds

Rasheed was expected to be a title contender at 184 pounds in 2019, but a series of injuries kept him off the mat for multiple key duals, including the Big Ten championship final against Myles Martin where he ultimately medically forfeited. After receiving another year of eligibility due to his injury, Rasheed will make his return to the Penn State lineup, where he could fit at 184 pounds, or, depending on the way the lineup falls, may bump up to 197 pounds. The veteran Nittany Lion took two early losses in the 2019 NCAA tournament and missed out on All-American honors last year, but he has placed as high as seventh previously in the national tournament and could make a title run if he stays healthy and wrestles to his potential. Rasheed is a wild card, given his health history and limited wrestling last season, but he’ll be one to watch in the upper weights this year. 

 

Kollin Moore, Ohio State, 197 pounds

Moore was the second-best 197 pounder all season last year, and if not for Bo Nickal, Moore would have had a dominant season and perhaps an NCAA title. The Buckeye grappler posted a 23-3 record in his junior campaign, losing only to the Nittany Lion champion. Moore's biggest challengers this year will come from Princeton's Patrick Brucki, who finished fourth in last year's tournament, and potentially Kyle Conel, if the Kent State transfer is granted a year of eligibility to compete for Penn State. Conel pinned Moore in the 2018 tournament and advanced to finished third, while the Ohio State then-sophomore took fourth, despite being favored to win. This could be Moore's year to bring an individual title back to Columbus, and the Buckeyes will need his points if they aim to make a team run as well. Experienced, poised and talented, Moore will be the biggest name in the weight class this year and certainly one to watch. 

 

Patrick Brucki, Princeton, 197 pounds

Like teammate Matthew Kolodzik, Princeton's Patrick Brucki is set up for another breakout year. Brucki qualified for the NCAA tournament as a freshman and won his first-round match before making an early exit in the tournament. The following year, however, he jumped levels and finished on the podium in fourth. With Bo Nickal and third-place finisher Preston Weigel graduated, all that stands in Brucki's way of a championship is NCAA finalist Kollin Moore, a powerhouse at 197 and someone that Brucki has lost to in major-decision fashion twice. If the Princeton junior continues to improve, he could threaten Moore, but he'll need to compete in a different way to achieve that goal. Princeton has been a team on the rise, and a team anxious to always wrestle the best competition, so watch for Brucki to open the season hard and carry that intensity through the final match of the 2020 NCAA tournament. 

 

Gable Steveson, Minnesota, Heavyweight

Steveson entered the collegiate wrestling world with force last fall, winning the Daktronics Open and the Bison Open before starting his dual season off against Oklahoma State. The young star then picked up a big early win against Derek White before going on to win the Cliff Keen Invitational and make himself known as a top threat at the weight. Steveson accumulated a 27-0 record in the regular season to enter the Big Ten tournament undefeated, and he started his postseason run with a win over Sam Stoll in the conference tournament. Steveson ultimately fell to Cassar in the Big Ten championships to finish second, and he lost to Cassar again in the NCAA tournament to finish third. Entering his sophomore season, Steveson has just two career losses, both to Cassar and both in the postseason. 

 

Anthony Cassar, Penn State, Heavyweight

The Champ is back. Penn State's breakout heavyweight from last season returns for another year. The senior earned an extra year of eligibility because of previous injuries that held him from competing at full health in previous years. Cassar shocked the wrestling world when he took down freshman phenom Gable Steveson in the Big Ten finals and then went on to beat Steveson again in the NCAA tournament semifinals to earn a shot against top-seeded Derek White from Oklahoma State in the finals. White had beaten Cassar previously in the year, and, at the time, Cassar did not know he would be receiving his extra year of eligibility. The finals were, in theory, a battle between seniors. Cassar topped White to claim his first NCAA individual title, and now he faces the challenge of defending the crown. The Penn State squad will look different without Nolf and Nickal, but one thing is now certain: Cassar will be back, and he'll be back on a mission. 

RELIVE THE MAGIC: Here's how Anthony Cassar earned his trip to the NCAA finals

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