The bright lights. The big stage. Two athletes, two schools and one trophy per weight. This is the scene waiting for twenty athletes at 2020 NCAA finals this year in March, but the excitement of the college wrestling season isn't limited to that one tournament.
Rivalries will be reignited in just a few months as the athletes begin their early season duals against conference and non-conference foes. While most teams have not finalized their schedules for the 2019-2020 year, these are ten of the best college wrestling matches we hope to see this season.
125 pounds: Spencer Lee vs. Sebastian Rivera
When the 2018-2019 wrestling season started, Iowa's Spencer Lee held firmly onto the No. 1 ranking at 125 pounds. He had won the 2018 NCAA championship, earned Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors the previous year and was the pre-season favorite to earn the title again. He looked unbeatable.
Enter Sebastian Rivera. The Northwestern then-sophomore lightweight plowed through the 125-pound bracket at the Midlands Tournament in December and topped Lee in the finals 7-3 to deliver the Hawkeye his first loss since the 2018 Big Ten tournament. After finishing sixth in the national tournament the year before, Rivera was the new man to watch at 125 pounds, and he was on a mission to take that title away from Lee. The two athletes did not wrestle each other at the Iowa-Northwestern dual, but they met again at the 2019 Big Ten tournament with Rivera taking the W again over Lee for the second time that season. Rivera won the conference title and claimed the No. 1 seed at the NCAA tournament. His chase for gold, however, ended after Virginia's Jack Mueller took him down in the national semifinals. The man later beat Mueller? Lee. Iowa's 2018 champ picked up another individual title and stayed perfect on the national stage. Rivera should have a number of chances to pick up more wins against Lee, but what he really wants is a chance to top the Hawkeye in late March.
133 pounds: Nick Suriano vs. Daton Fix
Defending NCAA champion Nick Suriano and 2019 senior World Team member Daton Fix have only wrested each other twice so far in college, but both times they've gone to battle, these two lightweights have put on a show. Fix topped Suriano 3-2 in a second tie-breaker during their first contest in January of 2019, but Suriano reversed the outcome at the national tournament. The Rutgers then-junior made school history when he beat Fix 4-2 in sudden victory to earn the first individual national title for his program.
Both of these scrappy, elite wresters return, and the wrestling world is waiting for their next meeting. Fix has had a busy summer, winning Final X at 57kg and earning a spot on the senior world team. Surino didn't wrestle at World Team Trials or Final X, but he did take down Joe Colon in Beat the Streets, proving he's still the same gritty wrestler that won a national title. Rutgers fans would love nothing more than for Suriano to win another title and re-write the Scarlet Knights record books one more time before he graduates. Cowboy supporters, however, will be itching for Fix to earn revenge and pick up a first-place trophy next March.
141 pounds: Nick Lee vs. Dom Demas
For the last two years, Penn State's Nick Lee has wrestled in the shadows of three-time national champions Bo Nickal and Jason Nolf, but this year, the spotlight is on him. A two-time fifth-place finisher, Lee returns for his junior season chasing the national title that he has missed in his last two national tournaments, but a familiar opponent returns.
Oklahoma's Dom Demas, who finished fourth in last year's tournament, quietly racked up over twenty wins throughout the season before running through the Big 12 bracket and earning a conference title at 141 with a dangerous inside trip. Demas then took down Lee in the NCAA consolation semifinals to advance to the third-place match. He ultimately dropped to Missouri's Jaydin Eierman for third, but his All-American run still made headlines and set him up for an even more dominant sophomore campaign. Lee and Demas may not see each other again until the NCAA tournament, but as two highest returning finishers from last year's tournament, they will be the ones to watch. Both want gold, and a Demas-Lee NCAA finals would give wrestling fans the intensity they crave.
149 pounds: Brayton Lee vs. Sammy Sasso
Sammy Sasso of Ohio State and Brayton Lee of Minnesota won't be the two highest ranked wrestlers at 149-pounds in the pre-season, simply because they haven't wrestled in the national tournament yet. But when these two wrestlers do face each other for the first time as starters for their respective teams, the match will be one to watch. Sasso, a two-time Pennsylvania state champ, finished his redshirt year with a 19-2 record, and one of those losses came against former All-American and then-teammate Micah Jordan. Lee posted a 26-7 record in his redshirt year for the Gophers, but his most recent loss came against Sasso in February at the Edinboro Open. Lee and Sasso's rivalry has heated up in recent months, with Sasso winning UWW Junior Freestyle Nationals, but Lee winning Junior World Team Trials and earning the right to represent team USA in Estonia. With their redshirt seasons behind them now, Lee and Sasso are both expected to start for their colleges and will enter an exciting 149-pound weight class.
In a quest for a national title, Lee and Sasso will face challengers in Austin O'Connor and Matthew Kolodzik, but if these two freshmen could work their way to the finals, they'd create wild experience for fans. Last year's NCAA final at this weight featured a classic battle of veterans with sixth-year senior Anthony Ashnault topping Ohio State senior Micah Jordan for the title, but now the age representation could be reversed. It's possible that this year's national championship match at 149 pounds could feature two young grapplers aiming to start their careers with a national title.
157 pounds: Hayden Hidlay vs. Ryan Deakin
The 157-pound weight class this year has some similarities with 141 pounds in that the national champ and national runner-up have both graduated, and the next two athletes in both weights have a combined three All-Americans honors between them. At 157 pounds, North Carolina State's Hayden Hidlay make a remarkable run to the podium his freshman year before finishing second to Penn State's Jason Nolf. The following year, Hidlay met Nolf again, this time in the semifinals, and he nearly stopped the Nittany Lion. Nolf, however, held off Hidlay and sent him down to the consolation bracket. The next wrestler he faced was none other than Northwestern's Ryan Deakin. Hidlay beat Deakin comfortably 8-2 and went on to finish fourth, while Deakin ended up sixth on the podium. With these two wrestlers returning and the top three wrestlers graduated, all eyes will be on the remaining All-Americans, including Deakin and Hidlay.
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Another fun wrestler to watch in this weight will be Iowa's Kaleb Young, who beat Deakin in sudden victory to finish fifth. Hidlay has never wrestled Young, while Deakin is 1-1 against the Hawkeye. The 157-pound weight class won't be the same without Jason Nolf, but Deakin, Hidlay and Young have been known to put up some captivating performances and will be three of the new stars to watch. Deakin has also already turned some heads with his U.S. Open win, if he can carry that momentum into the season, he'll be a threat not only to Hidlay and Young but the rest of his weight class as well.
165 pounds: Alex Marinelli vs. Vincenzo Joseph
Penn State's Vincenzo Joseph knows what it's like to stand on the biggest stage in college wrestling and face both defeat and victory. A two-time national champion, Joseph suffered his first NCAA tournament loss last year against Mekhi Lewis in the finals to finish second overall and bring his overall record to 84-8. This year, in his final season in the Blue and White, Joseph is looking for one more title. He's one of the favorites in the weight class and will be one of three Penn State starters with a national title on his resume. His team needs him to score big points, and he has a history of doing just that against everyone he wrestlers. The only person in this year's weight class that Joseph has taken a loss to: Alex Marinelli.
The Bull. 2019 B1G Champ. pic.twitter.com/pTZx94fqtH— Iowa Hawkeye Wrestling (@Hawks_Wrestling) March 10, 2019
Marinelli, known as "The Bull" to Iowa fans for his toughness and strength, defeated Joseph in 2018 at the Iowa-Penn State dual, and he beat the two-time champ again at the 2019 Big Ten championship to rob Joseph of a conference title. They have never wrestled each other at the NCAA tournament, but after Marinelli earned the No. 1 seed in last year's tournament, wrestling fans started envisioning a Joseph vs. Marinelli NCAA final. However, the Iowa star fell in the quarterfinals to Virginia Tech's Mekhi Lewis, the eventual champion, sending Marinelli down to the consolation bracket where he would ultimately finish seventh. With Lewis taking an Olympic redshirt year this season, Joseph is the highest-placing returner by nature of his second- place finish to Lewis in last year's national tournament. But Marinelli will be right on his heels, and this could be the year we see these two athletes go head-to-head on the national stage. Regardless of how the national tournament plays out, Marinelli and Joseph could wrestle at the Penn State-Iowa dual and the Big Ten tournament again. The NCAA tournament finals, however, would be the perfect end for this collegiate rivalry.
174 pounds: Mark Hall vs. Myles Amine
Coming up with a dream matchup opponent for Mark Hall, now that Zahid Valencia is expected to bump up to 184, is challenging. Hall has just five losses in his collegiate career, two against Valencia and three against now-graduated wrestlers. He's an NCAA champion, a two-time NCAA finalist and a two-time Big Ten champion who has faced very little competition on his way to earning these accolades. In his final season, Hall will be the favorite to take home another title.
The rest of the 174 weight class certainly has some stars however, most notably Michigan's Myles Amine, who took Hall to a tie-breaker in the 2019 Big Ten tournament and has never finished lower than fourth at the NCAA tournament. Amine has never beaten Hall, but he's also never lost by more than one point. This could be Amine's year to take down the NCAA champion, and with three All-American honors to his name, Amine is certainly a formidable opponent for the Penn State star.
The added benefit of this dream match-up is that it could occur at least three times this year. Penn State and Michigan will likely dual one another in the regular season, the athletes could go head-to-head in the Big Ten tournament, and they may see each other again in the NCAA tournament. Not to mention that Hall and Amine could battle at a winter tournament as well, further increasing the intensity of this storyline. Will this be the year that Amine stops Hall? Or will Hall run through the weight class and pick up a second national title to bookend his career with individual championships?
184 pounds: Zahid Valencia vs. Shakur Rasheed
It's hard to say exactly how dangerous Penn State's Shakur Rasheed can be at 184 pounds this year, given his injuries and early exit from last year's NCAA tournament. The former All-American took second in the Big Ten tournament after medically forfeiting to Myles Martin and then suffered losses to Chip Ness and Dakota Geer in Pittsburgh, but Rasheed does have a seventh-place national finish on his resume, and he's training with some of the best in the country in State College. Now back for a sixth season after earning an extra of year eligibility due to previous injuries, Rasheed is back and ready to fight for the top of podium just like he was expected to do last year. His biggest competitor this year: Arizona State's Zahid Valencia.
With two national titles at 174, Valencia is on his way to becoming the most decorated Arizona State wrestler in program history. But this year, he's bumping up a weight to take on a new set of challengers. Valencia has defeated Rasheed's teammate Mark Hall in the last two NCAA finals, and now the Sun Devil champion could face anther All-American Nittany Lion in the finals. Rasheed has a long road ahead of him before he makes it to that top stage in March, but if he does, wrestling fans are in for a dream match between a two-time champ and a highly-touted Penn State wrestler looking for his breakthrough season. Valencia hasn't wrestled at 184 pounds since his redshirt freshman season, but his resume suggests that he's one of the best wrestlers in the country, and now the question is just whether or not he can duplicate that success against the best
197 pounds: Kollin Moore vs. Patrick Brucki
Kollin Moore has been staring down a national title since he arrived in Columbus, and this could really be the year for the Buckeye senior. With the graduation of three-time champion Bo Nickal, Moore should be the man at this weight. His biggest competition will come from last year's fourth-place finisher Patrick Brucki from Princeton, and while Brucki is certainly strong, he's 0-2 against Moore. A likely pre-season No. 1 at 197 pounds, Moore enters his final year with a 104-15 overall record, three top-four national finishes and two Big Ten titles. Brucki, on the other hand, will enter his junior season with a 61-13 record, one All-American honor and an EIWA title. The Tiger wrestler is looking to make his first NCAA finals and chase a title this year, but he'll have to get through Moore if he wants to achieve that goal. If he's successful, however, he'll be the first Princeton national champion in almost 50 years and add another accolade to the modern Princeton program.
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The real dream match-up for Kollin Moore this year would be NCAA All-American Kyle Conel, the then-Kent State wrestler who pinned Moore at the 2018 national tournament. Conel announced his plans to transfer to Penn State if he received another year of eligibility, but the Nittany Lion lineup is packed, and it's unlikely that Conel will have a chance against Moore right away. This match may have to wait, and may only occur in freestyle, if both athletes choose to compete post-collegiately, but Conel deserved a mention on the dream match-up list.
285 pounds: Anthony Cassar vs. Gable Steveson
Minnesota heavyweight Gable Steveson ended his true freshman season with just two losses, both to Anthony Cassar and both in the postseason. Cassar, who celebrated his first full year as Penn State's starter with a national championship, took down the then-undefeated Steveson in the Big Ten tournament, picked up the No. 2 seed in the national tournament and defeated Steveson again in the heavyweight semifinals. He'll now return for a sixth season after earning an extra year of eligibility due to injuries in his early college career, and he has his eyes on a second national championship.
Steveson, however, isn't backing down. The sophomore Gopher spent his summer on the freestyle circuit, winning World Team Trials at 125kg to earn a spot at Final X: Rutgers. Though he ultimately lost to two-time NCAA champion Nick Gwiazdowski at Final X, his dominant performance at Trials and his battle against Gwiazdowski showed that Steveson has been tested this summer and is ready to compete against Cassar again. This is an NCAA finals-level match that fans will hopefully see at least twice, once at Big Tens and once at the national tournament. Cassar is trying to earn championship honors again, and Steveson will be out on the mat attempting to show fans that he's really the best in the country at this weight.