Every college wrestler has four chances to compete in the NCAA tournament, four years to make a mark and leave a legacy.
Sometimes an athlete needs a few years of experience to work his way to the top of the podium. Some years, freshmen phenoms come out the gates on fire and cruise to first-place finishes in the national tournament, like Mekhi Lewis did in 2019. Lewis was the only freshman champion of the ten NCAA winners last year, and while he opted to take an Olympic redshirt this year, nearly a dozen freshman have emerged from this year's crop of talent looking to find similar success in March.
COLLEGE WRESTLING: 7 breakout candidates who could become All-Americans this year
Here's what you need to know about the nine freshman athletes ranked in the top 10 of the Intermat rankings, and how they might fare in their NCAA tournament debut:
No. 2 Trent Hidlay - North Carolina State
Following in the footsteps of his older brother Hayden, Trent Hidlay has already made an impact on the North Carolina State Wolfpack wrestling program as a redshirt freshman and currently holds the No. 2 spot in the country at 184 pounds. He's the highest ranking freshman in the country at the moment, and after winning Bronze at the Junior World Championship, Hidlay's momentum hasn't slowed down at all. He currently holds a 11-1 record with his only loss coming against two-time NCAA champion Zahid Valencia at the Cliff Keen Invitational.
The success of the younger Hidlay shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who has been following the upper-weight wrestler since he stepped on campus for his redshirt season in 2018. As a first-year competitor for the Wolfpack, Hidlay went 24-2 in open tournaments and took home titles at the Hokie Open, Bearcat Open, Wolfpack Wrestling Club Open, Appalachian State Open and National Collegiate Open. Now, as a starter in the lineup, Hidlay has been a force for the Pack, defeating No. 4 Taylor Lujan 7-4, No. 6 Lou DePrez 2-1 and No. 7 Ben Darmstadt 7-5.
Hidlay's victories have helped North Carolina State stay undefeated throughout the first half of the season, but challenges still lie ahead. North Carolina State will travel to the Southern Scuffle on January 1, where Hidlay could face No. 3 Hunter Bolen of Virginia Tech and No. 11 Sam Colbray of Iowa State.
🐺🤼♂️ | Both ranked #⃣2⃣ in all six polls in their weight class this week, Hayden & Trent Hidlay are the first set of brothers in the NCAA to be ranked among the top two at the same time since 2013!#PackMentality pic.twitter.com/E5VOsFxzqe— NC State Wrestling 🤼♂️ (@PackWrestle) December 10, 2019
The freshman Wolfpack wrestler has shown that he's on a different level than many of his competitors, but he still has half a season to go before an NCAA tournament run could start. Trent's older brother Hayden has finished second and fourth in his two NCAA tournament appearances, and the younger Hidlay seems to be on a path to match these accomplishments.
No. 3 Tony Cassioppi - Iowa
Another redshirt freshman who has burst on to the scene in his first year as a starter is Iowa's 285-pounder Tony Cassioppi. He is undefeated on the year with wins over Grayson Walthall, Gannon Gremmel, Trent Hillger, Aidan Conner, Matt Stencel, Carter Isley, Thomas Penola, Niko Camacho and Zach Elam.
The win against Hillger, in particular, suggests that Cassioppi could be a title threat at a weight class currently held down by Anthony Cassar. Iowa and Cassioppi will have their chance to wrestle the Penn State Nittany Lions on January 31. This dual will be Cassioppi's first shot at Cassar before the Big Ten and potentially the NCAA tournament.
Cassioppi was also tested at the Midlands Tournament in Chicago, but he worked his way to a tournament title to keep his undefeated streak alive. His best chance to rise the rankings will come against Penn State and again on Feb. 8 when Iowa will wrestle Michigan. The Wolverine's Mason Parris currently holds the No. 2 spot in the rankings after finishing in the Round of 12 last year at the NCAA tournament, and the bout between Parris and Cassioppi would be must-watch wrestling.
As a redshirt last year, Cassioppi immediately racked up wins as well, recording a 20-2 record with tournament wins at the Grand View Open, Lindenwood Open, UNI Open, and Loras Open. His only losses came against NCAA tournament qualifier Jere Heino and NCAA All-American Matt Stencel. He avenged the loss to Stencel at Midlands.
Cassioppi has made it clear that he expects to leave a legacy on the program. Not only is he chasing NCAA titles, but also Iowa individual program records, including the team pin record of 74 currently held by three-time NCAA champion Ed Banach. As a member of an Iowa team stacked from top to bottom, Cassioppi could play a key role in Iowa's title quest this March.
No. 3 David Carr - Iowa State
Iowa State's David Carr has been on the collegiate radar since his redshirt season when he finished 23-1 as a redshirt freshman and then went on to win the 2019 Junior World Championship in Estonia over the summer. Now as a starter for the Cyclones, Carr is showing that he has the prowess to make a title run at 157 pounds. Carr is 8-1 on the year with his only loss coming against No. 1 Ryan Deakin of Northwestern at the Cliff Keen Invitational in Las Vegas. Wins against Kendall Coleman of Purdue and Kaleb Young of Iowa and his third place finish at Cliff Keen proves that Carr is a threat. He's even the top-ranked 157-pounder in the Big 12.
WHAT HAPPENED IN VEGAS: Here's what you need to know about the 2019 Cliff Keen Invitational results
Carr will be back in action next at the Southern Scuffle, where he could have a chance to wrestle No. 2 Hayden Hidlay of North Carolina State to move up in the rankings even further. The No. 2 and No. 3 157-pounders have never met in college, and they will be the favorites to battle for the top of the podium at the Scuffle. Hidlay held the No. 1 spot in the weight class for the first half of the season until Deakin took him down for the Cliff Keen title right after Deakin stopped Carr 9-3 in the semifinals. It's still early in the season, but Carr has already put himself in a strong position to compete not just for All-American honors in March but for an individual title.
No. 5 Brayton Lee - Minnesota
Brayton Lee came into the college season with high expectations, posting 26-7 record in his redshirt year and earning a 9-1 record heading into the Cliff Keen Invitational as a starter. In Vegas, however, the 149-pounder showed the wrestling world why he is the freshman to watch at 149 pounds. Lee ran through the Cliff Keen bracket that included No. 6 Sammy Sasso, No. 7 Matt Thomsen and No. 11 Brock Zacherl. The young Gopher took a loss at the South Beach Duals a few weeks later against Jimmy Hoffman of Lehigh, but he does have a win against the wrestler one spot ahead of him in the rankings, Boo Lewallen.
Lee has not had the chance to wrestle Iowa's Pat Lugo or Missouri's Brock Mauller, both wrestlers ranked ahead of him, but he'll see Lugo and Iowa on February 15. A member of the 2019 US Junior Freestyle World Team, Lee is a tough competitor in any style, and he could make a run in March that would galvanize the Minnesota fanbase and send some new energy through his home crowd at the NCAA tournament in Minneapolis.
No. 6 Sammy Sasso - Ohio State
Brayton Lee and Sammy Sasso could almost be grouped together given the parallel trajectory of these two powerhouse wrestlers. Their rivalry dates back to the cadet and junior world freestyle circuit, but given Lee's win over Sasso in Vegas, the Gopher grappler snuck past Sasso in the rankings, only fueling the rivalry between the young stars.
Sasso, for his part, is 12-2 with losses only to Lee by decision and Virginia Tech's Brent Moore by fall. He has since avenged that loss to Brent Moore at Cliff Keen with a 7-1 decision, however. He also picked up five falls of his own, including three against Luke Raczkowski of Central Michigan, Ben Lamantia of Michigan and Nate Limmex of Purdue — all of whom he defeated during his Michigan State Open title run where he either pinned or technical falled all five of his opponents for a breakout start to the year.
He then added a fall against Luke Kemerer of Pittsburgh and most recently, Griffin Parriott of Purdue. Sasso has nicely stepped into the 149-pound spot in the Ohio State lineup after the graduation of three-time NCAA All-American Micah Jordan and will look to pick up an All-American accolade of his own in March.
The 149-pound weight class is relatively open this season, with former No. 1 North Carolina's Austin O'Connor taking a loss to Lugo at the Midlands and the graduations of NCAA champion Anthony Ashnault and NCAA finalist Jordan.
Sasso hasn't had the chance to compete against Brock Mauller, Pat Lugo or Boo Lewallen, the athletes ranked No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 this season, though Sasso did beat Lugo 6-4 last year at Midlands. He won't wrestle O'Connor in a dual or in the conference tournament, but if he executes his matches like he has and continues to rack up bonus points, he'll absolutely be a contender in March.
No. 7 Shane Griffith - Stanford
Another redshirt freshman making a big impact for his team this year, Stanford's 165-pounder Shane Griffith is undefeated on the year so far with a 12-0 record and big wins against Kennedy Monday and Ethan Smith. He recorded a 25-2 record as a redshirt and won three Open tournaments, including the Princeton Open, the Roadrunner Open and the National Collegiate Open, as well as placing third at the Southern Scuffle and fifth at the Reno Tournament of Champions.
Griffith's resume may not include any collegiate postseasons yet, but even as a freshman, he already has a long list of accolades to his name, particularly on the freestyle side of the sport. The Cardinal is a 79kg Junior Pan American gold medalist, a 2019 Junior World Team Trials runner-up and a junior national runner up. At both trials and nationals, Griffith lost to Penn State's Aaron Brooks, who will be wrestling two weight classes above Griffith at 184 pounds during the college season.
.@shanegriffith7 is your champion at 165 pounds after pinning Adam Kemp (Fresno State) in 6:41 in the finals! Griffith finished the tournament with three falls and a major decision, and is now 11-0 on the season 💪.#CardinalCaliber #GoStanford pic.twitter.com/EoofvkWAYQ— Stanford Wrestling (@CardWrestling) November 25, 2019
Griffith brings a strong high school pedigree into his collegiate career after winning three state titles as a wrestler for Bergen Catholic in New Jersey. High school and redshirt year wins don't guarantee Griffith anything as a starter for the Cardinal, but his early season success and potential for growth will make him a name to watch for All-American and potentially NCAA finalist contention at the national tournament in March.
No. 8 Nicolas Aguilar- Rutgers (125)
As a team, the Scarlet Knights had a historic year last season with two national champions, and freshman Nicolas Aguilar will be looking to add to that legacy during his four years with the program. Aguilar currently has an 11-1 record with his most recent win coming in the form of a fall against Maryland's Brandon Cray. The young lightweight also already has ranked wins against Gage Curry of American, Joey Prata of Virginia Tech and Sidney Flores of Air Force, and he'll likely face a new slew of ranked foes at the Southern Scuffle this week.
RUTGERS RECORDS: Who will be the next Rutgers national champion?
In his redshirt year, Aguilar went 7-7, but he's jumped levels this year and looks ready to compete for an NCAA individual trophy. Aguilar won the California state championships in high school at 120 pounds and was a two-time runner up, so he's certainly not afraid of stepping into the bright lights. The Rutgers 125-pounder is also a two-time Fargo Cadet National Champion and will look to add some NCAA accolades to his resume in 2020.
No. 9 Kendall Coleman- Purdue
Purdue's 157-pound Kendall Coleman has been an integral part of a rising Boilermaker team, and the freshman has already left his mark at two major invitational tournaments so far this year. Coleman finished fourth at the Cliff Keen Invitational in Vegas earlier this month and notched another fourth-place finish at the Midlands. He now boasts a 21-4 record on the year, with 10 more wins than the 11-4 record he put up as a redshirt.
Coleman could certainly be an All-American contender, and he might even be a title contender with a few adjustments before the postseason. For now, the freshman and his Boilermaker teammates will prepare for the grueling Big Ten schedule that includes Northwestern on Jan. 10th and No. 1 Iowa on Jan. 12th.
No. 9 Aaron Brooks - Penn State
Aaron Brooks, Penn State's 184-pounder, is the only true freshman on the list, and he's already made some statements in his early wins as a starter for the defending national champions. The 184-pounder is 5-0 on the year with wins over Jesse Quatse, Chris Weiler, Kyle Myers, Jared McGill and Kyle Inlander — three of those wins came in Mat-Town Open I, and two of them came in duals after having his redshirt pulled against Lehigh.
Brooks joins a powerful lineup of All-Americans at the weights above and below him on the Penn State squad, with 165, 174, 197 and 285 pounders Vincenzo Joseph, Mark Hall, Kyle Conel and Anthony Cassar all having finished third or higher at the NCAA tournament.
Brooks' new starting position at 184 pounds raises some questions for Penn State with regards to the lineup however, as his starting spot creates a logjam at 184 pounds where All-American Shakur Rasheed was expected to start. Rasheed tore his ACL last season, but he could recover and challenge Brooks for the spot or bump up to 197 pounds where he finished seventh at the NCAA tournament in 2018.
Brooks' position may not be secure as a starter, but he's given head coach Cael Sanderson no reason to doubt that he should be the guy at this weight, and he could be a guy to challenge for a podium spot.
The 184-pound weight class is a tough one, with two-time NCAA champion Zahid Valencia leading the way and fellow freshman Trent Hidlay holding down the No. 2 spot. We've only just seen what Brooks can do, and he'll have several more months to improve upon his No. 9 ranking and make a push to wrestle in the NCAA finals. He is, after all, a Penn State wrestler, and competing for (and winning) the national finals is what they do.