Editor's Note: This article was originally published March 1 prior to the cancellation of the NCAA wrestling tournament.
Since November, the college wrestling scene has been dominated by one team: Iowa. The Hawkeyes have put together a dominant lineup of 10 wrestlers all ranked in the top 10 in their weight class, and they'll aim to be just the second team in history to put an entire starting squad on the podium later this month. Iowa has run the gauntlet of opponents this year and defeated them all, and while this accomplishment certainly is impressive, it's also worth spending some time at the end of the dual season to acknowledge a few other teams.
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These five programs far surpassed their preseason expectations and rose higher in the top 25 than most people outside those individual wrestling rooms expected. They are the five schools that stood out when comparing preseason ranks to regular season results, but, of course, legacies aren't built until the national tournament.
This is the Purdue team Dylan Lydy wanted the rest of the world to see. After he finished in the Round of 12 last year with his teammate Christian Brunner, Lydy and the Boilermakers have been on a mission to make the podium and bring more national recognition to their Midwestern school. So far, they've been succeeding.
Both Lydy and Brunner picked up Cliff Keen Invitational titles back in November, and they're both ranked in the top eight nationally heading into conference weekend. Lydy is 28-1 on the year with his only loss coming against No. 1 Michael Kemerer in the Iowa-Purdue dual, and he already also has multiple wins against All-Americans Mikey Labriola, Devin Skatzka and Bryce Steiert. The path to the podium for Lydy is looking better than ever, but he's planning to bring the whole team along with him. Brunner has taken a few more losses and is 22-5 on the year, but he, too, has wins over an All-American as he beat Patrick Brucki of Princeton 4-3 at Midlands.
These two stars, however, aren't the only powerhouse wrestlers in the lineup. Purdue also has strength at 125 pounds in No. 6 Devin Schroder, a national qualifier who should pick up the No. 2 seed at Big Tens opposite Spencer Lee and qualify for the national tournament in a good spot to make a podium run. Freshman 157-pounder Kendall Coleman is also ranked in the top eight at No. 7 and his 26-7 record shows that he's battle tested and ready to compete for a trophy.
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There were some duals that Purdue could have won. The Boilermakers could have pushed Minnesota in their 27-12 loss and they avoided falling to Wisconsin by a similar 27-14 score. Let's instead talk about the 21-13 win against Northwestern and the 20-18 win against Rutgers. Purdue finished the year 12-5 in the tough Big Ten and ended up ranked No. 15 in the country. Purdue may not be a top-five team but the Boilermakers have held their own in the top 25 and deserve recognition as a team that has some under-appreciated weapons.
Illinois Fighting Illini
Illinois hadn't quite found its groove after the graduation of Isaiah Martinez in 2018 but the Illini are back on track now this year with wins over Missouri, Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern and Rutgers. After finishing last season with a 2-9 record, the Illini naturally weren't expected to be a nationally ranked team but nothing makes for good billboard material like people doubting a program. Illinois turned up the heat and flipped its record this season in impressive fashion to finish 10-4 with its only losses coming against Army, Penn State, Ohio State and Purdue. Now with five ranked guys in the top 20, Illinois is here to make some noise and show its strengths on the national level.
It's exciting to watch No. 1 and No. 2-ranked teams compete, but in weeks full of great action, it's important to honor teams that pull off the upset win & take down ranked opponents. @IlliniWrestling earns this week's honor for being the only unranked team to beat a Top 25 foe. pic.twitter.com/IxUynDOcKc— NCAA Wrestling (@ncaawrestling) February 7, 2020
Two seniors – No. 7 Travis Piotrowski at 133 pounds and No. 13 Joey Gunther at 174 pounds – lead this deep team, and like several other squads on this list, the strength of the Illini comes from their range of point-scorers at a cross-section of weights. Piotrowski is the team's highest-ranked wrestler heading into the postseason and his No. 7 national spot puts him in a good position for the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments to compete for trophies. His best win came in fall fashion against a competitive No. 9 Sammy Alvarez, but he also has a win over No. 8 Gonser of Campbell. Piotrowski's only two losses came against Austin DeSanto and Micky Phillippi, both by decision.
Gunter, for his part, is 15-7 on the year with his best win coming against No. 12 Ben Harvey. These two wrestlers have both qualified for the NCAA tournament all four years this could be their shot to make it to the podium.
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No. 18 Dylan Duncan, No. 12 Danny Braunagel and No. 15 Zach Braunagel round out the ranked wrestlers for the Illini. After a successful season that also included head coach Jim Heffernan's 100th win with Illinois, the team is primed for something big next month. Illinois is without a doubt another school well deserving of praise after ending the regular season ranked No. 20, and the big question now is how much firepower the Illini can pull out of their talented lineup heading into tournament time.
Army West Point Black Knights
The Black Knights told the wrestling world they were different but it took until March for the recognition. Army finished its 2019-2020 regular season with 10 wins and just three losses, tying the amount of losses from last year and cutting the number of losses in 2017-2018 in half. The team's power should have been recognized back in November when head coach Kevin Ward's team pushed Wisconsin before falling by the close score of 16-15 behind wins from Army's P.J. Ogunsanya, Lucas Weiland, Ben Harvey, Noah Stewart and J.T. Brown. Never deterred, however, Army then went on a winning streak, beating Fresno State, Illinois, UT-Chattanooga and West Virginia as well as capturing team titles at the Black Knight Open and the Patriot Open.
Losses to North Carolina and Lehigh serve as the only additional blemishes on an impressive team record but telling the whole story of Army's success this year requires a trip back to Chicago when then-backup Markus Hartman established himself as an All-American threat at 157 pounds and gave the Black Knights yet another ranked wrestler in the top 20. Hartman pulled off an early upset in the Round of 16 against No. 1 seed Quincy Monday from Princeton and he continues his run through the bracket with a fall against Logan Parks and a 9-8 decision against Anthony Artalona of Penn. A tough 5-3 loss to All-American Kable Young of Iowa sent Hartman home with a silver but with the confidence of knowing that he could hang with the best of the best.
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Now as Army's highest ranked wrestler in the lineup, Hartman wants more. He wants to chase greatness, and he wants to end up on the podium. Army has not had an All-American since 2008, but with five guys ranked, including No. 16 Trey Chalifoux (125 pounds), No. 12 Ben Harvey (174), No. 17 Noah Stewart (184), No. 20 Ben Sullivan (heavyweight) and Hartman, this could be the year things change. This is the same team that also beat Navy for the fourth-consecutive time to set a program record for wins over the Midshipmen, so if there's one thing they know how to do, it's beat other warriors.
North Carolina Tar Heels
For the second year in a row, North Carolina earned a spot on our "impressive teams" list. It's time we start giving the Tar Heels a little more credit at the start of the season so we aren't as surprised when they come rolling through the year with win after win after win. The ACC as a whole has been impressive with four teams in the top 10, led by N.C. State and followed closely by the Tar Heels.
North Carolina came into the year as a team ranked No. 17 in the country and even with their top performing dropping from their No. 1 preseason spot, the Heels have found depth, strength and consistency that has propelled them into the top 10 for the first time since 1995.
A win over Michigan early in the season gave the Heels some momentum against a ranked opponent but Stanford held down their home gym to deliver the Heels their first loss of the season early. The loss set North Carolina back a bit but wins over Army and Princeton put the team back on track. The team lost to N.C. State and Arizona State but beat Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh to solidify themselves as ACC title contenders.
Leading the way for North Carolina is Austin O'Connor, last year's 149-pound freshman superstar who finished third in the national tournament after repeated wins on the big stage against ACC rival Mitch Finesilver. O'Connor suffered an injury early in the season that limited his mat time, but the young All-American has a 23-1 record with his only loss coming against No. 2 Pat Lugo of Iowa at Midlands. O'Connor's best win this season has come against American's Kizhan Clarke but his 22 other wins suggest that he's now hungry, healthy and ready to battle for control of the weight class that he owned to start the season.
Joining O'Connor in the rankings is 141-pound national qualifier Zach Sherman, 157-pound national qualifier A.C. Headlee and 165-pound national qualifier Kennedy Monday. Sherman holds the highest ranking of the three at No. 12, while Monday is No. 13 and Headlee is No. 19. If all three of these guys can make a run at the podium, North Carolina could finish with more All-Americans than its had since 1995. This team is special, and as head coach Coleman Scott said in his post-dual speech after the team's win against Virginia Tech, they want more.
We're staying in the South a little longer with this pick as the Camels have had a tremendous year with a monumental win over Iowa State and an undefeated conference dual season. The team will end the year as the No. 20 program in the country and the rise of the Camels is a story in itself.
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Starting the season unranked, Campbell made its top-25 debut this season on November 12 after a win over Ohio. The team returned to the rankings two months later on Jan. 14 after the win over then No. 11 Iowa State, and with the exception of a close loss to Arizona State, the team hasn't taken an "L" since. Head coach Cary Kolat has been building a nationally-ranked squad down in Buis Creek, North Carolina, and the success really showed this dual season.
Campbell qualified six wrestlers for the NCAA tournament in 2019 but could look to qualify even more as they come into the SoCon championship next week with all 10 athletes ranked in the top three of the conference. This is a team that can't be underestimated.