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Shannon Scovel | NCAA.com | November 27, 2021

Top wrestling storylines to know for the first Garden State Grapple

The top storylines to follow this college wrestling season

In an event designed to “celebrate humankind’s original form of recreational combat,” the first-annual Garden State Grapple at the Prudential Center will feature three Top-25 college wrestling teams as well as the strength of the Hofstra Pride as these squads do battle with one another in a unique two-mat double-header style event. No. 19 Wisconsin will wrestle No. 14 North Carolina at 5:30 p.m. ET tomorrow night on Mat 1 while No. 15 Rutgers will wrestle Hofstra at the same time on Mat 2. Two hours later, at 7:30 p.m. ET, Wisconsin will take on Hofstra while Rutgers will compete against the Tar Heels. 

Carolina is, of course, led by 2021 NCAA champion Austin O’Connor, and while O’Connor has taken a loss this year, he still holds down the No. 7 spot at 157 pounds and is the highest ranked athlete at his weight class in this event. He’s also the only reigning national champ at the Garden State Grapple, though he’s certainly not the only All-American. His teammate Zach Sherman joins him as a returning top-eight finisher for the Tar Heels, while Rutgers has three 2021 All-Americans in its lineup including Sebastian Rivera, Jackson Turley and John Poznanski. Wisconsin has two returning Badger All-Americans — Eric Barnett and Trent Hillger — bookending the lineup. The Pride of Hostra don’t have any podium finishers on their squad, but they boast four nationally-ranked guys that might surprise some people. 

KNOW YOUR HISTORY: Complete list of NCAA wrestling team champions

The Garden State Grapple duals on the schedule for this weekend will feature a fun series of battles between known names and up-and-comers, and the out-of-conference nature of this event will make it a neat viewing experience. So in addition to the general long list of stars competing, here are three other storylines you’ll want to know before following this unconventional, exciting, wrestling event: 

Rising Rutgers to take on Top-15 Tar Heels

All of the matches this weekend will be worth watching, but one of the most interesting of these four duals might be the battle between No. 15 Rutgers and No. 14 North Carolina. These two teams enter this dual having followed different trajectories this season but are both looking to hold on to their top-15 ranking. Rutgers has spent the last three weeks slowly, quietly climbing up the rankings, moving from No. 19 to No. 18 to No. 15 after a 6-0 start that included dominant wins over NJCU, Cleveland State, Binghamton, Clarion, Davidson and UT-Chattanooga. Carolina will be the first ranked test for the Scarlet Knights, and they are favored in five of the nine matches that, on paper, feature ranked wrestlers. Five wins with bonus would be all it would take to pull out a win over the Tar Heels, and much of this result will depend on who, if anyone, can earn an upset in the Prudential Center and who rises to the challenge of taking on another top-15 team. 

RUTGERS RISING: How the Scarlet Knights keep moving up in the Top 25

North Carolina comes into this dual fresh off a win against Campbell and just over a week removed from a competitive loss to Nebraska, where the Heels lost all but two weight classes. UNC wants revenge, but such an outcome is going to be a challenge against Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights will have the advantage from the start, as North Carolina starter Spencer Moore will face No. 23 Dylan Shawver, a fellow freshman by eligibility standards but a more seasoned wrestler who did have the chance to compete in the postseason last year. Shawver is 5-0 while Moore is 6-5. Credit to the young Moore for scrapping hard with everyone he faces, and there’s nothing about this match that is a lock for Rutgers, but they do have the edge from a rankings standpoint. 

Things get even more interesting as the weights progress with No. 10 Jaime Hernandez taking on No. 12 Sammy Alvarez at 133 and No. 4 Sebastian Rivera wrestling No. 10 Kizhan Clarke at 141. Both of these matches are fascinating, as Alvarez is unpredictable at 133, and Clarke, while not boasting the same national credentials as his competition, has shown that he can compete with the top guys in the country. Alvarez and Hernandez have similar records, with Hernandez at 4-0 and Alvarez at 4-1 with a loss, by fall, to Anthony Sobotker. To call both of these matches a coin-flip isn’t giving enough respect to two-time Big Ten champion Sebastian Rivera at 141, given that he’s one of the best wrestlers at this event, but it’s probably fair to say that these two bouts will be close, and upsets are possible.

 Rivera and Clarke at 141 is the best bout of the dual, but North Carolina and Rutgers will also have ranked guys competing at 149, 174, 184 and 197. At 149, North Carolina’s No. 16 Zach Sherman will be looking to get back on track after three ranked losses in a row, while No. 25 Michael Van Brill of Rutgers will aim to keep his undefeated streak going. This is one of two ranked duals that Carolina has the edge in, outside, of course, of 157 pounds where North Carolina’s O’Connor is the only ranked guy set to compete. 

Rutgers will roll out it’s back-to-back All-Americans in Jackson Turley and John Poznanski at 174 and 184 who will both face top-25 Carolina wrestlers Clay Lautt and Gavin Kane. Lautt, at No. 15, is a challenging opponent for Turley as he holds ranked guys to tight matches, but if Turley can battle in his typical tough manner, he should have the edge here, if he's the guy that starts for Rutgers, and set up his team for some big points. Poznanski, for his part, is 6-0 on the year with 50% bonus, and while he’s never wrestled Gavin Kane, bonus points for Rutgers would be ideal at this point in the dual. The Scarlet Knights have a higher ranked wrestler at 197 with No. 14 Greg Bulsak, and they’ll go against an unranked North Carolina foe at heavyweight, but this could be the turning point. If Carolina can wrestle the upper-weights tough and hold off bonus, and maybe even pick up one upset of the last four weights, they’ll be in this fight, but letting up off the gas late might cost the Tar Heels the win and their ranking spot. 

THE RIVERA STORY: Everything you need to know about Sebastian Rivera's journey to Rutgers

There’s a lot hanging in the balance of this early-season, non-conference dual, and every weight creates unique drama. 

First look at the Pride in dual action 

Of the two duals that Rutgers will have over the weekend, Carolina will pose the biggest threat, but Hofstra has four ranked athletes that can’t be ignored, especially given how unpredictable the first few weeks of this season have been. Overlooking the Pride at all weight classes would be a mistake, and both Rutgers and Wisconsin are going to need to be aware of the potential challenge this team will pose, particularly at 157, 184, 197 and 285. 

Rutgers will wrestle Hofstra first, and the Scarlet Knights are favored in seven of the ten bouts. Hofstra has the edge at 157 with No. 27 Greg Gaxiola, if he wrestles, and the Pride are also favored at heavyweight with No. 20 Zachary Knighton-Ward holding just the slighting rankings edge over No. 23 Boone McDermott in what is likely to be a match that could go either way. 

Hofstra has not had a dual yet this season, but they did finish 17th at the Clarion Open and sent a team to the Journeyman Classic, so the team isn't rusty. In fact Knighton-Ward  and 141-pound Hoyle have momentum coming into this event having just won titles at the Journeyman in their respective divisions. The matches against Rutgers and Wisconsin though will be the first chance to see all ten starters for the Pride and watch them against elite competition. 

Ranked tests for Braxton Amos

Hofstra is 0-0 coming in this weekend, having not wrestled a dual, but two of the other teams involved in the Garden State Grapple, Wisconsin and Rutgers will wrestle to hold on to their undefeated records. Wisconsin in particular comes into this event having picked up wins against Buffalo and Little Rock in commanding fashion. Those duals were good chances for the team to find its groove, but Carolina and Hofstra will present different challenges, particularly for the ranked Badgers. Head coach Chris Bono’s squad will start the night with Carolina at 5:30 p.m., a matchup that will produce four ranked battles at 149, 174, 184 and 197 with perhaps the most noteworthy of those three being at 197 pounds. 

THE AMOS EFFECT: Can Braxton Amos win an NCAA title as a true freshman? 

Wisconsin’s starter at the upper weight, Braxton Amos, started the year with high expectations for a true freshman given that he won a Junior World Title this summer and earned a bronze medal at the Junior World Greco Championship. In his two matches so far, Amos has been solid, winning by decision against Buffalo and by tech fall against Little Rock. Now, facing a ranked NCAA qualifier in Max Shaw, Amos has a chance to test himself against someone that he could see in March. Shaw does not have All-American honors next to his name yet, and he’s only 1-1 on the year, but he’s big and tough and someone that offers a better barometer for how Amos will do as the season progresses and he faces tougher competition. 

The other three ranked matches against the Tar Heels feature Wisconsin's No. 19 Austin Gomez versus North Carolina's No. 16 Zach Sherman, No. 8 Andrew McNally against North Carolina’s No. 15 Clay Lautt, and Wisconsin’s No. 14 Chris Weiler against Carolina’s No. 23 Gavin Kane. These are solid matchups that will likely be close, and these individual athletes have the chance to improve their standings with wins in these bouts, but the excitement around Amos is just that there’s so much unknown. He’s not wrestled a full collegiate season yet, while McNally has done so already and ended up in the Round of 12, and Lautt and Weiler have finished out previous seasons at the national tournament. Kane is new to the scene as he just wrestled extra bouts last year, but resume internationally doesn’t have quite the same force as Amos’. Anytime a Big Ten team like Wisconsin wrestles an ACC team like Carolina, the wrestling is great, but this series is particularly intriguing because of the chance to see Amos wrestling a higher-caliber opponent. 

Amos will also have a ranked wrestler to compete against in the Hofstra dual, as he’ll see No. 29 Trey Rogers later in the evening. Rogers, a junior, has a 4-1 record with wins against Pittsburgh’s Ethan Finch and Geoff Magin, Caden Rogers and Chris Seqete, and he’ll be aiming to qualify for the NCAA tournament for the first time this season. The bout between Amos and Rogers, for which Amos is favored, will be one of three ranked bouts against the Pride, all of which the Badgers are favored in. Wisconsin’s Weiler could see Hoftra’s Charles Small at 184 pounds while heavyweight Hillger will be expected to take on No. 20 Knighton-Ward. Wisconsin should have the upper hand overall in this match. 

If these teams finished based on their rankings, Carolina would beat Wisconsin and Rutgers, Rutgers would beat Hofstra and Wisconsin would beat Hofstra, but fans watch wrestling because these outcomes aren’t determined by wrestling. Anything can happen in these bouts, and it’s going to be even more intense given the environment of this event and the hype surrounding it.