The 38th annual Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational had it all — upsets, drama, falls, and team titles.
Fifteen of the top 25-ranked teams entered the Las Vegas Convention Center for one of the first major multi-day tournaments of the year, and only one team and ten individuals left as champions. Here's what you need to know about what happened in Vegas, and what the results suggest about the remainder of the college wrestling season.
The Huskers may be No. 2 in the country, but they were No. 1 in Vegas
The Nebraska Cornhuskers moved up to the No. 2 spot in the country on Nov. 26, and they proved that they are one of the best teams in the country by topping the podium at Cliff Keen by 8.5 points over Ohio State. Nebraska's success came from its depth, as nine of its ten wresters placed with 165-pounder Isaiah White winning his weight class.
White's tournament started strong, and the Husker senior put up a workmanlike 7-1 win in the first round against Dazjon Casto of the Citadel before earning his first bonus point win of the tournament with a tech fall over Koy Wilkinson of Utah Valley. A decision win against Bailee O'Reilly put White in the semifinals versus Ohio State's Ethan Smith, where he added another decision and then won his title with a 3-1 victory over Josh Shields. Consistent performance and clutch wins propelled White to the top, and he took his whole team with him.
Rounding out the placewinners for the Cornhuskers were Ridge Lovett in third at 133 pounds, Chad Red in fifth at 141 pounds, Collin Purinton in eighth at 149 pounds, Peyton Robb in seventh at 157 pounds, and Mikey Labriola in third at 174 pounds. This team is stacked, and while White was the only individual champion, the strength of the Cornhuskers from top to bottom prove that they are certainly one of the best teams in the country and will be an interesting test for the No. 1 Iowa Hawkeyes on Jan. 18.
The Buckeyes were the only team to crown two champions
Ohio State is always a title-contending team, and the Buckeyes battled once again for a top-finish in Las Vegas, finishing just one spot short and coming in second overall. Head coach Tom Ryan's squad was the only team to put two athletes on the top of the podium, though, and both won gold with style. Leading the way for Ohio State were senior captains Kollin Moore and Luke Pletcher, both of whom are ranked No. 1 in their respective weight classes.
Pletcher put on a takedown clinic in his bracket, running up the score all the way through the finals. The 141-pound champ picked up his closest win 10-6 against All-American Mitch McKee in the finals but won all of his other matches by seven or more points. Against Cole Mattin of Michigan, Pletcher put up 26 points, and he picked up a major decision against Nebraska's Chad Red to further showcase his dominance in the weight class. Pletcher's wins kept him undefeated at 14-0 and reinforced that he is certainly the man to beat at 141.
Like Pletcher, Kollin Moore is the clear leader at 197 pounds, and with a 14-0 record and a Cliff Keen title to his name, the senior Buckeye proved that he's every bit as dangerous as his top ranking suggests. Moore picked up an early first-period fall in the first round of the tournament, but never slowed down, adding a tech fall in the Round of 16 and the semifinals. The Buckeye veteran competed for a full 7 minutes in his close 5-3 decision against Arizona State's No. 20 Kordell Norfleet. But that was his closest match of the tournament as he notched a major decision in the finals against Purdue's Christian Brunner. Moore has finished in the top 4 in every NCAA tournament he's wrestled in, but this year, he wants that top spot. His biggest competition later in the season will come when Ohio State wrestles Iowa, setting up a 197-pound battle between Moore and No. 3 Jacob Warner. But for now, 197 is all Kollin Moore.
Brayton Lee, Ryan Deakin, Dylan Lydy pull off upsets to claim Cliff Keen crowns
Minnesota's Brayton Lee, Northwestern's Ryan Deakin and Purdue's Dylan Lydy all defied the seeds in their quest to the top of the Cliff Keen Invitational podium, and all three pulled off upset wins to take their titles. Deakin earned the biggest win of any champion by avenging an NCAA tournament loss to North Carolina State's No. 1 Hayden Hidlay and taking over the top spot in the country with his 6-2 decision over the Wolfpack junior. Deakin pinned his first two opponents of the tournament, and then added a solid 8-5 win over Arizona State's Jacori Teemer before picking up a W against freshman phenom and Junior World Champion David Carr 9-3. He's now Northwestern's only No. 1-ranked wrestler, and he'll look to keep his success rolling all the way through March.
🚨DOWN GOES NO. 1 🚨— NCAA Wrestling (@ncaawrestling) December 8, 2019
Northwestern’s Ryan Deakin takes out No. 1 NC State’s Hayden Hidlay in the finals of the 157-pound bracket at the 2019 Cliff Keen Invitational #B1GCats
Neither Brayton Lee nor Dylan Lydy wrestled the top guys in their weight class at Cliff Keen, though the wins for both should send them up at least a few spots in the individual national rankings. Lee's tournament started big with an upset win in the second round where the No. 5-seeded Gopher topped the No. 4 seed Brock Zacherl of Clarion 8-3 before taking down No. 1-seeded Max Thomsen in the semifinals. His win pitted him against a familiar opponent in Sammy Sasso, a young Buckeye who also pulled off an upset in the quarterfinals with a 7-1 win over Griffin Parriott of Purdue and advanced to the finals after Iowa State's Jarrett Degen took a medical forfeit in the semis. Sasso, however, couldn't stop Lee, and dropped 6-4 in a tight match that wrestling fans will likely see against when the Gophers welcome the Buckeyes to Minneapolis for a dual.
The 149-pound weight class is more open than 174 pounds, given that there is no former NCAA champion at the weight. So if Lee can keep the pace and continue to wrestle like he did in Vegas, he also has the potential to be a finalist and title contender. Sasso and Lee both came into this year as highly-touted redshirt freshmen, and, in a weight class that was dominated by veterans last year, these two athletes bring new excitement at 149 pounds. North Carolina's Austin O'Connor still holds the top spot at this weight, and he'll make his season debut this weekend in Ohio, but don't lose sight of Brayton Lee and Sammy Sasso. These guys are here to stay.
Adding to the excitement of Cliff Keen was the rise of Purdue. The Boilermakers are the No. 23-ranked team in the country that finished fifth in the tournament ahead of Iowa State, Minnesota, North Carolina State, Northwestern, Cornell, Virginia Tech and Michigan, all teams ranked ahead of the Boilermakers in the NWCA poll. Dylan Lydy led the way with a first-place finish and big wins over Michael Labriola and Bryce Steiert in the semifinals and finals by identical scores of 3-1. Lydy currently holds the No. 3 spot in the country, and, after finishing in the Round of 12 last year, the senior is ready for another shot at the podium.
The Boilermakers put up a series of stellar performances throughout their lineup at the tournament, including second-place finishes from Devin Schroder at 125 pounds and Christian Brunner at 197 pounds, and fourth-place finishes from rising freshman Kendall Coleman and 2019 NCAA qualifier Griffin Parriott. The team will have one dual against SIUE before preparing for Midlands at the end of the month and then starting a brutal Big Ten schedule. Purdue will take on Iowa to start the new year on Jan. 12, where Lydy will have the chance to wrestle No. 3 Michael Kemerer and Schroder will potentially take on No. 1 Spencer Lee. The Boilermakers bring excitement to the mat, and Lydy's win in Vegas along with the podium finishes from Schroder, Brunner, Coleman and Parriott should give this squad some momentum heading into the holidays.
Zahid Valencia's Hodge Trophy quest continues
Zahid Valencia's bump up to 184 pounds this season hasn't slowed him down, and if anything, he's more dominant than ever. Ranked No. 1 in the country with an undefeated record and just five losses in his career, Zahid Valencia was recently named the pound-for-pound No. 1 wrestler in the country, and his results back up that title. He’s a bonus point machine and captured his third Cliff Keen title by winning every bout by major decision, tech fall or fall. Valencia pinned Dominic Kincaid and Jack Jessen, tech-falled No. 11 Sam Colbray, majored No. 5 Lou Deprez and ended the weekend with a major against No. 4 Trent Hidlay. Valencia owns this weight class and has separated himself from the field with his continued success.
He's the only Pac-12 wrestler in the top 25 at 174 pounds, but head coach Zeke Jones and Co. scheduled some tough out-of-conference opponents for the Sun Devils over the next two months. Arizona will take on five ranked teams next semester, starting with No. 7 Ohio State on Jan. 6. No. 11 Iowa State will then enter the hostile environment of the Sun Devils' home gym before Arizona State hits the road and competes against No. 19 Missouri on Feb. 9, No. 13 Lehigh Feb. 21 and No. 18 North Carolina Feb. 23. Those teams, while competitive, don't have a 184-pounder of Valencia's caliber, but he'll need to pick up wins in all of those duals to keep his Hodge Trophy hopes alive. Valencia has showed no signs up stopping, and he'll be fun to watch as his final season in the Maroon and Gold continues.
Jack Mueller, Chas Tucker and Mason Parris also live up to their No. 1 seeds
Virginia’s Jack Mueller also proved that he’s one of the best in his weight class as he cruised through the 125-pound bracket at Cliff Keen and gave up just one takedown run to the top of the podium. The Cavalier senior started the tournament by taking out Ohio State NCAA qualifier Malik Heinselman by fall in the first period before picking up bonus points via a tech fall and major decision against South Dakota State’s Kahlen Morris and Minnesota freshmen Patrick McKee. He then shut out Michael DeAugustino before topping Devin Schroder of Purdue 6-2 in the championship bout. Mueller victories continue his undefeated season and keep him atop the list of names to watch at 125 pounds. We knew Mueller was tough, so what did this tournament tell us about his NCAA title hopes at the lightest weight? Simple. He’s just as competitive as he was in March. This man is hungry, and he wants another shot at Spencer Lee.
2019 NCAA FINALS: Relive the 125-pound finals of the NCAA Tournament in Pittsburgh
At 133 pounds, Chas Tucker has been one of the bright lights for Cornell in a transition year where three of the team's 2019 NCAA All-Americans continue their redshirt seasons. NCAA champion Yianni Diakomihalis and NCAA finalist Max Dean are both preparing to qualify and ultimately compete at the US Olympic Trials in April, and 2019 NCAA fourth-place finisher Yito Arujo is also redshirting with the hopes of booking his ticket to State College, Pennsylvania, for the Trials. Those three athletes would have helped the Big Red score big team points in Vegas, but Tucker carried the team, and his win helped Cornell finish 11th overall. Tucker is one of just three ranked Big Red wrestlers with No. 7 184-pounder Ben Darmstat and No. 15 Brandon Womack as the other two athletes in the top-25 for Cornell. Darmstat and Womack also placed seventh and eighth respectively.
Vegas served as Tucker's biggest series of tests so far this season, and the senior found a way to win a series of close matches on his way to the 133 pound title, beating Michael Jaffe 7-4, Todd Small 5-3, Collin Gerardi 6-3, Dylan Kootz 8-3 before reaching Montorie Bridges in the final. Tucker fought through another close seven-minute battle to pull off the 4-1 win against the Cowboy and become the first Cornell Cliff Keen champion since Diakomihalis accomplished the same feat in 2017. Tucker’s win put him at 12-0 on the year, and he’ll shoot for his second consecutive EIWA title as well as his first All-American honor this year.
WRESTLERS TO WATCH: 7 breakout athletes who could become All-Americans this year
On the heavyweight side, Mason Parris has been a wrestler to watch all season as he moves through his sophomore schedule and aims to find a place on the podium in March. After finishing in the Blood Round at last year's tournament, Parris has been on an upward trajectory, winning the Junior World Championships in Estonia in August and sailing to a 16-0 overall record after his four Cliff Keen wins and the 285-pound tournament title. In his first bout in Vegas, Parris pinned Blake Wolters in 56 seconds and two rounds later, he added another first period pin against Carter Isley in 54 seconds. He also notched a major decision against Tyler Bagoly on his way to the semifinals, where he then beat Nebraska's Christian Lance before topping Arizona State's No. 6 Tanner Hall 6-3 for gold. Parris is currently ranked No. 2 in the country, and while defending champion Anthony Cassar stands in his way at the moment, Parris' performance proved that he could be a finalist and compete for a title in March.
Jack Mueller, Chas Tucker, Luke Pletcher, Brayton Lee, Ryan Deakin, Isaiah White, Dylan Lydy, Zahid Valencia, Kollin Moore and Mason Parris were all known contenders heading into the Cliff Keen Invitational, but their performances helped remind fans why these athletes are always appointment viewing.