The Stanford Cardinal had one of the most dramatic seasons in recent college wrestling history last year, starting with the announcement that their program would be cut at the end of the season and ending with Shane Griffith winning the 2021 165-pound title and the Cardinal reinstating the program. Now the Cardinal are back under the new leadership of Rob Koll, and the team is planning to start this year’s dual schedule with fireworks.
The Cardinal will welcome last year’s third-place championship team, the Oklahoma State Cowboys, to California, for a ranked battle that will feature two returning champs, one NCAA finalist and the first look at what could be at least a dozen All-American contenders. These are the three biggest storylines you need to know ahead of this weekend battle:
1. Shane Griffith and AJ Ferrari begin their quest to defend national titles
Stanford's Shane Griffith and Oklahoma State's AJ Ferrari emerged as stars at last year’s NCAA tournament, both because of their championship performances but also because of the storylines they brought to the tournament. Now, these two athletes will take this mat this weekend for what have become highly anticipated opening dual matches.
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Griffith, a quiet, composed leader for the Cardinal, helped put his program in the national spotlight last season by running through the brutal 165-pound NCAA bracket and using his time in front of the microphone following his matches to speak eloquently about the value of Stanford wrestling and why saving the program would mean so much to him and his team. He wore a black “Keep Stanford Wrestling” sweatshirt and answered questions calmly about what it felt like to be an icon for his university.
Ferrari, on the other hand, hardly ever wore a sweatshirt, never mind a regular t-shirt in his interviews, and he took his moment in the spotlight to flex on TV and build up his brand as Mr. Fast Twitch. The 197-pound freshman backed up his trash talk and his social media antics with success, and he’s continued to promote himself as a celebrity through his Instagram and TikTok accounts, building hype for his wrestling.
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Ferrari is expected to face Nick Stemmet of Stanford this weekend, and while Stemmet isn’t ranked in the top 20, these two athletes have promoted this match themselves and created anticipation around the action because of their back-and-forth comments on social media. Stemmet taunted Ferrari earlier this week on Instagram, and Ferrari responded, but both guys will settle their differences on the mat. Stemmet is a solid wrestler, and he qualified for the NCAA tournament in his first year with the Cardinal last season, but he finished the year 7-4 with an 0-2 performance at nationals, suggesting that Ferrari has a significant upper hand.
However, Stanford’s season last year was so disruptive and challenging with COVID restrictions and the looming concern about the fate of the program, so it’s hard to make too many judgements about a wrestler’s potential on the Cardinal squad based on last year’s results. All that to say though, Ferrari has the advantage heading into this match, and his first dual as a returning national champion is expected to be less competitive than fellow returning champion Shane Griffith who will have a top-10 opponent in Travis Wittlake.
Oklahoma State’s Wittlake finished fourth in last year’s NCAA tournament, though he and Griffith have not met since the 2020 Southern Scuffle when Griffith earned a solid 4-1 win over the Cowboy. Griffith will enter this upcoming bout with an 4-0 record after earning a dominant win in the 165-pound bracket at the Menlo Open. Wittlake, on the other hand, has not had a match yet this season, and he’s certainly starting with a tough one.
The opportunity to wrestle a national champion to start the season is something that Wittlake certainly takes seriously, and, if he can keep pace with Griffith, he’ll be able to move forward with increased confidence. Both Stanford and Oklahoma State fans will learn so much from this match about the 165-pound weight class, and between this bout and Ferrari’s return, there’s a lot to be excited about.
2. The first look at Koll’s Cardinal in dual action
Rob Koll, the longtime Cornell coach who recently took over the Cardinal team this summer after the school reinstated all previously cut programs, will lead his new Stanford squad into the dual season for the first time this weekend, and he inherited a young, scrappy group that wants to make some noise. Griffith, obviously, is the leader of this team, but All-American Jaden Abas and NWCA All-American Real Woods add firepower to this lineup as well.
Seven Stanford athletes earned Menlo Open tournaments last weekend, including Griffith and Abas, along with Jackson DiSario, Charlie Darracott, Tyler Eischens, Stemmet and Peter Ming. Woods sat out of the Menlo Open, but if he takes the mat against Oklahoma State, he’ll look to add some points on the board for the Cardinal against probable Oklahoma State starter No. 16 Dusty Hone. His return, whenever it comes, will be highly anticipated, as he’s absolutely in the All-American conversation this year at 141, perhaps the deepest NCAA weight this season.
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Teammate Abas will look to earn his second All-American honor this year, and he’ll have a strong opponent in this Oklahoma State dual as he’s expected to see Kaden Gfeller, a national qualifier with a lot of potential who has been hindered by injuries and lineup challenges in his four years as a Cowboy so far. Gfeller and Abas have not met before, as Gfeller has gone back and forth between 141 and 149 pounds, but he’ll have a chance against the All-American on Saturday at the bigger of those two weights. This is a match Stanford will need to win to keep things competitive, as the Cardinal are counting on points from their All-Americans. Both Abas and Griffith have beatable opponents in their bouts and are ranked higher than Oklahoma State in these weights, and Woods is in a similar situation if he wrestles. The challenge for Stanford is that Oklahoma State is favored at just about every other weight.
On paper, the Cowboys will start with the advantage at 125 if they roll out No. 19 Trevor Mastrogiovanni, a second-year starter who finished in the Round of 16 last year, against Stanford’s No. 25 DiSario, but this weight is interesting because DiSario wrestled up at 133 pounds for the Menlo Open, despite being listed as a probable starter at 125. If DiSario goes up, he has an even bigger challenge in two-time NCAA finalist and senior world team member No. 2 Daton Fix. These two athletes have not previously met in collegiate action, given that DiSario wrestled down at 125 for his first two seasons with Stanford, and Fix would be favored if these two meet, given his history of dominance and his credentials.
Mastrogiovanni and DiSario also have not met, so regardless of which weight the Stanford starter goes, he has a tough road ahead of him but a great opportunity to test out some strong competition. The Cardinal do not have a ranked athlete at 133, giving DiSario flexibility to go up or down, depending on what is best for him or the team.
Stanford’s only other ranked wrestler is No. 31 Eischens, who went 6-3 last year at 174 pounds but did not wrestle in the postseason and returns to the starting lineup this year for his fourth season with Stanford. A 2020 national qualifier, Eischens has the talent to be competitive at this weight if he finds his groove, though 174 is stacked. His expected Oklahoma State foe, No. 16 Dustin Plott, will be an ideal test for Eischens, who comes into this dual 4-0 after his Menlo Open win. Eischens’s never wrestled Plott in college, and his performance in this match will be a good indicator of what to expect from him this season. Though Eischens has not had the success so far in his career that would suggest he’s a podium contender this year, don’t forget that he has a national champion in Griffith training in the room with him, as well as assistant Stanford coach and two-time NCAA champion Vincenzo Joseph providing support. Stanford’s middleweights could have an extra spark this year because of that momentum, but this remains to be seen.
3. Cowboys have sights set on another team trophy, and their deep lineup makes this possible
While Stanford has six ranked wrestlers on paper following their abbreviated season last year, the Cowboys will field top-33 athletes at all 10 weights, with the highest ranked wrestler, of course, being returning national champion AJ Ferrari at 197 pounds, with teammate and national finalist Daton Fix not far behind at No. 2. Wittlake and No. 6 Dakota Geer at 184 pounds round out the top-10 wrestlers, but what makes the Cowboy squad so impressive, and what will be particularly challenging for the Cardinal to overcome in this dual, is the depth of the Oklahoma State lineup. Ten top-33 athletes is not an easy credential to earn, and even returning second-place team Penn State doesn’t have such a lineup.
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If Oklahoma State wins all of the matches it's expected to win in this upcoming dual without any bonus points, the Cowboys will take the dual 21-9, but that’s an unlikely score. No. 2 Fix scored bonus points in 78.5% of his matches last year, and if DiSario wrestles down at 125 and Fix has an unranked opponent, he could score as many as five or six points at this weight. Ferrari certainly wants bonus at 197 pounds, and Geer, who is expected to take on an unranked opponent at 184 pounds, also earned bonus in more than 50% of his matches last year, making him a likely candidate to score more points too. If those three guys earn a major, that score gap widens to 24-9, putting the pressure on Stanford’s Griffith and Abas to not only win against their ranked opponents, but win big to keep the Cardinal in the fight.
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Stanford’s unranked starters at 157, 184 and 285 will also have to work hard to fend off bonus points and keep this dual as tight as possible. Oklahoma State has the edge, and head coach John Smith’s team will be expected to have the edge in just about every match they wrestle this year with a few notable exceptions. The Cowboys will have tough matches here though and feel strong competitors. Their level of dominance in these bouts will be the first look at how likely it is for the Cowboys to bring home another team trophy, something that’s expected every year for the winningest college wrestling program in history.