With the start of every wrestling season comes fresh faces, new stars and breakout athletes to watch. What can you expect in 2019-2020? These are five storylines to know heading into this year's wrestling season.
1. Seth Gross returns, this time for Wisconsin
Seth Gross has experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows as a college wrestler, but his collegiate journey will come to an end this year in March; the question is, can he end up on top? A sixth-year senior who started his career at Iowa, Gross is now ready to finish his final year with a second national title, now representing Wisconsin.
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In 2018, two years after transferring from Iowa City, Gross became the first wrestler in South Dakota State history to win an NCAA wrestling championship trophy when he topped Stevan Micic in the national finals. Following the tournament, Gross' coach, Chris Bono, accepted the head coaching job at the University of Wisconsin and left Brookings to coach the Badgers. His star athlete, on the other hand, struggled with back problems back in South Dakota and sat out the following year while rehabilitating his injury.
Gross applied for a six-year eligibility waiver last year and transferred to follow his coach. Since arriving in Madison, Gross' return to the mat has generated new buzz with wrestling fans anxious to see the champ back in action. Gross hasn't competed since last fall, but two trips to the national finals in 2017 and 2018 have helped establish his reputation as one of the most dangerous men in college wrestling at any weight. The Badgers, with a defending 133-pound champion in their lineup and three additional returning All-Americans, are projected to compete for a trophy at the NCAA tournament after finishing 21st last season. The first test for Gross, Bono and Badgers? The Battle of the Midway on Nov. 1 in San Diego.
2. Can Iowa challenge Penn State for a national title?
Defending champ Penn State is always a storyline, and with three former NCAA returning champions coming back this year, watch for the Nittany Lions to make some noise. However, if you remember our 7 bold predictions story from earlier this year, we suggested that the Hawkeyes could push Penn State for the team title while putting ten guys on the podium. This prediction still holds value. At the time of the predictions, some of Penn State's stars were still unclear about their redshirt decisions and their eligibility, but now we know that Cael Sanderson's squad will be back in full force and looking to ward off any potential challengers.
Iowa, however, is also loaded from top to bottom, starting with two-time NCAA champion Spencer Lee at 125 pounds. Lee will be a storyline in himself, as he chases his third consecutive national title while facing returning competition from two athletes who beat him last year: Big Ten champion Sebastian Rivera and Oklahoma State All-American Nick Piccininni. If Lee can add another championship to his resume in March and bring a few teammates along with him, the Hawkeyes could challenge the Penn State dynasty and bring a title back to Iowa City.
Another key element in the Penn State vs. Iowa storyline this year is the final battles between two-time NCAA champion Vincenzo Joseph of Penn State and 2019 Big Ten champion Alex Marinelli of Iowa. Joseph is 0-2 against "The Bull," having lost to him 9-6 in a 2018 dual and then dropping 9-3 to Marinelli in the Big Ten tournament. The Penn State senior has also never won a Big Ten title despite his two national championships, and he'll be looking to take down Marinelli in March. Last year, Marinelli earned the top seed at the 2019 NCAA tournament after his win over Jospeh at Big Tens but finished seventh after two tough losses to eventual champ Mekhi Lewis and Lock Haven's Chance Marsteller, while Joseph finished second. Joseph will have a higher pre-season ranking by nature of his finalist finish last year, but when these two top wrestlers take the mat for the first time this season, the action will be must-see wrestling.
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Iowa's odds for a team title could also be improved now that the Hawkeyes have picked up Penn State transfer Gavin Teasdale, a four-time Pennsylvania state champion. Teasdale is listed on the roster at 133 pounds, the same weight as returning fifth-place finish Austin DeSanto, and will look to slot into the starting lineup somewhere in the lightweight classes this year to add even more power to the Hawkeye squad. Where Teasdale fits and whether he starts this year remains to be seen, but his return to the mat adds more drama to the Penn State vs. Iowa race that could occur this year in March. Penn State has won eight of the last nine championships. Is this the year they fall, or will Cael and Co. find a way to build on the program's success and walk away with another title?
3. Zahid Valencia will look to extend his dominance at a new weight class
Up at 184 pounds, the two-time NCAA champion Valencia will chase a third title in a new weight class and look to put together one more undefeated season. Last year's 184-pound finalists Drew Foster and Max Dean will both be out this year, with Foster having graduated in 2019 and Dean taking a redshirt year, meaning this could be Valencia's weight to own.
He'll face his first big test against Penn State's Shakur Rasheed on Nov. 22 in Wells Fargo Arena, but Valencia is no stranger to taking down the Nittany Lions. He beat Penn State's Mark Hall in the NCAA finals the last two years, and now he'll aim to extend that same success over any challenger at 184. Rasheed, for his part, finished second in the Big Ten tournament last year at 184 pounds after taking a forfeit in the finals to 2019 NCAA third-place finisher Myles Martin; he then made an early exit in the national tournament before having the opportunity to compete for a second All-American title. Valencia is expected to roll through the weight this year and dominate not only Rasheed but all of his opponents just as he has in the past two seasons.
Can anyone challenge Valencia at 184 pounds? The weight class is open, and Valencia has shown his power the last two years at 174, so all signs point to his success in this new test. His name is certainly one to consider for early-season Hodge Trophy watch lists, and he's a favorite to finish 2020 as a three-time national champion.
4. Olympic redshirt decisions will impact potential NCAA finals rematches
With the Olympic Trials set to be held on April 4-5 in State College, Penn., college wrestling stars have already announced their intentions to redshirt for the NCAA season to prepare for the qualifying tournament. National champions Nick Suriano, Yianni Diakomihalis and Mekhi Lewis have all opted to take an Olympic redshirt year and sit out from collegiate competition for at least the first semester, as have 2019 national finalists Daton Fix and Max Dean.
This means we likely won't see a Suriano-Fix NCAA final rematch or a Vincenzo Joseph- Mekhi Lewis rematch, but any of these athletes could come back and compete in the spring. Suriano, in particular, could be wrestler to watch in January potentially make his return, as the Scarlet Knight grappler may choose to end his senior year competing for a second championship before transitioning entirely to freestyle wrestling ahead of the Trials. Suriano's projected Olympic Trials weight is 57kg, making 125 pounds an ideal place for him if he chooses to compete in NCAA competition next semester. The trials could feature current college standouts Suriano, Fix and defending NCAA champion Spencer Lee all at 57kg, and Lee is the only one of those three who has not announced his decision to redshirt the college season.
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The Olympic years always create added intrigue in wrestling, and former medalists have shown that there are numerous ways to balance collegiate competition with national and international freestyle competition. In 2016, Ohio State legend Kyle Snyder announced his decision to take an Olympic redshirt in preparation for the Trials but removed his redshirt in January to compete for a third NCAA title. Snyder won the heavyweight division that year in Cleveland and went on to become the youngest American gold medalist in the sport's history. J'Den Cox, another Olympic medalist in 2016, took a different route and wrestled the entire college season before traveling to Rio de Janerio to represent the United States and win bronze.
Penn State's Mark Hall chose to follow Cox's precedent for his senior year, opting not to take his Olympic redshirt, and instead choosing to compete one last time at 174 pounds where he's expected to be favorite for another national title. Hall's teammate and 2019 champion Anthony Cassar has also chosen to forgo his Olympic redshirt option and instead battle for the Nittany Lions collegiately again.
Michigan also made headlines when it announced intentions to have Stevan Micic, Myles Amine, Logan Massa and Kanen Storr take advantage of their Olympic redshirts. Micic and Amine have already qualified for the Olympics, earning their bids to represent Serbia and San Marino, respectively.
There's no one way to end up on top of the Olympic or NCAA podium, and these athletes will all try to balance their remaining college eligibility with an opportunity to represent their country on the biggest international stage for the sport. Much remains to be seen about how these Olympic redshirts will impact the 2020 NCAA title race, but they'll no doubt have an affect and help open some doors for fresh faces at the tournament in Minneapolis this March.
5. N.C. State will look to defend its ACC crown but could face stiff competition
The Big Ten is perhaps the most dominant wrestling conference in the country, placing seven teams in the top 10 at last year's NCAA tournament. The ACC, however, could also be an interesting conference to follow with Pittsburgh, North Carolina and Virginia and Virginia Tech all in the hunt to make some noise.
The Wolfpack narrowly won last year's tournament in a tight battle against the Hokies, topping Virginia Tech by 7.5 points. North Carolina finished third with 47.5 points. Two weeks later, however, Virginia Tech earned the last word, finishing 11th with 50 points, 18.5 points ahead of the conference champions. North Carolina took 19th and scored just three points less than North Carolina State. NCAA champion Mekhi Lewis's performance helped the Hokies score big points on the national stage, but with Lewis taking an Olympic redshirt this year, the race for the top team in the ACC is about to become even more interesting.
The top returners for the Wolfpack this year include 2018 third-place finisher Tariq Wilson up a weight at 141 and 2018 NCAA finalist and 2019 NCAA All-American Hayden Hidlay who will expect to fight for a national title at 157 pounds. The younger Hidlay, Trent, is also likely to make his starting debut for North Carolina State this year at 184 pounds after winning a bronze medal at the 2019 Junior World Championships in Estonia this summer.
David McFadden will be the sole returning All-American for the Hokies with Mekhi Lewis taking an Olympic redshirt, and Jack Mueller will be the only returning All-American for the Cavaliers. North Carolina will bring back top-seeded Austin O'Connor at 149 pounds and could score significant points if the young sophomore races through the weight for a title this season. Pittsburgh also returns three round-of-12 wresters in Micky Phillippi, Nino Bonaccorsi and Taleb Rahmani.
It might be easy to call North Carolina State the favorite in this conference given the loaded lineup in Raleigh, but the rest of the conference has also stocked up on young talent, and March is always full of surprises. The ACC is a fun conference to follow, and while it may not have the depth of the Big Ten, the six teams, including Duke, could breed some fun, even unexpected storylines as the competition season sets in.