COVID-19 put the world on hold in 2020, but the nation’s top college wrestlers never stopped training. Michigan sophomore lightweight Jack Medley and several of his teammates ran multiple summer marathons in their hometowns, Iowa’s Spencer Lee drilled against his dog and his mom, and Ohio State freshman Anthony Echemendia reminded the world that he’s still one of the best gymnasts in college wrestling.
Their training didn’t go to waste either, as USA Wrestling, FloWrestling, Rokfin, TrackWrestling, Beat the Streets and numerous Regional Training Centers sponsored creative events that allowed the athletes to shake off the rust and challenge themselves. As the focus shifts to the NCAA season, here’s what we know about some of the top college wrestlers, their summer performances, and their skills heading into another championship college season.
Minnesota's Gable Steveson took a big step
Minnesota junior Gable Steveson was a big name before he even donned the Maroon and Gold for the Gophers. Since arriving in Minneapolis, his success and status has only increased over the course of his college career; his recent wins during this pandemic add to his dominant wrestling reputation.
After finishing second in the Big Ten tournament and placing third at NCAAs as a heavyweight freshman, Steveson won the conference tournament in 2020 and was the top seed heading into the national tournament in his own city of Minneapolis. The two-time All-American and Hodge Trophy finalist took the disappointment of the cancelled tournament and let it fuel him for a summer of training — his efforts ultimately culminated in a win against Nick Gwiazdowski, a senior world medalist and the NC State two-time NCAA champion that beat out Steveson for his world spot in 2019. Steveson's redemption victory against Gwiazdowski came on the first day of the FloWrestling and Titan Mercury Wrestling Club Cup and sent a message that Steveson was officially in contention for the US Olympic spot at 125 kilograms.
As Steveson prepares for his junior season with the Gophers and the 2021 Olympic Trials in State College, Pennsylvania, he can look back on his training and performances over the last eight months with confidence. Minnesota will need strong performances from Steveson to compete in the competitive Big Ten conference this season, but their star is primed. Steveson has always been a big man, but now he showed the wrestling community that he has what it takes to be the big man, on the college and international stage.
Meet Michigan's Dylan Ragusin
On the opposite end of the weight-class spectrum, a new star emerged for Michigan over the course of the last months. Incoming freshman Dylan Ragusin burst onto the scene with a second-place finish at Senior Nationals and a win at the 2020 Junior National championship in Omaha, Nebraska this fall. Ragusin, an Illinois native, came to Michigan after winning two state titles and three Fargo titles and will compete for the starting spot at 125 pounds for the Wolverines this season.
Jack Medley owned the spot last year for Michigan and was one of the few athletes to hold two-time NCAA champion Spencer Lee to a decision. With Ragusin’s incredible success this summer, he’ll likely be the guy for the Maize and Gold, adding power to a title-contending lineup that also includes U23 champion Will Lewan and senior national champions Mason Parris and Logan Massa. All four athletes flourished this summer and early fall and will be expected to make a splash at the collegiate scene. The Big Ten is a tough conference for freshmen, but as a senior national finalist, Ragusin, has shown that he can hang with the best of them, at least in freestyle.
Iowa shines in single RTC event
The team that ended last season ranked No. 1, and the team that Michigan and others will look to topple in 2020, is none other than the Iowa Hawkeyes, led by Lee and head coach Tom Brands. Iowa hosted and participated in just one dual post Big Tens in 2020, but the team also sent numerous athletes to Senior, Junior and U23 Nationals to test themselves against the best of the country. Unsurprisingly, Lee dominated his only freestyle match of the fall, pinning four-time All-American Zach Sanders in the first period. His crisp, calm style proved too much for Sanders, and Lee will be expected to carry this success into 2021 as he competes for his third NCAA title and ultimately a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.
The bigger and more exciting surprise for Hawkeyes during the pandemic competitions was graduate transfer Jaydin Eierman taking down 2016 Olympic gold medalist Vladimer Khinchegashvili 4-1 at 67kg during the Hawkeye Wrestling Club event. Eierman did take losses at senior nationals to 2020 U.S. Open finalist Evan Henderson and NCAA finalist Joey McKenna, but he also recorded valuable wins against four-time All-American Matthew Kolodzik and NCAA finalist Ethan Lizak at the same event. Eierman is expected to go 141 pounds this year with last year’s 141-pounder Max Murin moving up to take Pat Lugo’s spot at 149 pounds. Murin, for his part, beat Minnesota’s Mitch McKee, who would go on to win the U23 Nationals, and was one of six of Iowa’s likely starters to pick up a win in the Hawkeye Wrestling Club event.
The Hawks could see other lineup changes as a result of the Hawkeye Wrestling Club event as junior Nelson Brands beat sophomore Abe Assad 9-0 in a match that could impact Iowa’s decision for 184 pounds this season. Assad won the spot for last year but missed out on the chance to battle for a podium spot at NCAAs because of the COVID pandemic. Both Brands and Assad started at various points for Iowa in the 2019-2020 season, and Brands’ win at the Hawkeye Wrestling Club event shows Iowa’s depth at this weight and throughout the lineup.
Penn State is primed
The Hawks weren’t the only Big Ten team to test out their starting lineup in an RTC-sponsored event. Cael Sanderson and Co. set up four events with the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club to give athletes the chance to test themselves, and test themselves they did. Two-time All-American Roman Bravo-Young had perhaps the busiest summer, beating NCAA finalist Jack Mueller on July 25 and then picking up two wins against Shelton Mack and Aljamain Sterling at NLWC events. His success is rivaled only by that of his teammates Carter Starocci and Greg Kerkvliet, both of whom are expected to start for the Nittany Lions at 174 and 285 pounds respectively this year.
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Starocci made waves in 2020 as a redshirt for Penn State, winning the Southern Scuffle and earning a reputation as an up-and-comer to watch. His summer performances, however, show that he has arrived. A tech fall against Daniel Bullard of N.C. State was a nice way for the Penn State redshirt freshman to end 2020, but his pin against All-American Devin Skatzka and his 4-2 win against two-time All-American Chance Marsteller sent a message. Starocci will be expected to slot in at 174 pounds for the Nittany Lions and put up big points from the first dual against Rutgers all the way through the NCAA tournament, but he won't be the only one with high expectations.
Penn State heavyweight Greg Kerkvielt also took some names this summer, tech-falling N.C. State's Deonte Wilson, Cliff Keen Wrestling Club member and two-time All-American Youssif Hemida and two-time NCAA qualifier from Pittsburgh Demetrius Thomas. None of his opponents scored any points on him during the pandemic, and these results align with the kind of success that Kerkvielt has seen at the Junior and U23 national and international tournaments. A three-time Cadet World Team member and two-time champion as well as a Junior World Silver Medalist, Kerkvielt brings a wealth of high-level experience to the lineup and will be expected to make an immediate impact. He's big, he's fast, he's athletic, and his results show that he can hang with college placewinners just fine.
North Carolina State westlers made an impact
Outside of the Big Ten, the ACC also made some noise in the off-season, with NC State separating itself from its conference opponents with the amount of participation in tournaments and events. A number of top NC State wrestlers — including All-Americans Hayden and Trent Hidlay, as well as Tariq Wilson and Jakob Camacho — have been active and wrestling, competing in the RTC Cup, senior, junior and U23 nationals and taking on the Nittany Lions in a Wolfpack RTC vs. NLWC dual.
Trent Hidlay, a junior bronze medalist and the No. 5 seed at the 2020 NCAA tournament, led the way for NC State this summer from a results standpoint. The younger of two Hidlay brothers on NC State’s squad, Trent had a strong showing at senior nationals, finishing third with wins over Garrett Joles, Austin Clayton, and David McFadden, but his true breakout performance came at the FloWrestling and Titan MercuryRTC cup. Wrestling at 86kg, Hidlay topped NCAA champion Drew Foster, Olympian Myles Amine, Big Ten Champion Sammy Brooks, All-American, Domenic Abounader and NCAA finalist Brett Pfarr to go 5-0 on the weekend for the Wolfpack RTC. His brother Hayden finished 1-1 in the same event with a win over Jevon Balfour and an 8-8 loss to Logan Massa on criteria. Both Hidlay brothers earned first-team All-American honors in March 2020 and are expected to be title contenders in 2021.
Sophomore Jakob Camacho and senior Tariq Wilson also saw action this summer and fall, with Camacho notching a seventh-place finish at senior nationals with wins against Brody Teske, Johnie Flakes, Shelton Mack and Jack Medley. His biggest performance, however, came at the RTC cup when he topped All-American Sean Russell 12-6 to put important points on the board for the Wolfpack. A tough loss against NCAA champion Seth Gross put Camacho’s record at 1-1 for the event, but his aggressive, exciting style makes him a must-watch wrestler this season. Wilson, on the other hand, went 0-2 at the RTC cup with losses to Alec Pantelo and Yianni Diakomihalis, two elite athletes. Wilson is known for his late-season performances, so while his summer and fall results don’t suggest a top finish at NCAAs, he’s never one to count out come March.
Given that all of these events were competed in freestyle as opposed to folkstyle, and given that the pandemic created different challenges for different people, the results only tell part of the story of what elite wrestlers did this summer. But the part of the story that they do tell does offer some insight into what we can expect from the likes of Gable Steveson, Spencer Lee and others as we look towards the 2021 championship season with excitement and anticipation.