Seven Big Ten teams — Michigan, Rutgers, Minnesota, Nebraska, Indiana, Illinois and Maryland — kicked off the 2021 season over the weekend, offering fans a first look at this year’s stars. Despite the empty stands and the quiet arenas, the wrestlers stepped up, shook off the rust of the post-season and put up some serious points.
Here’s what you need to know about the first weekend of Big Ten wrestling and what these matches suggest about the rest of the season.
Gable Steveson and Sebastian Rivera are back
Minnesota battled No. 5 Nebraska tough in the season-opener on Friday night, but despite the team loss, the spotlight remained on Minnesota heavyweight Gable Steveson. He's the No. 1-ranked wrestler in the country and a likely contender for the 125kg spot on the 2021 U.S. Olympic team. Steveson cruised to a tech fall in the first match of his junior campaign, and his performance showed the Big Ten that he’s back and better than ever. A conference champion and two-time All-American, Stevenson missed out on the chance to battle for a national title last year, but his mind is squarely focused on 2021 and putting up as many dominant performances as possible. All eyes will be on the Gopher heavyweight throughout the season, but he’s not the only top-ranked guy aiming to make some noise in this shortened dual schedule.
Looking to battle Steveson for that top spot in the heavyweight rankings is No. 2 Mason Parris of Michigan, a Big Ten runner up in his sophomore year and 2019 junior world champion. Parris has only wrestled Steveson once in his career, and he fell to the Gopher big man 8-6, but he’s looking for another shot this year. Michigan won’t wrestle Minnesota in the regular season, but look for Steveson and Parris to battle each other in the Big Ten tournament for team points and bragging rights. The Michigan lineup as a whole is packed full of experienced title contenders across the board with Kanen Storr, Stevan Micic, Myles Amine and Logan Massa also ranked in the top six. Like Parris, Storr and Massa also went 2-0 on the weekend with Massa picking up two majors and Storr battling tough for a pair of decisions. This squad is tested and proven, and they’ll be a team to watch as the Big Ten schedule continues to heat up.
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Michigan will be pushed by No. 5 Nebraska for a team trophy and even team title as the Red and White showed Friday night that they also have a lineup that could put up some points in March. Nebraska’s proven stars — Mikey Labriola, Chad Red and Eric Schultz — all shined with wins of varying dominance from Labriola’s pin to a tight 3-1 win for Red. The Huskers notched a hard-fought team win 22-14 over the Gophers, and with the likely addition of All-American Taylor Venz to its lineup later in the season, Nebraska will be even more dangerous.
East of Lincoln, Nebraska, in Piscataway, New Jersey, another star is cementing himself as a team leader and a title contender. Graduate transfer and three-time All-American Sebastian Rivera begins his first season for Rutgers. Rocking the Block R on his chest, Rivera ran onto the mat at the RAC Friday night with his signature swagger and immediately started racking up points in his bout against Drew Mattin of Michigan. His strength came from his top game, and he picked up a big four-point near fall in the third period to clinch the major decision 8-0, his first career win for Rutgers.
“[He’s] good on top, I knew he would be,” Rutgers head coach Scott Goodale said in a post-match press conference. “And guys aren’t really going to come after him and wrestle him, so he’s frustrated because he’s not scoring but that will probably be the norm for a while. When guys open up, he’ll be fine. But to be a national champ you have to be great in all three areas. He’s good on top, and he’s a good kid too.” Rivera will be the face of this team throughout the season given his success and his leadership, but he’s not the only new Scarlet Knight on the mat this year.
Rookies John Poznanski and Dylan Ragusin shine in weekend duals
If you heard the phrase “Making his debut in a new singlet” on the Big Ten Network on Friday night or Sunday morning, you could have been listening to commentary about a number of guys lighting up the scoreboard in their debuts for a new team.
In its dual against Michigan on Friday night, Rutgers sent out freshman Devon Britton, Robert Kanniard and John Poznanski for their first match in the Scarlet and Gray. Poznanski, in particular, stepped up, earning a tough 7-1 win over Joseph Walker to put three points on the board for his team.
“Poz is solid. He’s solid in all three positions. You want to see him open up a little,” Goodale said. “Good for Poz, I know there were a lot of nerves there, there were expectations, he feels all that. It’s good to get one out of the way, just have to keep building.”
Poznanski and Rivera were two of three new Rutgers wrestlers to score in the 26-10 loss to Michigan with Billy Janzer earning the third win against over Andrew Davison, but as the new team continues to come together and fine-tune their technique, Goodale is hopefully for better performances in the future.
Michigan, on the other hand, had a few young stars of its own battling against the Scarlet Knights and, later in the weekend, against the Maryland Terrapins. True freshman Dylan Ragusin headlined the weekend for the Wolverines with a fall against Rutgers’ Nicolas Aguilar and a major decision against Maryland’s King Sandoval to start his career with two bonus point wins. Ragusin, a finalist at senior nationals, had high expectations heading into the season after his performances this summer; his dominant early performances showed that this young star has no problem translating his freestyle savviness into folkstyle success. Michigan’s redshirt freshman Cameron Amine also went 2-0 on the weekend with a 10-5 win against Rutgers’ Brett Donner and a major decision against Maryland’s Jonathan Spadafora. Amine is expected to be a fixture in the lineup this year, joining his cousin, Myles Amine, in Michigan’s chase for a national title.
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In the Minnesota vs. Nebraska dual, the Huskers started things off with senior transfer Liam Cronin, a former Indiana Hoosier who wrestled hard and tough for seven minutes to pick up an 8-1 decision over Patrick McKee. His power and speed set the tone of the Red and White, as fellow Nebraska newcomers Brock Hardy and Nathan Haas followed Cronin with wins of their own. The free year of eligibility this season has led coaches to send out true freshman athletes to test themselves in dual-season matches, creating a wrestling season where the best athletes wrestle, regardless of age.
More star power to come later in the season
While newcomers thrived, a number of key stars were missing from lineups this weekend, including two key Michigan All-American title contenders at 133 pounds and 184 pounds. Stevan Micic and Myles Amine, both who took Olympic redshirts last year and qualified to represent Serbia and San Marino in the Olympics, were missing from the Wolverine lineup. Micic was replaced by Jack Medley, last year’s 125-pounder, and Medley stepped up to go 2-0 on the weekend. At 184 pounds, Joseph Walker took two losses, one to Maryland’s Kyle Cochran and the other to Poznanski. The Wolverines didn’t need their standard starters at these weights to win either of their two duals, but with Micic and Amine back wrestling, Michigan will be even scarier.
Nebraska also held out a star in 184-pounder Taylor Venz, but Haas stepped up and notched the win over Minnesota’s Owen Webster to give the Huskers key points at a time when the dual was tight. Venz finished fourth at the NCAA tournament as a freshman and was awarded All-American honors because of his seed going into the 2020 tournament; he’s expected to be a threat again for the Red and White and could return against Iowa next week for another showdown with Abe Assad, if the Hawkeyes choose to wrestle their sophomore All-American. Venz split with Assad last year, setting up a potentially fun rubber match if the two meet on Friday.
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For Rutgers, the absence of 133-pound Sammy Alvarez hurt the team from a points perspective, but the No. 10 seed heading into last year’s NCAA tournament and the always funky wrestler is expected to be back soon. Goodale said after the dual that Alvarez was a little dinged up but not out for the season. The big question for Rutgers is Nick Suriano, a 2019 NCAA champion at 133-pounds and an Olympic hopeful who is currently training in Arizona while taking online classes through Rutgers. Suriano’s return to the Rutgers lineup for the championship season is unknown. However, if he does return, lineup changes will have to be made to accommodate for the title-contender New Jersey star. Suriano, Alvarez and Rivera could be quite the triple-threat for the Scarlet Knight, but a lineup with Suriano is still a question mark at this point.
Looking ahead to next week: Hawks, Nittany Lions and more
Big Ten action continues next weekend with two major duals on Friday between No. 5 Nebraska and No. 1 Iowa, and No. 16 Purdue vs. No. 22 Northwestern. Maryland, Michigan State and No. 12 Minnesota will battle on Saturday in a tri-dual while No. 15 Rutgers and No. 2 Penn State will compete the same day. The weekend rounds up with a No. 7 Ohio State- No. 20 Wisconsin - Illinois tri-dual and an Indiana vs. No. 3 Michigan dual on Sunday.
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Illinois, the only non-ranked team that picked up a win over the weekend, is led by seniors Dylan Duncan and Michael Carr who both helped lead their team to a dominant performance against Indiana on Sunday, 39-3. Duncan earned a fall against Paul Konrath in the final minute of the third period while Carr, a two-time NCAA qualifier and Big Ten finalist, picked up a major. Both will be key factors in the Illini lineup this season as they chase the All-American honors that have eluded them in their first few seasons. Redshirt sophomore Danny Braunagel will also be an Illini to watch, as he went 23-9 last year and opened his 2021 campaign with a tech fall against Nick South. Braunagel sits at No. 13 in the rankings while his brother Zach is ranked No. 16.
The dual of the next weekend, however, will be Iowa vs. Nebraska as the Huskers battled the Hawks tough last year but still lost 26-6. The year’s matches will be in Carver-Hawkeye Arena, and Tom Brands’ team will likely come out of the tunnel ready to make a statement. Big Ten wrestling is here, and it’s just getting started.