The last time Carter Starocci competed in a Penn State singlet, the 174-pound then-freshman took down Iowa sixth-year senior Michael Kemerer to win his first NCAA title at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis in a surprising reversal of the Big Ten finals match.
Starocci’s win marked the third of what would be four Penn State individual titles that night in the Show-Me State, and it signaled the culmination of a year of development for the young Lion who had only lost twice all season, once in his opener against DJ Washington of Indiana in January and once to Kemerer in the aforementioned Big Ten Finals. Without fans, Starocci’s national championship win was perhaps more anticlimactic than it could have been, but the 174-pounder and the Nittany Lions clearly sent a message that night that the team was, once again, building something special in State College.
Now, six months after that title win, Starocci and several of his Nittany Lion Wrestling Club teammates will take the mat for another big tournament, this time competing for a spot on the 2021 Senior World Team. Starocci, in particular, has one of the biggest challenges ahead of him, as he’ll have two-time Olympian and four-time World Champion Jordan Burroughs in his weight along with multiple-time NCAA champions Alex Dieringer, Isaiah Martinez and Jason Nolf, but the young star has proven he’s a fighter.
These Trials will offer wrestling fans the opportunity to see some of the best in the nation compete for a World spot, but the tournament will also be a chance to assess where some of the top college wrestlers are just about a month before the 2021-2022 collegiate season begins. Here’s everything you need to know about your favorite NCAA athletes as they prepare to compete for a ticket to the World Championships:
All 2021 Olympic medalists except Gable Steveson have already accepted World Team spots
Per USA Wrestling World Team rules, any athlete who medaled in the Olympics had the opportunity to accept a Worlds spot at their weight, and all but one of those Olympic medalists chose to wrestle at Worlds. The fact that most medalists agreed to accept their spots means that some college programs can ensure that they’ll have representation at Oslo, Norway at the World Championships. Thomas Gilman, a graduate of the University of Iowa, who now trains with the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club, will represent the United States at 57kg after winning bronze in Tokyo. Kyle Dake of Cornell University and the Spartan Combat Regional Training Center will also rock the red, white and blue on the world stage again after his bronze medal at 74kg, and Ohio State alumnus and current Nittany Lion Wrestling Club 97kg athlete Kyle Snyder will be the U.S. rep at his weight in Worlds after an Olympic silver.
David Taylor, the gold medalist at 86kg, will represent the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club as a current team member and a Penn State alumnus at the World Championships. His gold medal winning teammate, Gable Steveson of Minnesota and the Gopher Wrestling Club, on the other hand, declined his spot, opening up the heaviest weight class for competition.
GOLD FOR GABLE: Relive Minnesota's Gable Steveson's gold medal performance at the 2020 Olympics
While 125kg is will be open to athletes at the World Team Trials because of Steveson’s deferral, the Olympic men’s freestyle medalists at 57kg, 74kg, 86kg and 97kg will not be contested at the World Team Trials, and any athlete wishing to compete for a World Team spot originally at those weights will need to move up or down. This creates a logjam and depth at the non-Olympic weights such as 61kg, 70kg, 79kg and 92kg, as athletes attempt to adjust their body size to be in optimal position to compete for a title.
Gold medalist Tamyra Mensah-Stock, silver medalist Adeline Gray, bronze medalist Helen Maroulis and bronze medalist Sarah Hildebrandt will also be in action for the women, meaning that 50kg, 57kg, 68kg, and 76kg will not be contested at the World Team Trials. These four athletes all graduated from different institutions, representing themselves as graduates of Wayland Baptist, DeVry University, Simon Fraser and King University on the World Stage. Olympic fifth-place finisher Jacarra Winchester, a graduate of Missouri Valley College, will automatically advance to the semifinals as a result of her Olympic performance at 53kg and her decision to move up to 55kg for the World Team Trials.
Updated Entries: World Team Trials is loaded with Olympians, World medalists, age-group World champions and more— USA Wrestling (@USAWrestling) August 19, 2021
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Though women's wrestling is still an emerging sport as opposed to an NCAA championship sport, the women competing at World Team Trials and representing the WCWA could be future NCAA stars in the years to come. The men's tournament will feature a series of NCAA athletes aiming to send a message ahead of the upcoming season.
Suriano, Diakomihalis and Starocci bring championship starpower to the mat
Three NCAA champions competing in the men’s freestyle bracket have NCAA eligibility remaining, but previous credentials don’t guarantee anything in a tournament of this magnitude. Yianni Diakomihalis knows this well. The two-time NCAA champion from Cornell made headlines in 2018 when he topped Wyoming’s Bryce Meredith in the 141 pound finals of the NCAA tournament, and he followed that performance with another championship win in a nail-biter victory over Joey McKenna of Ohio State. He’s won on some of the biggest stages, but, like all great athletes, he’s also had some defining heartbreaking losses, one in particular to three-time NCAA champion Zain Retherford in the 2019 World Team Trials wrestle-off. A fourth-place finish at the Olympic Trials also left Diakomihalis wanting more, and his chance to make his first Senior World Team is in his hands.
Diakomihalis has taken down Olympian Frank Molinaro, Olympic Trials champion Jordan Oliver, NCAA finalist Joey McKenna and NCAA Champion Nick Lee in his career to pull off major wins, but he also lost to Oliver and Lee at Olympic Trials and McKenna at Nationals in 2019. Diakomihalis’s 65kg bracket will have familiar opponents in this year’s bracket, even with the absence of Lee — who is not entered — and Oliver — who has gone up a weight. McKenna will be waiting for him, as will Jaydin Eierman, Iowa’s funky scrambler who is quick on his feet and has handed Diakomihalis his only collegiate loss. Big Ten champions Pat Lugo and Luke Pletcher will also be competing for the top spot, as will NCAA champion Dean Heil. Throw in All-Americans Dom Demas of Oklahoma and North Carolina alumnus Evan Henderson as well as NCAA qualifier Henry Pohlmeyer and the 65kg bracket is certainly up for grabs. Diakomihalis is capable of winning this bracket, and he could very well be the rep for the United States at 65kg, but don’t underestimate any of these guys in their quest to chase the chance to represent the United States in Oslo.
Speaking of tough brackets, Penn State’s Starocci has his work cut out for him at 79kg. Between his teammate three-time NCAA champion Jason Nolf, four-time World champion Jordan Burroughs and three-time NCAA champion and Hodge winner Alex Dieringer and two-time NCAA champion Isaiah Martinez, Starocci’s first-round match could end up being an NCAA finals caliber match. That list doesn’t even include the four-time All-Americans Hayden Hidlay, David McFadden, three-time All-Americans Evan Wick, two-time All-American Chance Marsteller and Devin Skatzka and the always mysterious and wild 2019 World Team member Pat Downey. Any win is a good win in this bracket that includes so many national championship qualifiers, and Starocci is going to need to have the same kind of focus and grit that he had in St. Louis to make a mark here.
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Starocci is quiet on social media, and he’s known to be a workhorse in the room. His preparation with the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club will no doubt be stellar, but this tournament will be a true test of where he’s at on the national stage. Could he win? Sure, he could. But he has some all-time greats in this bracket that will give him legendary tests and prep him for next year or the next cycle. Burroughs will be the favorite, with Martinez wanting a chance to fight the King at 79kg to take the weight class crown. Dake beat Burroughs 2-0 at the Olympic Trials to earn the World Team spot at 74kg, so this will be the first time fans see Burroughs up a weight in nearly a decade. We’ll see what happens. In terms of the Penn State NCAA champion Starocci, he's young, and this is an experience that you can only gain by going through it.
Perhaps the most intriguing figure in the field is 2019 NCAA champion Nick Suriano who redshirted the last two seasons and comes to the mat after missing out on Olympic Trials because of a positive COVID-19 test. Suriano had reached peak form just before the Trials, winning the Henri Deglane Grand Prix in January 2021 and finishing second in the Matteo Pellicone 2021 Tournament in March. All eyes were on Suriano to shake up the 57kg bracket at Trials, but the virus came into play at the worst time for the former Rutgers star. Suriano’s best looks to be yet to come, but up a couple of kilograms at 61kg, the storylines write themselves.
In Suriano’s last domestic performance, he finished fourth at U.S. Nationals, earning wins over Darian Cruz and Britain Longmire, as well as Shelton Mack and Zane Richards, the last two of which will be in this bracket again. Those four wins were definitive, with a margin of six or more, but an 8-2 loss to Vito Arujau of Cornell dropped Suriano down to the consolation bracket where he would later forfeit out for fourth. His performance at the 2019 Bill Ferrell went similarly, with Suriano picking up major wins against NCAA Champion Nahshon Garrett as well as Richards, Zach Sanders, Eddie Klimara and World Bronze Medalist Joe Colon but then taking a loss 3-1 to NCAA champion Seth Gross. Colon and Gross will both be in this bracket, as 61kg is a better weight for both of those guys than the 57kg they wrestled at in the Ferrell. Arujau is expected to be out of the World Team Trials after a positive COVID-19 test.
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Suriano’s resume shows he has the potential to take home gold, but Gross poses a problem. Then there’s Daton Fix to worry about, a scrappy Oklahoma State lightweight who has given him challenges in the past but someone that Suriano has the last win against.
Active NCAA finalists looking to send a message, make a World Team
Back in 2019, Oklahoma State then-freshman Daton Fix battled his way on to a Senior World Team with a win over 2021 Olympic bronze medalist Thomas Gilman just months after a heartbreaking loss to Suriano in the NCAA finals. The win marked his breakthrough at the senior level and put a target on his back heading into his remaining years of college eligibility. In his next NCAA finals appearance two years later, however, Fix suffered yet another overtime defeat in the 2021 NCAA finals to Roman Bravo-Young. This tournament, the 2021 Senior World Team Trials, is Fix’s shot at redemption.
Fix has written this story before. He is a staple at the senior level and someone that will be absolutely dangerous at 61kg in this tournament. If history is any indication, Fix will come into this tournament ready, and while he doesn’t have an NCAA title yet, there’s a bigger goal in Fix’s mind: a world championship opportunity. The 61kg bracket will also be stacked with young talent, including a developing Jakob Camacho and DIII NCAA finalist Brady Kyner, but Fix’s experience and resume puts him near the top of the list of people who could secure this spot. He'll have an edge over other NCAA athletes in the field such as Ethan Rotondo, Dane Durlacher and Carter Young, but these guys will still have a chance to gain more experience at this tournament that could translate into NCAA success.
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Fix also isn’t the only NCAA finalist looking to use this tournament as a chance to show off his strength. Jaydin Eierman of the University of Iowa is also looking to make a big splash in Lincoln after taking a loss in the 2021 NCAA finals at 141 pounds to the man he beat in the Big Ten Finals: Nick Lee. The second-place finish for Eierman marked his best result yet at NCAAs, but The Riddler wasn’t satisfied. A seventh-year senior now, Eierman will look for a world team spot and an NCAA title this season in a bracket full of hammers.
Eierman, however, has seen nearly every one of these opponents before, either in freestyle or folkstyle competition. He has wins over most of them as well, with the exception of Henry Pohlmeyer and Pat Lugo, who he hasn’t faced in competition, and Evan Henderson, who Eierman is capable of beating now that he’s spent even more time in the elite Hawkeye room. Hawkeye Wrestling Club teammate Pat Lugo poses an interesting challenge in that the two athletes have wildly contrasting styles, but Eierman’s credentials suggest he’ll have an edge, though anything can happen.
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The biggest problem for Eierman will be Joey McKenna, the 2021 Olympic Trials finalist and fellow NCAA finalist who has flourished as a freestyle star while training at the Pennsylvania Regional Training Center. McKenna beat out three-time NCAA champion Zain Retherford to make the Olympic Trials finals, and while he took two losses to Jordan Oliver there and later took a loss to Diakomihalis at the Poland Open, McKenna does have three career wins over Eierman, including a tech fall at 2020 Senior Nationals. McKenna’s dangerous and savvy, and anyone overlooking him in this bracket is making a mistake.
The only three college athletes with NCAA eligibility remaining in the 65kg bracket are Eierman, Diakomihalis and Demas, so Hawkeye, Big Red and Sooner fans should be ready to watch these NCAA and conference champs put it all out on the line on the biggest domestic wrestling stage before the NCAAs.
Brothers of Destruction and Big Men prepare for battle
The self-proclaimed “Biggest bozos in college wrestling” will also be making an appearance at the 2021 World Team Trials as N.C. State’s Hayden and Trent Hidlay, both of whom have NCAA finals experience, will take the mat on a quest for their first Senior World Team spot. Hayden, the older of the two brothers, will wrestle up at 79kg as he looks to continue his progression to 174 pounds for the NCAA season. He’ll have Starocci to contend with at this weight as well as returning NCAA All-American Evan Wick, along with the previously mentioned champs in Burroughs, Dieringer, Martinez and Nolf. This bracket is one of the most star-studded in the field, and while some may count out Hidlay, let’s not forget that he gave Nolf the most competitive match the Nittany Lion had seen his senior year.
Hidlay is certainly in the conversation with the three-time champ, but his ability to take down guys like Burroughs remains to be seen. After wrestling for four years at 157 pounds, 79kg and 174 pounds will be new weights for Hidlay, so this tournament will, more than anything, be a test to see how he handles bigger, stronger opponents.
Hidlay’s younger brother Trent showed tremendous early success in his first NCAA tournament appearance as a Wolfpack wrestler last year, and he’s in an interesting weight for the World Team Trials at 92kg. He pushed NCAA champion Aaron Brooks in the 2021 collegiate finals, and, despite his loss, his 3-2 match showed that he’s a competitor.
HIDLAY VS. BROOKS: Watch Trent Hilday battle Penn State's NCAA Champion Aaron Brooks in the 2021 NCAA Finals
The biggest star in his bracket this time will be three-time NCAA champion and World champion J’den Cox, a Missouri graduate who missed Olympic Trials because of a weigh-in mishap. Cox will unquestionably be the guy to beat in this bracket, but 92kg also includes NCAA champions Drew Foster, Kyven Gadson, Michael Macchiavello and Myles Martin, all of who are older and more experienced than the young Hidlay brother. NCAA All-Americans Hayden Zillmer, Kollin Moore, Willie Micklus, Nat Jackson, TJ Dudley and Jakob Woodley also will be in the mix, creating a great collection of young stars and experienced senior-level stars. Hidlay has been tested on the college stage against these guys, and he’s thrown himself into the senior-level scene before, so while he’s young, he’s gritty. Expect to see him push hard for a podium spot. Oh, and don't dismiss fellow Wolfpack up-and-coming Isaac Trumble who found his stride early last season before giving up the starting spot at 197 pounds to veteran Nick Reenan. Trumble is hard to gauge, but, as a current college athlete and someone expected to make an impact for the Wolfpack in years to come, he's worth watching.
Speaking of power and force, Michigan’s two-time All-American Mason Parris will also be looking for his first senior world team spot in a 125kg that opened up after Gable Steveson turned down the opportunity. Parris has been a staple on the freestyle circuit, winning the 2019 Junior World Championships at 125kg and finishing second at the NCAA tournament in 2021. Being in the same weight class as a gold medalist in Steveson has its challenges, as Steveson has had Parris' number in all of their meet-ups, but, with Steveson out, Parris could take the weight.
His biggest challenger will be World Bronze Medalist Nick Gwiazdowski, a two-time NCAA champion from N.C. State, and while Parris did beat Gwiazdowski at the 2020 RTC Cup, this stage means a little more to both guys. Gwiazdowski is more seasoned than Parris, but Parris is strong, athletic and fresh. His only collegiate losses since 2019 have come against Steveson, and he has recent experience battling the Olympic champ, which could go a long way in this upcoming battle. Active NCAA All-Americans Christian Lance ad Jordan Wood will also be in the bracket, as will fellow collegiate athletes Tyrell Gordon, Jacob Boyd and Josh Heindselman. Former NCAA All-American Dom Bradley is always a threat, and college wrestling fans will also recognize Demetrius Thomas in the mix. This bracket has familiar names, but all eyes will be on Parris and Gwiazdowski.
All-Americans look to kickstart 2021-2022 season strong at 70kg
Non-olympic weights such as 70kg at World Team Trials are also always fun because "tweeners" who aren't small enough for the Olympic weight of 74kg but are too big for 65kg have the chance to put it all on the line and finally compete in a weight that is right for their body. One NCAA athlete who has seen great success at this weight is none other than three-time All-American Ryan Deakin, who will wrestle ahead of his final season of eligibility for the Northwestern Wildcats. Like the Hayden Hidlay and Jaydin Eierman, Deakin has been so close to an NCAA title and come up just short, so he’ll be hungry at this tournament and has the potential to win a 70kg bracket that includes Olympic Trials champion Jordan Oliver and three-time NCAA champion Zain Retherford.
This bracket will also feature NCAA All-American Brayton Lee of Minnesota who has freestyle savviness, as well as two Missouri Tigers in All-American Brock Mauller and Round of 12 wrestler Jarrett Jacques. Missouri might be one of the best collegiate wrestling rooms in the country right now in terms of developing young stars, as the Tigers just produced two Junior World Team champions, so look for Mauller and Jacques to show off some new strength and skill. All of the weights at the World Team Trials will have athletes with college ties, but don't ignore 70kg just because it isn't an Olympic weight class. This bracket, and this tournament, will be fun.