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Shannon Scovel | NCAA.com | October 13, 2021

These true freshman college wrestling contenders have the best chance to win a title this season

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Oklahoma State’s AJ Ferrari has become known most prominently for his brand off the wrestling mat — from nicknaming himself Mr. Fast Twitch to flexing on ESPN — but on on March 19, 2021, Ferrari became just the 19th true freshman NCAA champion. His win showed that he’s more than his social media personality. He’s a winner, and he’s capable of building a legacy, even at his young age. 

Such a feat is impressive for any athlete beginning their college journey, but this year, the task will be even tougher. Due to Olympic redshirts, regular redshirts and extra COVID eligibility, true freshman athletes will now have to beat one of the most experienced fields ever seen, with some athletes coming back for their sixth, seventh and eighth years of collegiate competition. 

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Hundreds of athletes will also come into this year retaining freshman eligibility as last year’s season didn’t count against eligibility clocks, but winning as a true freshman is a different accomplishment. 

So this question is: is it possible for a true freshman to win a title in 2022? 

Of course it’s possible. But who has the best chance? 

Let’s start with 2021 Junior World Champion Braxton Amos

A native of Mineral Wells, West Virginia, Amos committed to wrestle for the Wisconsin Badgers on Sept. 14, 2019, and he’ll put on the white and red singlet for the first time in November in the team’s opening dual against Buffalo to start what is expected to be a star-studded rookie season. 

Amos comes to Madison having gone undefeated in his high school wrestling career and earning All-State honors as a high school football player. Following his high school season, Amos took a gap year, which gave the young star time to finish second in the Olympic Trials in Greco, run through the 2021 Junior World Championships bracket at 97kg to win his first world title and pick up a bronze world medal in the Greco tournament. Now, as a college athlete, Amos will have the chance to be the first Wisconsin NCAA champion of the Chris Bono era and the 20th true freshman to achieve this goal. To do so though, he’ll have to beat the guy that achieved this goal just one year ago: AJ Ferrari. 

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At 197 pounds, Amos will be entering a weight class led by the Oklahoma State star, but his world accolades suggest that he’s ready to compete against Ferrari’s ferocious double legs and his sneaky speed. Amos has his own speed and strength to bring to the table, and he’s not afraid to leverage those Greco skills for some throws. He’s waited a long time to be part of the college wrestling scene, and he wants to represent his school on the top of the podium come March. Ferrari, though, won’t be the only competition standing in Amos’ way. Returning NCAA finalist Nino Bonaccorsi will also be returning to the ranks of 197 pounds, as will nearly the entire national bracket from last year, including All-Americans Jacob Warner, Rocky Elam, Stephen Buchanan, Jacob Woodley, and four-time All-American and Olympic Bronze Medalist Myles Amine. Penn State's Michael Beard could also be in the mix again if he can earn the starting spot against NCAA finalist and transfer Max Dean. Regardless, both Beard and Dean add depth to this weight and make it a fun one to watch in 2021-2022. 

Amos is perhaps the most likely possibility to win a title as a true freshman, but he’s not the only young star with the potential to make a mark. 

Penn State, as usual, has a set of strong underclassmen, including 165-pounder Alex Facundo who could earn the starting spot over Joe Lee and make a run of his own. Facundo is less proven than Amos on the international stage at the junior level, but he’s earned impressive high school accolades and he’s part of a program that produces winners. The 165-pound weight class is loaded with top-heavy talent including returning champ Shane Griffith, returning NCAA finalist Jake Wentzel, all of the All-Americans from 2021, and Iowa’s three-time Big Ten Champion Alex Marinelli who wants to end his career on top. This will not be an easy weight for a freshman to break though, and Facundo will need to demonstrate his skills in Rec Hall before hype starts building for a title run. 

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Then there’s the Ivies. The Ivy Leagues and the Academies don’t allow redshirts, meaning that any freshman that starts as a freshman in the Ivy League has the chance to win as a true freshman. The Ivies do allow Olympic redshirts, but with the Tokyo Olympics in the rearview mirror, the Olympic redshirt won’t be a factor. 

Cornell and Princeton, the two Ivy League programs expected to lead the conference, are anticipated to start one and two true freshmen respectively, with Cornell’s Greg Diakomihalis being perhaps the most anticipated of the three. Diakomihalis, the younger brother of two-time NCAA champion Yianni Diakomihalis at 133 pounds, will enter one of the deepest weight classes in the NCAA, led by Penn State’s Roman Bravo-Young. The 133-pound weight will also see the return of senior world team member Daton Fix of Oklahoma State and three-time All-American Austin DeSanto of Iowa, as well as two-time Big Ten champion Sebastian Rivera of Rutgers. For the young Diakomihalis to have a shot at a title, he’s going to need to prove himself at the conference level first, like Facundo, though success is in his blood. 

Princeton’s true freshman starters will come in the form of Anthony Clark, also at 133 pounds, and a true freshman in Luke Stout at 197 pounds, Amos’ weight. Clark is the more likely of the two to have a shot at NCAA success right away, as he has won three New Jersey state titles and was the Dave Schultz High School Excellence Award honoree for New Jersey in 2020, though Stout does come to the Tiger program with a Pennsylvania state title and a Fargo cadet title. Look for these two to be contributors though not necessarily true freshman title contenders just yet. 

Two other top high school recruits though — Arizona State’s Cael Valencia and Ohio State’s Paddy Gallagher — will be expected to make waves at 174 pounds and 157 pounds, as both have high school pedigrees that suggest future success. Valencia, of course, comes from a family with a legacy of NCAA achievements, with his older brother Zahid winning two NCAA titles and his other brother Anthony earning All-American honors and competing on the Arizona State roster for his senior season this year. Cael is a two-time state runner-up and multi-time Fargo All-American who will be looking to capitalize on the Sun Devil momentum from 2021 to grow into an NCAA All-American. 

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Gallagher boasts a strong list of honors himself including two Ohio state titles. He also started what has been a recent string of elite recruits for the Buckeyes and will likely be a staple in the next era of success coming out of Columbus. Described by his coach Tom Ryan as an “ultra-competitor that loves to attack,” Gallagher has talents. Now he’ll just have to see where he stacks up on the big stage. 

Athletes like Amos, Facundo, Valencia and Gallagher are expected to score points and compete for trophies, and their stories will be exciting to follow. But who can translate that high school and junior success into collegiate championships? And who will break out into the scene this year and make a name for themselves. Those are the big questions, and only time will tell. 

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