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Shannon Scovel | NCAA.com | November 18, 2021

Iowa wrestling's season-opening dual highlights this weekend's can't-miss action

The top storylines to follow this college wrestling season

Nebraska and North Carolina kicked off this week’s wrestling schedule with a wild dual that went the Cornhuskers' way 27-6 headlined by Peyton Robb’s upset over No. 2 Austin O’Connor, but that Big Ten-ACC battle is just one of a series of duals that should excite wrestling fans. 

Here are four additional matches worth watching this weekend that feature title contending athletes, intense team battles and personal rivalries: 

Virginia Tech vs. Ohio State | 7 p.m. Friday, November 19 | ACC Extra

Ohio State already tested itself against one of the best teams in the ACC in a 23-12 win over North Carolina earlier this month, but the quest to conquer the ACC continues as the team travels to Blacksburg to take on the No. 8 Hokies. This dual is fun for so many reasons, particularly the fact that if all expected starters wrestle, the match could feature a top-10 battle at 149 and 174 along with three additional ranked matches at 125, 184 and heavyweight. 

Ohio State has occasionally been known to alter the starting weight of a match and opt not to begin at 125, but if the match opens with the lightest weights, Virginia Tech All-American Sam Latona will have an early, likely competitive, battle with Ohio State's Malik Heinselmen, an athlete that seems to get better every year he's in Columbus and comes into this dual with a 5-0 record. He's never met Latona in college, and while his NCAA finishes can't match that of the Hokie, Heinselmen's a fighter. Latona took an early season loss to Joe Manchio of Columbia to start the year, but he's been solid since, and this is another opportunity for him to build confidence. The Bucks might not want to start the dual here, given that Tech has ranked wrestlers at 133 and 141 in comparison to unranked Buckeyes at those weights, and momentum can be a dangerous thing to yield, but 125 is exciting and could be the start to a tight team contest. 

The Buckeyes have talent at the top, but their depth isn't quite as strong as the Hokies, at least on paper, making this an exciting match for rankings purposes and for early indicators of each of these athletes. Ohio State starts and ends with Sammy Sasso this year, and the 149-pound NCAA finalist comes into the match 6-0 with the lone dual win from that set coming in tough match against Zach Sherman of North Carolina last week. The rest of those wins, of course, came from results at the Ohio Intercollegiate Open. Like his team though, the schedule doesn't get easier for Sasso now that the season is in full swing. He'll have No. 9 Bryce Andonian this week, and the two athletes have never met in college, but Andonian finished in the Round of 12 last year and poses a threat, even if that threat isn't as large as others that Sasso beat last year. Expect Sasso to have the edge here, but Andonian is likely to put up a fight. 

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Tech's biggest player is No. 4 Mekhi Lewis, a 2019 NCAA champion at 165 pounds and a junior world champion who will be entering the unusually deep 174 pound weight class this year and takes on his first ranked opponent in No. 6 Ethan Smith this weekend. These are two tough men, with Smith's fundamentals leading to his success, and Lewis' famous inside trip and crafty style posing specific threats. If Sasso-Andonian doesn't get you excited, this match, without a question, should generate serious enthusiasm for wrestling fans around the country. An upset here for the Bucks could swing the dual, though Ohio State has a stronger back half than a front half of the lineup, so they could push the Hokies down the stretch, meaning that the dual might come down to the final weight. If the teams agree to start at 125 and the match comes down to 197 and heavyweight, the Buckeyes have the advantage in the former and have a heavy-hitter in the later with No. 7 Tate Orndorff potentially facing off against Virginia Tech's No. 14 Nathan Traxler. There's so much to like about these two teams, so them competing against one another to start the weekend is just perfect. 

Iowa vs. Princeton | 8 p.m. Friday, November 19 | BTN+ 

They’re all back. The defending champion Iowa Hawkeyes return their entire lineup from the 2021 season, headlined by three-time champion and two-time Hodge winner Spencer Lee, and they want another team title. 

The hype and anticipation for this team has grown so much that Carver-Hawkeye Arena, the home of Iowa wrestling, is already sold out for every home match, including this upcoming weekend bout against Princeton. The Tigers will be marching into enemy territory when they take the mat this weekend, but they have some star power of their own, particularly No. 2 Patrick Glory at 125 pounds and No. 7 Quincy Monday at 157 pounds. This dual will give fans their first look at the 2021-22 Hawkeyes in dual action, and a chance to watch the always scrappy Princeton Tigers fight against the defending champs. 

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The biggest potential matchup of this dual — No. 1 Spencer Lee vs. No. 2 Patrick Glory — is not expected to happen, as Lee is not listed as a probable starter and is instead expected to be replaced, temporarily by Jesse Ybarra, a freshman who redshirted last year and is 3-0 so far this season. Ybarra will have a tough task ahead of him in U23 World Team member Patrick Glory of Princeton, and he’s one of the few Hawkeyes who won’t be favored, on paper, in this matchup. 

Iowa’s list of probable starters suggests that the team’s final lineup, at least for the early part of the season, is not finalized, particularly at 149 pounds where Des Moines Register reporter Cody Goodwin reports that Breti Reyna, Cobe Siebrect and Vince Turk are all listed as probable starters with 2021 starter Max Murin noticeable absent from that last. Murin appeared in all of the team’s promotional materials ahead of this first dual and will likely be a frontrunner for the 149-pound spot again after finishing in the Blood Round last year, but whoever starts for the team against Princeton has a chance to challenge for that position if he wrestles well. Tom Brands has made it clear in early media interviews that he wants his athletes to compete with one another, to battle for their spots and to not yield anything to last year’s starters. This Princeton dual is a chance for some of these new faces to make a name for themselves. 

One guy whose position in the lineup is likely not up for debate is 174-pound NCAA finalist Michael Kemerer, who, in his seventh year with the program, is not listed to start this weekend but will be expected to start later in the season. Kemerer has the experience and credentials necessary to be a title contender, and while Iowa has depth at the upper-weights who could wrestle here, Kemerer is no doubt a leader who will compete at the highest level when it's best for him to return to the mat. 

The 184-pound spot for the Hawkeyes, one weight above Kemerer, is an interesting storyline this year and will be a weight worth watching for this dual in particular. Princeton is expected to put forward No. 24 Travis Stefanik, a two-time NCAA qualifier, or Forrest Belli, while the Hawks have Abe Assad listed as the starter. Assad split time with Nelson Brands in 2020 before earning the spot for the Big Ten tournament and qualified for the cancelled 2020 NCAA tournament but he sat out last year behind Brands. This year looks to be Assad’s opportunity, at least initially, and he’s 1-0 against Travis Stefanik historically, beating the Tiger in sudden victory at Midlands in 2019. Assad is the only starter listed for Iowa at this weight for this dual, and his performance against a ranked Stefanik could be a good chance to see where he stacks up, particularly after his loss at the Luther Open to Clayton Whiting. 

Princeton is hungry to put up some big points on the board, and 184 pounds is a weight where the Tigers could make that happen. They have a tough opening battle here with the reigning NCAA champs, but Princeton has always been an “anybody, anywhere, anytime” kind of team. This will be their first chance to send a message about their squad this year, but it’s always just a little tougher to make these kinds of statements in a sold out Carver-Hawkeye Arena full of Iowa fans cheering on their reigning champs. 

Stanford vs. Cornell | 6:30 p.m. Saturday, November 20 | ESPN+ 

Speaking of Ivy League teams wanting their chance to take on the best, Cornell, under the new leadership of head coach Mike Grey, will welcome Stanford to Ithaca this weekend for a reunion of sorts that will be layered with intensity and determination. Rob Koll, the current head coach of the Stanford Cardinal, left his post as the head coach of the Big Red in the summer of 2021 after more than three decades building up the Cornell program, and he’ll now have his new team face off against the guys he’s been developing and mentoring for years. 

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Stanford nearly lost its program after the 2021 season, but following a tremendous fundraising effort, and, of course, the national attention brought the school by Stanford sophomore Shane Griffith winning the national title last year, the Cardinal are back. Cornell also faced adversity last year, though in a markedly different way, as the Big Red had to sit out the 2021 season per COVID protocols. Now these two teams will meet for a true battle, and each program will bring their own stars to center stage. 

Cornell is led by Yianni Diakomihalis, a two-time NCAA champion and senior world team member, as well as Vito Arujau, an All-American and Olympic Trials finalist. The big story surrounding Diakomihalis, outside of the fact that he’s going for his third title this year after sitting out the last two seasons because of Olympic redshirts, is the question of his weight class. Diakomihalis won his first two titles at 141, but he’s teased that he could be going up a weight to wrestle 149 pounds, though Saturday will be the first time he will have to make at least a starting decision about his weight. Arujau also has options for weight classes and could wrestle either 125 or 133 pounds, a choice that Cornell is hyping up by stating in its preview that “As for what weight they'll wrestle during the 2021-22 season, you'll have to wait and see on Saturday.” The school doesn’t want to give any hints. 

Looking at Stanford’s roster though, the Cardinal also have their stars, notably defending NCAA champion Shane Griffith at 165 pounds and All-American Jaden Abas at 149 pounds. If Diakomihalis wrestles up at 149 pounds and takes on Abas, expect fireworks. Abas is 5-0 on the year with 100% bonus and is coming off a particularly impressive major decision win against Oklahoma State’s Kaden Gfeller, so he has momentum and confidence on his side right now, though Diakomihalis is quite the challenge and would give Abas a different kind of test. If Diakomihalis stays down at 141 pounds, he has the potential to face Stanford’s Real Woods, though the 2020 NWCA All-American Cardinal has not wrestled yet this year. 

Cornell has four guys addressed as possible options at 165 pounds, though the wrestler with the best record so far is freshman Julian Ramirez who finished third at the Bearcat Open with a 4-1 record, his only loss coming against Matt Lee of Penn State. Rameriez is in his first year as a potential starter for the Big Red after having to sit out in 2020 because of the Ivy League rules. If he starts this weekend and takes on Griffith, he’ll be in for a tough bout against the best in the country. 

The Big Red and the Cardinal could also see ranked battles at 174 and 197 pounds, with Stanford’s No. 30 Tyler Eischens expected to take on Cornell’s No. 9 Chris Foca at 174 and Cornell All-American Ben Darmstadt slated to wrestle No. 26 Nick Stemmet. Darmstadt senior who finished sixth in 2018 at 184-pounds and is 80-14 in his career, will likely make his season debut this weekend and would give Stemmet his second tough match in a row after being majored by defending NCAA champion AJ Ferrari.

The dual brings drama, simply because of the departure of Koll from the program and the emotional connections between the coach and the athletes still on the team, but there’s plenty of high-level wrestling to expect from these individual matchups as well, making this a can’t-miss dual 

Oklahoma State vs. Minnesota | 8 p.m. Saturday, November 20 | Big Ten Network

Oklahoma State is always an interesting team to watch because of the history of that program, and, recently, because of the star power of returning NCAA champion AJ Ferrari. Perhaps more intriguing than even both of those things, though, is the return of Olympic gold medalist Gable Steveson of Minnesota. Steveson will take the mat once again as a college wrestler and looks to defend the NCAA title he earned last season wrestling heavyweight. The Hodge Trophy winner will have a ranked match in his first bout back, as he’s expected to take on No. 26 Luke Suber, but if this year is anything like last year, Steveson will be expected to put up big points and rack up bonus.

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Steveson ended his 2021 season with four pins, seven tech falls, three major decisions, and two decisions, with his two non-bonus wins coming against Mason Parris of Michigan 8-4 and Greg Kerkvliet of Penn State 9-4. Steveson is a record-breaking machine, and he’s coming back for this last season of college wrestling with the intention of running through the competition and putting on a show. 

Oklahoma State’s AJ Ferrari is following a similar playbook, flexing at every opportunity and letting his fans on social media know that he’s not messing around. Ferrari is serious, and he’s set on defending his own title at 197 pounds and making progress towards becoming the first five-time NCAA champion, a goal that would require him to win the next four national tournaments but a goal that Ferrari has stated publicly is possible because of his strength and speed. Ferrari will likely not have a ranked Minnesota opponent, so expect him, like Steveson, to look for bonus and put up big points for the Cowboys. 

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The 197-pound weight class is one of just two weights that won’t have two ranked wrestlers, with the other weight being 141-pounds where Oklahoma State is expected to field No. 14 Dusty Hone against Minnesota. The Gophers have options at this weight, including last year’s starter and NCAA qualifier Marcos Polanco, but they also have juniors Jake Bergeland and Brent Jones on the roster, as well as redshirt freshman Aaron Nagao, the former of which beat Polanco at the Bison Open in sudden victory. Regardless of who takes the mat for Minnesota, it’s an uphill battle against Hone. 

Outside of 285, 197 and 141, this dual is stacked from top to bottom. Oklahoma State boasts top-10 wrestlers including Ferrari, No. 2 133-pounder Daton Fix, No. 6 165-pounder Travis Wittlake and No. 7 184-pounder Dakota Geer, while Minnesota has three in the top 10 with Steveson, No. 5 Pat McKee and No. 5 Brayton Lee at 125 and 157 respectively. None of these top-10 wrestlers will face each other, though McKee and Lee will both have top-20 matchups against No. 19 Trevor Mastrogiovanni and No. 14 Wyatt Sheets respectively. McKee will want to get the ball rolling for the Gophers, assuming the dual starts at 125 pounds, to set a positive tone before Oklahoma State’s Daton Fix takes the mat and goes battling for bonus. Fix battled through a tough decision win over Stanford last weekend and didn’t show the complete power that he’s known for, but this talented senior-level athlete is just getting started. Fix has finished second in the last two NCAA tournaments, and he’s no doubt hungry for a title of his own this year. 

On paper, Oklahoma State is favored in seven of 10 matches before bonus points, so the Gophers will need some upsets to keep this close, which is possible. No. 26 Michael Blockhus at 149 pounds, in particular, will compete against No. 22 Kaden Gfeller, who just suffered a bonus loss to Stanford’s Abas, and a win there could swing the tide in Minnesota’s favor, though predicting outcomes is a fool’s errand. Momentum, mindset and motivation will be key factors for the Gophers here if they want a shot at Oklahoma State — they’ll need their guys to win the close ones and fight for as many points as possible. 

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