Who could have predicted Virginia Tech's Mekhi Lewis running through the 165-pound bracket last year and defeating Big Ten champion Alex Marinelli and two-time NCAA champion Vincenzo Joseph on this way to becoming the Hokies first individual national wrestling champion?
Lewis admitted that everyone except his teammates and coaches saw him as an underdog, but that didn't stop the redshirt freshman. His win was just as unexpected as Northern Iowa's 184-pounder Drew Foster taking down Cornell's Max Dean in his NCAA final to became the first Panther to claim gold at this tournament in almost 20 years. Foster never won a state title, and he posted a losing record his first year in college. But he'll forever be a national champ.
Looking ahead to 2020, there are no safe predictions for the national tournament. These stories from last year show the wrestling season is one wild ride and often it is the unexpected athletes that find their way to the top.
Lower-seeded athletes upset defending champions, stars are injured, redshirts are pulled and intensity increases with every passing week. Winning a national title is so rare that only ten wrestlers in the country achieve the honor every year. Winning more than more title is even more rare, and winning four, well that's only happened four times in NCAA wresting history.
The NCAA tournament offers wild surprises every year, and these are seven bold predictions for the 2020 tournament. But remember, anything can happen in March.
1. Ohio State qualifies all ten starters for the NCAA tournament again
For as dominant as Penn State has been in the last decade, Ohio State has matched that in consistency. The Buckeyes have finished in the top three at the national tournament every year for the last five years, and they'll look to add to that total in 2020. Despite the graduation of 2016 NCAA champion Myles Martin and 2019 NCAA finalists Joey McKenna and Micah Jordan, head coach Tom Ryan and staff have reloaded and are ready for a run at the team title this year. Ohio State was the only team to qualify all ten starters for the tournament in the 2018-2019 season, and while they may not be the only team to achieve that feat this year, the Buckeyes are in a good position to match their total last year and bring all ten guys to Minneapolis.
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Beginning at 125 pounds, Ohio State will likely start NCAA qualifier Malik Heinselman, a sophomore who picked up a junior national freestyle title this summer and will be ready to fight for All-American honors this season. Heinselman finished ninth in the Big Ten tournament last year to earn a bid to the national tournament. He's expected to improve on his 24-11 record this year and be a force for the Buckeyes nationally.
Luke Pletcher, last year's NCAA fourth-place finisher, will return at 133 and has been consistent for his team in duals and the post-season. He should be in the title conversation at 133 this year. The 141 pound spot is a gap for the Buckeyes after the graduation of NCAA finalist and four-time conference champion Joey McKenna, but the Buckeyes have a number of options at this weight. Former 157-pound starter Ke-Shawn Hayes could drop down to 141, head coach Tom Ryan could pull in a newcomer from its talented recruiting class or a redshirt freshman could step in as a fresh starter. Whatever the Buckeyes chose to do at this weight, expect the athlete to be a contender and one who can qualify for the national tournament. The 149 spot is a similar deal, with the graduation of NCAA finalist Micah Jordan leaving an open spot, but redshirt freshman Sammy Sasso could take over this weight class with force and compete for a title.
At 157, the Buckeyes have a hole to fill if Hayes drops down. Freshman Jaden Mattox could fill this position, but Ohio State also has three other athletes listed at this weight on the roster including redshirt junior Elijah Cleary, freshman Kris Ketchum, redshirt freshman Micah Marshall and redshirt junior Aaron Rehfeldt. This could be a tough weight for Ohio State depending on how the newcomers and youth athletes respond to the spotlight and the competitiveness of the Big Ten, and 165 isn't much more secure. Sophomore Kaleb Romero should take over this weight and finally get his chance to shine, but this spot is another one in question. Te’Shan Campbell held this spot last year but has since graduated, making the middleweights the weakest spot for the Buckeyes but a spot they will be working to fill with some fresh faces. At 174, Ethan Smith is back for a second year, and, as an NCAA qualifier last year, Smith should be comfortable battling for an opportunity to compete at the national tournament again.
Myles Martin, a 2019 graduate, will be a huge loss for the Buckeyes in terms of points and leadership. The 2016 NCAA champion led his team with grace and grit, and Ryan will have a hard time finding someone with a presence like Martin. Stepping up to the mat at this weight is expected to be redshirt freshman Gavin Hoffman, who won three open tournaments and posted a 22-3 record during his redshirt season. The only other option for Ohio State right now at that weight is Zach Steiner, though he hasn't seen the action that his teammate has, even in the open tournaments.
At 197 pounds, Ohio State returns NCAA finalist Kollin Moore, and at heavyweight, NCAA qualifier Chase Singletary makes his return after qualifying for the U23 World Team this summer. This lineup is dangerous and the team could match its performance at last year's Big Ten Championships and qualify all ten athletes for the NCAA tournament. Question marks still remain at the middleweights, but Ohio State has rebuilt and reloaded, and the Buckeyes are expected make some noise.
2. Nick Suriano becomes the first wrestler in Rutgers history to win back-to-back titles.
There are no safe bets at 133 pounds, so any prediction at this weight would naturally be bold. Rutgers' senior Nick Suriano will headline the weight class heading into the year given his 2019 national title, but he will face a stacked weight class that includes 2019 senior world team member Daton Fix and 2018 NCAA champion Seth Gross if he wants to repeat. Gross and Suriano wrestled in different weight classes at the 2018 national tournament, with Suriano falling to Spencer Lee in the 125-pound finals and Gross beating Michigan's Stevan Micic in the 133 final. Gross sat out last year recovering from an injury and has since transferred from South Dakota State to Wisconsin. While Gross was working to regain full strength after his injury, Suriano was dominating his weight class. Suriano went 29-3 in his first year at 133 with losses only to Micic, Fix and Iowa's Austin DeSanto.
In the end, however, those losses didn't hold him back, as he took home gold on the big stage in Pittsburgh, but this year is another challenge and potentially an even bigger challenge. The additional of Gross back into the weight class is just one more champion Suriano will have to overcome on his way to making history for Rutgers again, but let's be bold. Suriano has proven himself to be the toughest competitor in this weight class, and doubting him is never a good idea.
3. In a rebuilding year, Penn State struggles to crown an individual national champion for the first time since 2010
The Nittany Lions have become synonymous with wrestling success over the last decade under current head coach Cael Sanderson, winning eight NCAA championships and graduating four three-time NCAA champions. Sanderson has also coached at least one national champion every year during each of his nine full seasons at the helm of the program, but with the graduation of Nolf and Nickal and the plethora of talent across the country this year, 2020 could be a year without a Penn State champ. The Nittany Lions, however, do return three former NCAA champions in their lineup: 2019 NCAA heavyweight champion Anthony Cassar, 2017 and 2018 NCAA champion Vincenzo Joseph and 2017 174-pound NCAA champion Mark Hall. All three of these student-athletes have a good chance to pick up another gold, but there's a possibility all three could be beat in their final tournament runs. They also return fifth-place finisher Nick Lee, who could make a run for the top of the podium, especially now that third-place finisher Jaydin Eierman and 2018 and 2019 champion Yianni Diakomihalis are redshirting.
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Joseph is the lightest of the former champions, and as a three-time NCAA finalist, he'll look to end his career on top. Having won titles as a freshman and sophomore, Joseph dropped the 2019 finals to freshman Mekhi Lewis, a phenom from Virginia Tech. With Lewis announcing his Olympic redshirt, Joseph has one less competitor to worry about, but his quest to another title will still have some challenges. Alex Marinelli, the 2019 Big Ten champion from Iowa, will be back again looking to improve on his seventh-pace finish in last year's tournament and will provide a challenge for Joseph. Marinelli beat Joseph in the Big Ten tournament but lost his chance to compete against the Nittany Lion when he too lost to Lewis. Marinelli had the No. 1 seed heading into the national tournament last year, and the big question is whether or not he can stop Joseph in either the conference or national tournament this year. This weight will be fun to watch, and while Joseph could very well win a third title, last year showed that nothing is guaranteed.
Mark Hall, another three-time Penn State NCAA finalist and freshman champion, will face his biggest challenge at 174 pounds from Arizona State's Zahid Valencia. The Sun Devil senior has beaten Hall in the NCAA finals during the last two seasons and could do the same in 2020, if Valencia doesn't bump up to 184. In the four times that these athletes have wrestled, Hall has won twice, but his two losses came in the NCAA tournament. This weight class could go either way, but if Valencia tops Hall again, Penn State is down a national champ. Hall is also eligible for a redshirt this year, and if he chooses to take it, the 174-pound spot will be filled with a less seasoned athlete lacking Hall's resume.
Three weight classes above Hall is Cassar, who is the favorite in his weight class this year after running through the bracket in 2019, but he'll face familiar foe Gable Steveson at the weight again. Cassar beat Steveson both times they wrestled, but nothing is harder than defending a national title. Though Cassar will enter as the favorite in his weight, if he is not able to win his bracket and Penn State doesn't pull off an upset in either of the other nine weights, the Nittany Lions could leave Minneapolis next year without an individual champ. It's never a good idea to doubt to Nittany Lions, and they could very well have three or more individual national champs. But, it's also possible that not a single wrestler in the Blue and White will top the podium, and that's what will make 2020 so interesting.
4. Fresno State football player Josh Hokit earns his second wrestling All-American honor
A two-sport athlete at Fresno State, Josh Hokit became the first All-American for Fresno State since the school reinstated its wrestling program two years ago. He'll look to become the school's eighth multiple-time All-American with a top-eight finish again this year. In 2019, Hokit ran through a difficult 197-pound bracket to earn a spot in the fifth-place match where he beat four-time NCAA All-American Willie Miklus to earn his top-five finish. Now the versatile grappler is back again, looking for a podium finish for the second year in a row.
Listed as 225 pounds on the Fresno State football roster, Hokit is a force on the gridiron and has recently made a switch back to the linebacker position that he played as a freshman. He filled a running back role last season and helped elevate Fresno State to a conference championship, a win that came just 20 days before his first wrestling match of the season. The retuning wrestling All-American is expected to redshirt his football season this year to ease the transition from the field to the mat, and he could compete at 197 pounds or heavyweight in November. If he opts wrestles 197, Hokit has a high probability of finishing in the top three, now that Penn State's Bo Nickal and Oklahoma State's Preston Weigel have graduated. Whether or not Hokit follows his incredible year last year with another trophy, his story is one to watch, and it's certainly not too bold to say he's a podium contender again.
5. All ten Iowa wrestlers earn All-American honors
The last team to have ten All-Americans in a single NCAA tournament was Minnesota in 2001, but this Iowa roster looks like it could produce the same result. Assuming two-time NCAA champion Spencer Lee does not take his redshirt at 125 pounds, he'll be a favorite to win the weight class again. Former high school rival and lightweight All-American teammate Austin DeSanto will be expected to make his own title run at 133, though his weight class includes two defending national champions and is considered one of the deepest weights. At 141, the Hawkeyes have a Round of 12 returner in Max Murin, but Murin is training with some of the best in the country in his wrestling room, and after two trips to the NCAA tournament without a trophy, he's ready for his breakout year. All-Americans Pat Lugo, Kaleb Young and Alex Marinelli are the likely starters at 149, 157 and 165, with Marinelli in the title conversation already after winning the Big Ten tournament last year and picking up the No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament that same year. The 174-pound spot is where the lineup is expected to deviate from last year's starter list after the graduation of NCAA qualifier Mitch Bowman. If Michael Kemerer is healthy and can step into the spot, he brings All-American experience into this weight class and could be a top-eight contender again too.
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Cash Wilcke and Jacob Warner, staples in last year's lineup, are expected to return for their senior and redshirt sophomore years respectively, with Wilcke chasing his first All-American honor and Warner looking for his second. Warner finished seventh in last year's tournament and the graduations of Bo Nickal, Preston Weigel, Ben Honis and Willie Miklus free up the weight class even more. Wilcke will also benefit from the graduation of several All-Americans in his weight class including 2019 champion Drew Foster, 2016 champion Myles Martin and 2019 placewinners Chip Ness, Emery Parker, Zach Zavatsky and Ryan Preisch. If the Hawkeye upperweight can crack the top eight, he could help Iowa put ten wrestlers on the podium and become the first team to do so in almost 20 years. At heavyweight, the Hawkeyes graduated 2018 All-American Sam Stoll, and looking to fill that spot will likely be redshirt freshman Anthony Cassioppi. The young grappler lost just two matches during his redshirt season and won the Grand View Open, Lindenwood Open, UNI Open and Loras Open during his first year with the team. Now, with the heavyweight spot open, Iowa will be looking for Cassioppi to not only pick up major wins in his first year as a starter, but also qualify and place at the NCAA tournament.
6. Utah Valley finishes with at least two Big 12 champions for the first time in school history
Utah Valley wrestlers made their mark on the national scene last year when then-sophomore Matt Findlay won the Elite 90 Award and then-junior Demetrius Romero became the first Big 12 champion in school history. With those two honors on their resumes, these athletes and their teammates will set out to add to these accolades with another banner year in 2020. Both Findlay and Romero finished in the Round of 12 last year at the NCAA tournament, just one win shy of All-American honors. History, however, is still being written for the Wolverines.
Congrats to Tate Orndorff for capping his weekend with an 8th-place finish in Freestyle at the U23 World Team Trials. Orndorff previously won the U23 Greco Tourney on Friday to land a spot on the U.S. National Team & a trip to the World Championships. #GoUVU #UVU #AkronWTT19 pic.twitter.com/JhroWkZs0s— UVU Wrestling (@UVUwrestling) June 2, 2019
Four additional athletes joined Romero and Findlay at the national tournament last year, a program record, and those wrestlers included Tanner Orndorff, Kimball Bastian, Will Sumner and Tate Orndorff. Findlay and Romero will be hoping to break through a pick up All-American honors next year, but another up-and-coming star to watch will be Tate Orndorff, the younger of the two brothers. Orndorff, who finished in the Round of 16 in last year's tournament, will enter the 2019-2020 season as one of the top Big 12 heavyweights in the country. He and Romero are the pre-season favorites to win their respective weight classes at the conference tournament this spring, and if they can, they'll solidify themselves as Utah Valley champions. Orndorff has also had a busy summer, winning the U23 Greco World Team Trials and earning the chance to represent Team USA at the UWW World Greco Championships. Utah Valley has never had two Big 12 champions in one year, and before last year, they had never had one conference champion. Romero broke that streak to earn gold at 165 pounds last year, and now he'll look to bring a teammate up with him.
7. Trent Hidlay and Hayden Hidlay become the first two brothers to earn All-American honors for North Carolina State in the same year
Wrestling runs in the family, and for the Hidlay brothers, so does success. North Carolina State junior Hayden Hidlay is aiming for his third All-American honor this year after finishing second and fourth in his first two years with the Wolfpack, but now he'll have some extra motivation behind him. Younger brother Trent, who is currently competing on the U.S. Junior World Team in Estonia, redshirted last season and finished with a 24-2 record with his only losses coming against multiple time NCAA All-Americans Joe Smith and David McFadden. Trent is expected to join the lineup this year at 184 pounds with his older brother just a few weight classes below him at 157 pounds.
More than twenty athletes have earned All-American honors for the Wolfpack since 1971, but no two brothers have ever earned the honors, never mind earning them in the same year.
The Hidlays are the second set of brothers on the North Carolina State roster this year, as the Bullard twins will both be juniors as well. Both Thomas and Daniel Bullard qualified for the NCAA championships this year, and if they can achieve the same feat this year along with the Hidlays, the Wolfpack could have two sets of brothers — and two chances for two brothers to All-American — in Minneapolis. Hayden Hidlay will enter the season as one of the top-ranked 157-pounders after the graduation of Jason Nolf and Tyler Berger from last year, while Trent will enter the year near the top of the championship conversation as well. The younger Hidlay has not been tested in an NCAA postseason like his older brother, and he'll be an interesting name to follow as the season progresses. The international experience, and the opportunity to continue to train with some of the best in the country in Raleigh will only help Trent improve on his already impressive redshirt year.