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Shannon Scovel | NCAA.com | October 31, 2019

5 early season NCAA wrestling duals to watch — and why

Anthony Cassar wins the heavyweight title for Penn State

College wrestling teams around the country are finalizing their lineups and preparing for the long season ahead. The fall-semester duals this year will be of particular intrigue because of the absence of Olympic redshirt athletes who could potentially return for the postseason. So these early season duals will give teams a chance to try out different lineups, experiment with their depth and find the right combination of starters heading into the winter tournaments. 

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Penn State enters the year as the favorites once again, but they'll be challenged by Iowa, both during a spring dual and in the conference and national tournaments. Before highly anticipated conference duals start in January, however, here's a look at five of the biggest fall semester matchups that you won't want to miss. 

1. No. 1 Penn State vs. No. 8 Arizona State on Nov. 22

How to watch: 9 p.m. ET on the Pac-12 Network

Let's kick things off with the Nittany Lions, of course. Penn State starts the season against Navy on Nov. 10, but the first big challenge for Cael Sanderson's team comes 12 days later when the squad travels to Tempe to take on the Sun Devils of Arizona State. Penn State soared past Arizona State 41-3 last year, with the only loss of the night coming at 125 pounds, but this year's matchups at each weight will look a little different. Arizona State two-time national champion Zahid Valencia has chosen to move up to 184 pounds which means fans won't see another Valencia-Mark Hall match-up. But this change instead means that Hall will likely take on Valencia's brother, Anthony, at 174 while Hall's teammate Shakur Rasheed will take on the champ at 184. Anthony Valencia enters the season tenth in FloWrestling's pre-season rankings, which means his battle with Hall will be a top-ten matchup, but Hall is still expected to battle to a comfortable victory. Zahid Valencia is also expected to produce a similar result against Rasheed, a seventh-ranked wrestler who missed All-American honors last season.

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Though these matches will be interesting first looks at two title contenders in Valencia and Hall, the dual also includes three other ranked matchups at 157 with Jacori Teemer vs. Brady Berge, 165 pounds with Josh Shields vs. Vincenzo Joseph and 285 pounds with Tanner Hall vs. Anthony Cassar. 

Whole Match: Zahid Valencia vs. Mark Hall in 174 lb final

We could also see the debut of Jarod Verkleeren as the sole 149-pound starter spot, a position he shared with Brady Berge last season before yielding the spot to the redshirt freshman for the postseason. If Verkleeren takes 149 like he's expected to, he'll also match up against a ranked wrestler in Josh Maruca. The Sun Devils are favored on paper at 149 pounds, as well as 125 pounds and 184 pounds, but, even with bonus points and an upset victory, Arizona State likely won't have enough force to topple the defending national champs.  

2. No. 2 Iowa vs. No. 12 Iowa State on Nov. 24

How to watch: 3 p.m. ET on Cyclones.com

The Iowa Hawkeyes have already generated pre-season buzz for their stacked, deep lineup of returning stars, including 2018 and 2019 NCAA champion Spencer Lee, and as this team takes the mat to start the 2019-2020 season, expectations are high. Tom Brands' squad is expected to compete for a team title this year, but the road is not easy. The first test comes early when the team travels two hours down the road to Ames to take on Kevin Dresser's increasingly talented Cyclone squad. Iowa State pushed the Hawkeyes last season and fell just short of shocking Iowa after taking wins at 133, 141, 149, 174 and 184 pounds but dropping 19-18 in the team score because of bonus points. Of the five Iowa State athletes who won their duals against Iowa, four of them return, setting the stage for another Iowa-State State showdown. 

Eight of the ten matchups in this dual feature top-20 ranked wrestlers with perhaps the most exciting contest likely at 133 with Austin DeSanto of Iowa and Austin Gomez of Iowa State battling again. Gomez pulled off the upset win last season but finished the year in the Round of 12 while DeSanto wrestled his way to a fifth-place finish and All-American honors at the NCAA tournament. The Iowa State grappler did wrestle at 141 pounds in the Cyclone intersquad dual, but is expected to be back down to 133 later in the season. If Gomez wrestles 133 against the Hawkeyes, can he stop Iowa's quick lightweight again this year? That remains to be seen, but 133 won't be the only weight to watch.

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Iowa State's Ian Parker will also likely take on Round of 12 finisher Max Murin again at 141, while Jarrett Degen and Iowa's Pat Lugo will also do battle at 149. David Carr is expected to step in for Chase Straw at 157 pounds for Iowa State, adding some more star power to that weight and creating another exciting potential matchup against Iowa's talented young star Kaleb Young. Marcus Coleman vs. Michael Kemerer at 174, Samuel Colbray vs. Cash Wilcke at 184, and Anthony Cassioppi vs. Gannon Gremmel round out the expected ranked matches in this dual, making the Iowa State-Iowa contest one of the biggest early season duals to watch this year. Iowa State is favored in just two weight classes, 149 and 184, but after its performance against the Hawkeyes in 2018, Dresser's team should never be doubted. 

3. No. 11 Lehigh vs. No. 14 Pittsburgh on Nov. 24

How to watch: TBD

The ACC will be a fun conference to watch this year with North Carolina, North Carolina State, Pittsburgh, Virginia and Virginia Tech all ranked in the Top 25. But before conference duals kick off for Pittsburgh, the inter-state contest between Pitt and Lehigh should be circled on the calendar as a match to see. Pittsburgh comes in ranked No. 14 in the pre-season rankings and will battle the No. 11 Lehigh Mountain Hawks in Bethlehem, Penn., looking for an upset win to build momentum before the winter tournaments. Pittsburgh head coach Keith Gavin returns three Round of 12 wrestlers this year in Micky Phillippi, and Nino Bonaccorsi and Taleb Rahmani, and all three athletes will face ranked wrestlers in the dual against Lehigh. Phillippi and Bonaccorsi both hold No. 4 spots in the pre-season rankings and will likely take on No. 16 Nick Farro and No. 20 Chris Weiler at 133 and 184 pounds respectively. Wins from Phillippi and Bonaccorsi, along with at least decision victories from 141-pounder Cole Matthews and 165-pounder Jake Wentzel will be critical if the Panthers want to challenge the successful Mountain Hawks.

Lehigh holds the advantage on paper in five of the nine weight classes featuring a ranked wrestler, creating the potential for a tight contest, but two of the Mountain Hawks hold top-two national rankings and could put up big bonus points against the Panthers. Jordan Wood and Jordan Kutler return as the highest-place finishers from last season having finished fourth and seventh to help their team to a 13th place finish along with now-graduated 184-pound All-American Ryan Preisch. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, finished 34th with 9.5 team points at the national tournament as a result of not having an All-American in the lineup. 

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The Mountain Hawks do not have an easy early season schedule, as they also compete against Princeton this same weekend and then wrestle Penn State the following week. Lehigh can't let up against Pittsburgh and expect to achieve easy victory, but if they can put up bonus points, perhaps the Mountain Hawks can build up some momentum before taking on the powerhouse of Pennsylvania and the country, the Nittany Lions. 

4. No. 7 Minnesota vs. No. 4 Oklahoma State on Nov. 24

How to watch: TBD

John Smith's Oklahoma State Cowboys put themselves in contention to challenge Penn State last season and finished the 2019 championship with two NCAA finalists and five All-Americans, 84 team points and a third-place national finish. The team's lineup will look a little different this year after graduations, injuries and redshirts. One of the most notable absences from this year's starting squad is 2019 Senior World Team member and NCAA runner-up Daton Fix who announced his Olympic redshirt on Oct. 17. Teammate Kaid Brock, who wrestled at 141 last year and finished in the Round of 12, was expected to fill in for Fix at 133 if the young star chose to redshirt, but an ACL injury has now sidelined Brock as well. The Cowboy lineup is still in flux, with ranked wrestler gaps at 133 pounds, 165 pounds, 197 pounds and heavyweight. Facing off against the Gophers early in the season will allow Smith to evaluate the status of his teammate and decide what kind of lineup changes needed to be made before the second semester. 

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On paper, the Cowboys should walk away with a win in this matchup, but Minnesota brings some firepower, especially some of Oklahoma State's weaker weights. Leading the way for the Gophers is 285 pound NCAA third-place finisher Gable Steveson, who will look to chase a title in his sophomore season. Steveson beat Oklahoma State graduate Derek White last season for a big win in this dual last year, but he should have no problem picking up a win and bonus points against the Cowboy starter this year if he wrestles. Minnesota's roster also includes higher-ranked guys than Oklahoma State at 157 pounds with Carson Brolsma and 197 pounds with Hunter Ritter. Oklahoma State's highest ranked wrestler, Nick Piccininni will likely take on Minnesota's Patrick McKee at 125 pounds. At 149, redshirt freshman Brayton Lee, if he starts, will battle veteran Boo Lewallen, and another ranked contest will come at 174 with Devin Skatzka vs. Joseph Smith. Expect Minnesota to come out with momentum and adrenaline and push the Cowboys, but this should be Oklahoma State's dual for the taking. 

5. No. 3 Ohio State vs. No. 18 Cornell on Dec. 1

How to watch: 2 p.m. ET on BTN Plus

Ohio State vs. Cornell. The contest between these two schools brings to mind flashbacks to the 2019 national tournament when Buckeye senior Joey McKenna battled against Cornell sophomore Yianni Diakomihalis in overtime during the 141-pound finals. Neither of these athletes will take the mat for the dual this year with McKenna graduated and Diakomihalis out on an Olympic redshirt, but some of the ranked matchups in this dual could be just as exciting as the last contest between athletes from these two schools. Both teams are missing star power and point-scorers from last year's roster, with Ohio State having graduated both of its NCAA finalists in the aforementioned Joey McKenna and Micah Jordan, and Cornell redshirting its finalist and champion in Max Dean and Diakomihalis. Cornell 125-pounder Vito Arujau is also taking an Olympic redshirt year, making way for Ohio State's returning NCAA qualifier Malik Heinselman to pick up a win in this weight during the Ohio State-Cornell dual and battle for an All-American spot at the national tournament. 

At 133 pounds, Cornell will likely put forward EIWA champion Chas Tucker, but his challenge won't be quite as intense now that Ohio State's two-time All-American Luke Pletcher has announced his intentions of moving up to 141 pounds. Pletcher also won't have to face one of the strongest athletes in this weight, Cornell's Diakomihalis, this year because of Diakomihalis' redshirt, so he too should be able to pick up a win with bonus points. The 157-pound battle does not include a ranked wrestler for either team, but Ohio State redshirt freshman Sammy Sasso will likely take the mat at 149 pounds and give fans another opportunity to watch him showcase his talent. Cornell does not have a ranked wrestler at this weight currently, which suggests that Sasso too could easily pick up bonus points. Sasso is a title contender at 149 pounds, and these early duals will be a preview to what he can do come March. Ethan Smith, if he starts, is in a similar situation to Sasso in that he will not face a ranked wrestler at 165 pounds and could look to build his team's lead at this point in the dual.

The 174-, 184- and 285-pound matchups will feature ranked wrestlers with Cornell having the edge on paper with Brandon Womack and Ben Darmsadt holding higher rankings than Ohio State probable starters at 174 and 184 in Kaleb Romero or Rocky Jordan and Gavin Hoffman or Zach Steiner. Heavyweight will be an interesting weight class to watch this year with Chase Singletary and Daniel Kerkvliet both able to hold down this spot and neither able to move down because the 197 spot is held firmly by teammate and national title contender Kollin Moore. Singletary is the assumed starter now, but much could change before the Cornell dual. 

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This dual is a chance for both Cornell and Ohio State to assess how their starters look early in the season before heading into the competitive Cliff Keen tournament in early December. It's also clear that November 24th will be a jam-packed day of high-quality college wrestling. 

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