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Shannon Scovel | NCAA.com | October 5, 2021

5 storylines to watch in the 2021-22 NCAA wrestling season

The top storylines to follow this college wrestling season

All roads lead to Detroit. The 2021-22 college wrestling season will culminate on March 19, 2022, in Little Caesar's Arena at the NCAA championships, but the events leading up to that finale under the bright lights on Saturday night are the moments that will generate the stories to remember. 

NCAA WRESTLING: Complete history of team national champions

After a shortened season in 2021 void of open tournaments and winter classics like the Cliff Keen Invitational, Midlands and the Southern Scuffle, the 2021-22 season is expected to be more traditional, with one unusual twist. All wrestlers were given an extra year of eligibility last season because of the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning that some athletes like Iowa's Jaydin Eierman and Michael Kemerer will be returning for a seventh season while other athletes like Oklahoma State's AJ Ferrari are essentially earning a second freshman year.

The weights are stacked, the field is deep, and the battle for each individual national title will be intense, dramatic and full of surprises. Here are the major storylines you need to know in advance of what will undoubtedly be an exciting season ahead. 

1. All 10 2021 NCAA champions return, headlined by Olympic Gold Medalist Gable Steveson 

When Minnesota heavyweight NCAA champion Gable Steveson earned his golden takedown against Geno Petriashvili to win the 125kg bracket at the Tokyo Olympics, questions started swirling: Would Steveson return to Minnesota? Would he sign with the WWE? Would he explore other opportunities? 

Steveson, who has NCAA eligibility remaining, let fans wonder, and he fueled the gossip mill with occasional cryptic tweets about potential options. In the end though, Steveson has signed up to do it all. The Golden Gopher will return to his collegiate team this season while balancing the WWE and maximizing his opportunity to make money off his name, image and likeness as an NCAA champ. He considered all of his options, from the NFL to MMA, but his choice is quintessential Steveson: a little ambitious, truly original and surely sensational. 

GOLD FOR GABLE: Relive Minnesota's Gable Steveson's gold medal performance at the 2020 Olympics

Steveson, however, isn’t the only NCAA champ returning to the mat this year. Because of the extra year of eligibility granted in 2021 due to COVID-19, all nine of the other NCAA champions — including three-time champion Spencer Lee and freshman champions Carter Starocci and AJ Ferrari — will come back to defend their titles. 

While Steveson knows how to work a crowd and drum up interest for the sport of wrestling, it's possible that no one loves the spotlight more than fellow NCAA champ Ferrari, the Oklahoma State freshman who brought an individual national title back to Stillwater in his first appearance on the big stage. A highly-touted recruit, Ferrari came to Oklahoma State with high expectations for his team and himself, and he delivered, winning the 197-pound bracket in 2021 and flexing for the camera in traditional Ferrari style. Since then, Ferrari has embraced the fame that follows any NCAA champion, and he’s become a star on the campus that welcomed him in just one year ago. Despite his antics and his flashy Instagram posts, Ferrari has the skills to repeat as national champion, though his bracket will become more competitive with the emergence of Junior World Champion Braxton Amos, a Wisconsin freshman who is being pegged as a potential rival for Ferrari at 197 pounds. 

While Ferrari is loud and expressive, fellow returning NCAA champion David Carr of Iowa State is the opposite. Mellow and humble, Carr made Cyclone history when he won the 157-pound national title 30 years after his father accomplished the same goal for the same school. As the No. 3 seed in the 2021 season, Carr was overlooked in favor of Big Ten champion Ryan Deakin and ACC Champion Hayden Hidlay, but the Big 12 star put his head down and did what he set out to do. Carr ended his season with a 20-0 record and a 65% bonus rate that helped him become the conference wrestler of the year, a national champion and a Hodge finalist. His championship win against Jesse Dellavecchia was a definitive 4-0 decision, and Carr celebrated with a back handspring flip, a tribute to his coach Brent Metcalf's backflip interference incident in 2009. 

Carr will have even more competition this year too, as North Carolina's NCAA champion at 149 pounds, Austin O'Connor is moving up and adding further depth to the weight. O'Connor won his title against Ohio State's Sammy Sasso at 149 pounds last year and will look to add another piece of hardware to his trophy case this year in a new weight. Deakin also returns, but Hidlay will be bumping up to 174, so O'Connor and Hidlay won't meet in the ACC championships. The 157-pound weight, however, will still be a big one to watch full of talent. 

The most credentialed of this group of champions, at least at the NCAA level, however, is none other than Spencer Lee, a three-time title winner and a two-time Hodge Trophy winner. A traditionally quiet, focused leader for Iowa, Lee made headlines last year when, after his championship match, he revealed that he beat finalist Brandon Courtney with no ACLs, after tearing his second ACL eight days earlier at the Big Ten Championship. Despite those injuries and a forced early withdrawal from the Olympic Trials registration at 57kg, Lee is expected to return to the mat this year and work to become the fifth four-time NCAA champion in the history of the sport. Lee has dominated the 125-pound division every year, but he’ll have more competition this year as the Ivy League returns and Patrick Glory and Vito Arujau rejoin the weight. Lee is the leader of an Iowa team committed to repeating their team success, but four other NCAA champions — a group of guys wrestling in State College — might have something to say about that. 

2. Penn State and Iowa chase team team title glory  

The 2021 Iowa Hawkeyes brought home team gold in St. Louis last year anchored behind seven All-Americans, including three-time NCAA champion Lee, NCAA finalists Jaydin Eierman and Michael Kemerer and Big Ten champion Alex Marinelli. The Penn State Nittany Lions, however, made a statement in their second-place performance, putting four wrestlers on the top of the podium after going four-for-four in the NCAA finals. Roman Bravo-Young and Nick Lee of Penn State became the first 133 and 141-pound champs in school history while Carter Starocci and Aaron Brooks continued Penn State’s rich history of success at 174 and 184 pounds. 

HAWKS ON TOP: Iowa wins 2021 NCAA wrestling tournament 

Bravo-Young, Lee, Starocci and Brooks will be the anchors of a Penn State squad that is doing everything it can to push, if not top, the Hawkeyes. Penn State head coach Cael Sanderson has led his team to victory in eight of the last ten NCAA championships, and this year's team will certainly be in that title conversation. The Penn State vs. Iowa battle for dominance will be one of the biggest team storylines this year, and these athletes will likely see each other at a dual at the conference championships and the national tournament, increasing the intensity and value of the rivalry.

Sanderson's duo of Bravo-Young and Lee will once again meet Iowa rivals in Austin DeSanto and Jaydin Eierman at numerous points throughout the season, and while both Hawkeyes do have wins over Sanderson's champs, the Nittany Lions have the more recent wins, and, in the case of Bravo-Young at least, seem to have figured out a successful strategy for continued success. Starocci will, of course, meet NCAA finalist foe Michael Kemerer of Iowa likely several times throughout the season as well, and they've split their two matches. The age difference between these two is interesting, as Kemerer will be wrestling in his seventh year of college this season, while Starocci is still building towards his prime years, a dangerous reality for his opponents. Penn State's fourth champ, Aaron Brooks, will have an Iowa counterpart in either Iowa's Nelson Brands or Abe Assad, both of whom are elite competitors but have yet to demonstrate that they are on Brooks' level. This 184-pound weight is Penn State's best chance to put up some points against the Hawks and make a move. 

The depth of the Nittany Lion lineup is wild and only going to be stronger than in 2021, particularly at the upper weights. At 197-pounds, Penn State freshman Michael Beard finished seventh in 2021, an impressive feat for a redshirt freshman, but he'll be replaced this year at the weight by NCAA finalist transfer Max Dean, previously of Cornell. In Dean's last NCAA tournament, he put up a surprise win over Ohio State's Myles Martin before falling to Northern Iowa's Drew Foster in 2019, and after an Olympic redshirt year during the Ivy League's canceled season in 2021, Dean returns to the mat in the Blue and White. He'll upgrade an already impressive team and will ultimately be competing for team points at the weight with Iowa's three-time All-American Jacob Warner. These two have never met in college but are sure to put on a strength show. 

BIG TEN, BIG SHOW: Iowa wins 2021 Big Ten wrestling tournament with four champs

Heavyweight will also feature a series of stars from both Penn State and Iowa, as the Hawkeyes will roll out two-time All-American Tony Cassioppi while Penn State will send out Greg Kerkvliet, a seventh-place finisher in last year's tournament who advanced to the semifinals of the Olympic Trials. Kerkvliet is dangerous, and while he took a 9-0 loss to Cassioppi in the Big Ten Tournament, he also later held Olympian Gable Steveson to a decision in the NCAA tournament. Cassioppi has the edge, but Kerkvliet can't be dismissed.  

The gaps for Penn State are at 125, 149, 157 and 165, all slots where Iowa has All-American wrestlers. At 125, there's almost no one in the country who can go with Spencer Lee, so while Robert Howard did a solid job for the Nittany Lions in 2021 by finishing in the Round of 16 at the NCAA tournament, Sanderson and Co. will likely have Howard take a redshirt year and send out Gary Steen, a two-time Pennsylvania high school state champion. Either way, taking on Lee is a tough challenge, making the weight a tough one for Penn State to compete against Iowa.

The 149-pound weight class is interesting, as Iowa will have veteran Max Murin filling in the spot, while Penn State has some options. Last year, true freshman Beau Bartlett took over the weight but didn't pick up enough matches and tournament wins to qualify for NCAAs. He'll likely get the nod again, though Penn State also has another star-studded recruit in Shayne Van Ness who could be a possibility. Van Ness is a little bit of a wild card, as he hasn't wrestled a college match, so it's unclear how he stacks up against Murin, but that will be a fun weight to keep an eye on. 

Penn State is likely to have another freshman start at 165 pounds in Alex Facundo, a highly-anticipated four-time Michigan state champion who could make a major impact for the Nittany Lions at a weight where the program has had serious success in the past. Facundo won the 2021 Dave Schultz High School Excellence Award for his accomplishments at the Prep level, but he'll be thrown into elite collegiate matchups immediately if he gets the start for Penn State. Iowa's three-time Big Ten champion Alex Marinelli will be waiting for him, as Marinelli seeks his first NCAA title and another All-American honor. Facundo and Van Ness' ability to make the jump to collegiate-level wrestling will determine Penn State's ability to compete with the Hawks. 

THE BEST OF THE BEST: The ultimate, all-time Penn State wrestling lineup

The last weight that these two teams will battle in will be 157 pounds, where Iowa's Kaleb Young has only improved, finishing on the podium for the second time in his career last year. Penn State will likely feature Joe Lee, the younger brother of Nick Lee at this weight, with Joe dropping down from 165 where he was last year to join Young at 157 pounds. Young has the edge here, but if Lee can make jumps, the Nittany Lions could fight for points here, though Iowa will hold an advantage until proven otherwise.

Penn State's lineup is young, and Iowa's is quite the opposite, with a crew of veterans and graduate students looking for one more run. Each weight presents a different type of matchup, but if 2021 proved one thing, it's that Penn State doesn't give up. The Nittany Lion's second-place finish and four individual championships was almost just as impressive as Iowa's national championship. Who will take the team title this time? 

3. Stanford, Shane Griffith and Rob Koll: A dynamic trio

Penn State and Iowa combined for five of the ten NCAA champions in 2021, but there was one champion who didn’t come from either of those schools who stole the spotlight away from the Big Ten. This was the wrestler that had the arena chanting for his school, this was the wrestler who helped change policy and this was the wrestler who people incorrectly thought might leave the program that put him through so much. 

Shane Griffith, the most outstanding wrestler of the 2021, the most influential wrestler of 2021 and perhaps the most anticipated returning member of his team, will be back representing the Stanford Cardinal in 2021-22 after a season of adversity and uncertainty. When COVID-19 hit back in the spring of 2020, California took the virus seriously, and Stanford did not have the opportunity to practice as a team for nearly the entire fall 2020 semester. Griffith and his teammates practiced outside and anywhere they could, but they couldn’t compete until late January, managing to fit in just three duals before the conference tournament. 

Amidst all of this, the school had announced plans to cut the program after the 2021 season, prompting Griffith and his teammates to start looking for new homes for the future. The Cardinal squad, led by then-head coach Jason Borrelli, navigated all these changes — COVID-19 protocols, university rules and modified practice schedules — all knowing that this might be the last season they ever compete for the Cardinal. They weren’t giving up. In protest of the school’s decision to cut the wrestling program, Borrelli’s team wore plain black singlets, void of the Stanford logo. They wore homemade “Keep Stanford Wrestling” shirts in lieu of university-issued gear, and they wore plain sweats instead of the traditional team sweats. Stanford wrestling had became a walking protest, and Griffith was the perfect person to become the face of this team. 

GUTS, GLORY & GRIFFITH: Shane Griffith wins the 165-pound NCAA title

Heading into the 2021 Pac-12 tournament, Griffith was 5-0, but, in the Pac-12 finals, the 165-pound star took the first loss of his varsity collegiate career to Anthony Valencia of Arizona State, a loss that would bump him down to the No. 8 seed for the NCAA tournament and shake his confidence just a tad. But nothing stops Griffith. Wearing that plain black singlet of his team, Griffith stormed through his national bracket, beating Alex Marinelli, Zach Hartman and Jake Wentzel in his last three matches to become the latest NCAA wrestling champion for Stanford and using his time at the microphone after his match to advocate for keeping the Stanford wrestling program.

The Stanford wrestling story had become such a big deal that ESPN asked Griffith about the team after his match:  “What’s it like to be really the last Stanford wrestler?” Griffith replied matter-of-factly: “Hopefully [I’m] not. I’m just trying to make a name for myself and the program.” 

And that he did. The cheers from the crowd of “Keep Stanford Wrestling, Keep Stanford Wrestling” sent a message on a national stage that this program mattered, and, as it turns out, Stanford was listening. 

The school agreed to reinstate the program and hire a new coaching staff after the 2020-21 staff left for new jobs. Leading the team this season is longtime Cornell coach Rob Koll, and he inherited a squad full of talent. Griffith will no doubt be the biggest name on the team this season and carry all of the expectations that come from saving your program by winning a national championship, but he also has All-American Jaden Abas and Real Woods alongside him in the lineup as well as a slew of additional talent. This is a team with character and heart, and they will now proudly represent Stanford on a quest to continue to bring success to this storied program. 

4. The next steps in the Nick Suriano Saga

One of the biggest remaining mysteries heading into the 2021-22 season is the new home of 2019 NCAA champion Nick Surino. The 133-pound champion made history for Rutgers when he beat Daton Fix to became the first NCAA champion in school history, but he hasn’t been a part of the Scarlet Knights team for nearly two years. He took an Olympic redshirt in advance of the 2020 season, but following the postponement of the 2020 Olympics, Suriano moved to Arizona and began training freestyle with Mark Perry of the Sunkist Kids Regional Training Center, a program loosely affiliated with the Arizona State Sun Devils. Rumors swirled about a potential Surino return to the Garden State in 2021, but the lightweight remained out West, preparing for the Olympic Trials in a second redshirt season. Despite being in prime position to compete for an Olympic Team spot, Suriano pulled out of the Trials after a positive COVID-19 test. 

Suriano's move out to Arizona seemed to suggest that he had moved on from college wrestling and would focus on making World and Olympic teams for the remainder of his college career. But, Suriano kept wrestling fans on their toes and added intrigue to his own story when he entered the transfer portal in July 2021. A return to Rutgers now seems nearly impossible, but where will Suriano end up? Will he stay out in Arizona where he appears to have thrived under Mark Perry but will need to find a spot within a crowded lightweight lineup? Or will he head to another Big Ten school and aim to capitalize on the Big Ten hype while building his brand? Or will he decide that he is indeed done with college wrestling and ultimately pull out of the portal and continue his freestyle career? If he does stay, what weight will he wrestle? 

GOLDEN BOYS: Nick Suriano and Anthony Ashnault win national titles for Rutgers in 2019

Suriano has been a staple on the college wrestling season since he started his career as a scrappy, gritty freshman at Penn State. His transfer to Rutgers after that first season added a legendary twist to his story, and his first title for the Scarlet Knight made him a Jersey hero. Now Suriano is writing the next chapter. While his decisions moving forward may be unknown, Suriano's limited media interviews suggest that he has unfinished business on the mat, certainly in freestyle and perhaps in folkstyle as well. His decisions could dramatically shift the focus and nature of the college wrestling scene should he choose to find a new NCAA home and compete again. We're all just waiting to see how this story goes. 

    5. The Ivy League returns with title contenders

    The college wrestling world has missed out on the opportunity to watch Cornell NCAA champion Yianni Diakomihalis show off his skills for the last two seasons, but the wait is finally over. Diakomihalis and the Cornell team, along with the rest of the Ivy League, will finally take the mat again following a missed season in 2021 because of COVID-19 and a canceled tournament in 2020. Bring on the Cornell vs. Princeton rivalry. Bring on Diakomihalis chasing his third title. Bring on Vito Arujau and Pat Glory chasing Spencer Lee at 125. And bring on watching how some of these young stars at Penn, Brown, Columbia and Harvard have developed over the past two years. The Ivy League is back, and it's go time. 

    FIVE QUESTIONS WITH DIAKOMIHALIS: Hear from the champ after his 2018 NCAA title win

    Diakomihalis is no doubt the biggest star of the conference, after winning the 141-pound weight class in back-to-back years and beating successful and seasoned veterans in both Bryce Meredith and Joey McKenna to achieve such a feat. Since his 2019 title, Diakomihalis took an Olympic redshirt in 2020, avoiding the COVID-19 cancellation drama and took another Olympic redshirt the following season to prepare for the Trials. Despite missing the Olympic team and navigating the adversity and uncertainty of the past two years, Diakomihalis stayed focused. He trusted his assistant-turned-head coach Mike Grey following former head coach Rob Koll's move to Stanford and he wrestled his way, a process that most recently lead him to topping McKenna last weekend in Lincoln, Nebraska, in a best-of-three match to win a spot on his first senior level world team. Diakomihalis will now look to become the first 65kg American wrestler to medal at the weight since 2006, and his track record of success suggests that he could be bring back some hardware at the weight for the US for the first time in over a decade. 

    Senior Worlds won't be the only big goal for Diakomihalis this year though. As he returns to college wrestling, potentially at a new weight of 149 pounds, Diakomihalis wants a third NCAA title. And he wants to do it with a team that has been with him since Day 1. 

    The Cornell Big Red has been a big part of the Diakomihalis brand, and this year will be particularly special for the team leader and two-time NCAA champion. Not only will Diakomihalis be joined by longtime friend and teammate Vito Arujau, but he'll also likely see his own younger brother Greg Diakomihalis slot in at 133 pounds, creating a fun 1-2 punch between Arujau at 125 and the younger Diakomihalis. Watching Greg Diakomihalis will be a treat just because he's new to the college scene as a freshman and a little bit of an unknown in terms of how he'll do against the best of the best, but one of his likely training parters, Arujau, is anything but unproven. 

    Arujau and the older of the two Diakomihalis brothers have a long history together as both rivals, friends and teammates, as they met in the New York High School State finals and 2015 58kg Cadet Finals in particular before joining the Big Red together in 2018. The two share a fun bond that leads to many things, success among them, and they'll be two wresters you won't want to miss this upcoming season. 

    While Arujau missed out on the Senior World Team Trials because of COVID-19, he's absolutely a threat at 125 pounds this college season after finishing fourth his freshman year in 2019 and showing that he can hang with the best of the best at the elite level. He won the 2021 Pan American Championships at 57kg in Guatemala and the 2020 U.S. National Championships in Coralville, Iowa, during his two Olympic redshirt years, and he also made the Olympic Trials finals in April 2021 opposite eventual Olympic bronze medalist Thomas Gilman. He was a contender to make the world team at 61kg before his COVID-19 test, and he should be in the finals conversation at the lightest weight this college season. The problem facing Arujau and his Princeton counterpart in fellow All-American Pat Glory, is Spencer Lee.

    Lee has owned 125 pounds since he started his college career with the Hawkeyes, and he's 2-0 against Glory in convincing fashion, teching him 18-2 in the 2019 Princeton dual and beating him 12-6 in the 2019 Midlands tournament. Arujau, on the other hand, has never wrestled Lee collegiately in folkstyle, though he has been teched by the three-time champ at the 2019 U.S. Senior Nationals. Like Arujau, Glory missed out on the 2021 season because of the Ivy League decision to skip the season due to COVID-19, but, unlike Arujau, Glory did not take an Olympic redshirt in 2020, and spent the season chasing a shot at the 125 pound title. He didn't have the chance to wrestle Lee that season, as the Iowa star was essentially on a pitch count, wrestling limited matches in preparation for the eventually postponed Olympic Trials. Since then, Glory has been quietly training and making the U23 world team, and he's certainly hungry to put on his black and orange singlet as the leader of his team and wrestle for collegiate glory against the best of the best. Glory and Arujau have no doubt both improved tremendously since their freshman seasons when they took sixth and fourth respectively at the NCAA championships in 2019, and their efforts to top Lee is a storyline absolutely worth following. 

    FIVE TEAMS WE UNDERESTIMATED IN 2019: The Princeton Tigers are no longer the underdogs 

    Diakomihalis, Glory and Arujau, however, aren't the only returning All-Americans from the Princeton vs. Cornell rival squads though. The Big Red will roll out experienced big man All-American Ben Darmstadt at 197 pounds for the first time since 2019, and Darmstadt is expected to make a major impact at the weight after finishing sixth in 2018 and earning the No. 4 seed before the canceled 2020 tournament. The Tigers have their own additional returning All-American in 157-pound Quincy Monday, and Monday is looking for the chance to make the podium in his junior season after going 24-4. 

    Princeton and Cornell may make all of the news because of their recent back-and-forth battles and title contenders, but Penn has also been making some big moves. The Quakers have built out their roster at both the college and postgraduate level since the last time they competed on the NCAA level, and, one of their young stars, Michael Colaiocco will be a fun up-and-comer to watch out for this coming season. Colaiocco will once again join the traditionally wildly competitive 133-pound bracket and will be expected to make a run for the podium after a freshman year where he went 23-7 in a solid debut season with wins over All-American Killian Cardinale and Drew Hildebrandt and Big Ten finalist Devin Schroder. He's joined by teammates Anthony Artalona and Doug Zapf as ranked athletes heading into the 2021 season, and all three, along with all of the Ivy athletes, are just looking for the chance to compete again after two years of disruption. 

    Nothing is ever guaranteed in wrestling, and no one knows that better than the Ivy League athletes who had to put their dreams on hold for two seasons. Now is their chance to shine again.