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Shannon Scovel | NCAA.com | December 7, 2021

College wrestling: 4 takeaways from the 2021 Cliff Keen Invitational

The top storylines to follow this college wrestling season

The Nebraska Cornhuskers took over Las Vegas over the weekend and left with gold and confidence — the two things everybody wants to have when they depart from the famous city. 

Led by Cliff Keen Invitational Champion Mikey Labriola, the Red and White ran away with the team title at the annual fall tournament with three guys in the finals and five more on the podium. Taylor Venz and Eric Schultz both came home with silver, while Chad Red, Ridge Lovett and Christian Lance picked up bronze honors in their respective weight classes. Lovett, in particular, continued to impress with his biggest win coming against All-American Jaden Abas in the quarterfinals. Peyton Robb and Bubba Wilson rounded out the place winners with sixth and eighth-place finishes respectively. 

The team win marks the second consecutive championship for the Cornhuskers at this tournament, as they also picked up top honors in 2019, the last time Cliff Keen was held. Nebraska is currently ranked ninth nationally, but this collective team success suggests that the Huskers have the potential to be a more dominant tournament team than they can be in duals and makes them a threat down the line as the season progresses.

Nebraska wasn’t the only team to have individual stars or show impressive depth, though, and here are the three biggest additional takeaways from this tournament as wrestling fans look ahead to the spring semester. 

Don’t underestimate the Buckeyes

The Ohio State Buckeyes have built themselves into a dynasty under the leadership of head coach Tom Ryan, winning the NCAA team title outright in 2015, finishing second in 2018 and 2019, and taking home third-place team honors in 2016. The 2021 season marked a slight deviation from this dominant trajectory, as the Buckeyes ended last season in 9th place with one finalist and three All-Americans at the national tournament. 

The Cliff Keen results, however, show that if this team wrestles their best in March, they have quite the squad and the potential to cause a disruption in the trophy chase. 

Leading the way for Ohio State this weekend was Kaleb Romero, who, in his season debut, went 4-0 in Vegas to take home to win the weight class and potentially put himself back in the lineup and in the All-American conversation. National qualifier Rocky Jordan had been holding down 184 pounds for the Bucks, and while he had done well so far this year, posting a 7-2 record with losses to Hunter Bolen and Luke McGonigal, Romero’s win at Cliff Keen, and particularly his impressive win over Taylor Venz, makes him a deep threat at this weight and someone that could score serious points for Ohio State at the national tournament. Romero has been a team player for the Buckeyes throughout his career, starting his first year out of redshirt at 165 pounds but finishing in the Round of 12 last year at 174 pounds. Now, up another weight class, Romero is as dangerous as ever, and he’ll be a key element in the push for another Ohio State team trophy. 

Ohio State has depth, but in order to compete with some of the other top teams in the country — Iowa, Penn State, Michigan, Missouri, Oklahoma State, N.C. State, Arizona State — the Buckeyes need all of their guys scoring points. They need Romero competing for a spot in the finals and beating guys like Venz again, they need NCAA finalist Sammy Sasso to keep doing what he’s doing and try to make a stronger push against opponents like two-time NCAA champion and 2021 Cliff Keen champ Yianni Diakomihalis and they need All-American Ethan Smith to keep fighting against tough foes like Mikey Labriola. These three Vegas Buckeye finalists competed at the level they’ll need to be at to finish on the podium, and while certainly Sasso and Smith would have liked to have picked up wins, they’re in good position to keep improving and challenge for those top spots later in the season. 

Sasso is no doubt a title contender at 149, as he’s proven his ability both in the national tournament and so far this season, but Diakomihalis was his biggest test. This 6-2 result wasn't a blowout, and Sasso could so realistically be in that match in the future, but Diakomihalis left with the win and the confidence. It's up to Sasso now to determine how he wants to respond to that and make the adjustments necessary for him to reverse that outcome. 

BIG TEN CHAMPION: How Sammy Sasso won the 2021 conference title at 149 pounds

While 149 pounds, as a weight class, has talent, Sasso's teammate, Ethan Smith, is in perhaps the deepest and most experienced weights in the country this year. The 174-pound weight includes the return of NCAA champion Carter Starocci and NCAA finalist Michael Kemerer, as well as NCAA champion Mekhi Lewis and NCAA finalist Hayden Hidlay, who have both moved up weight classes to join the depth at 174. Smith is an All-American who knows how to get it done in March, but he'll have an elite field of competition that will push him in conference duals and in the postseason. If he can break through, he'll be a key asset for the Buckeyes in a trophy hunt, but he'll need big points and big moves to keep Ohio State fighting for one of those top-four spots, as the team is still several spots away from that rank, at least on paper. 

Evan Wick is helping take Cal Poly to new heights 

Prior to the start of this season, All-American Evan Wick hadn’t wrestled a collegiate folkstyle match since February 20 when he beat Austin Yant of Northern Iowa by a major decision. The former Wisconsin wrestler took an Olympic redshirt in 2021 to train for the Olympic Trials, finished third at that event, transferred to Cal Poly, and began a dominant folkstyle season that now includes a win over last year’s NCAA champion and a Cliff Keen Invitational title. 

Wick came into Cliff Keen as the No. 1 seed with a 4-0 record, and he got off to a quick start in the tournament with a tech fall over Augustine Garcia. A decision over Val Park of Navy and a major against Matthew Malcom put him in the semifinals, where Wick met his highest-ranked opponent of the year: Cam Amine of Michigan. Amine finished 7th in last year’s NCAA tournament but Wick handled him in a calm, workmanlike fashion, picking up a 4-1 win to meet reigning NCAA champion Shane Griffith in the finals. 

STANFORD'S CHAMP: Everything you need to know about Griffith's run through the 2021 NCAA tournament

Griffith, for his part, navigated his side of the bracket with confidence and assertiveness, pinning Cooper Voorhees in the first period, majoring Joshua Ogunsanya, teching Daniel Snediker and topping a strong Carson Kharchla 5-4. Wick gave him a different feel though, and the defending champ couldn't hold off the experienced All-American. In a 6-2 decision, Wick picked up the win and Outstanding Wrestler honors, but perhaps most noteworthy is the standard that he has set for Cal Poly. A leader of a team that may not always make the news, Wick is part of a new era of Mustangs who are very much in the spotlight and making moves. 

Joining Wick on the podium was Antionio Lorenzo, who finished fifth at 125 pounds, Adam Kemp, who finished sixth at 174 pounds, and Legend Lamar, a seventh-place finisher at 149 pounds. While this team may not have the depth of the winning Nebraska squad, the Mustang lineup this year is the real deal, and Wick is the perfect face of this program on the rise. 

Gas Tank Gary headlined a tournament of upsets and excitement

Wick, however, wasn't the only star to run through his weight class and bring his program into focus. At the heaviest weight, it was none other than "Gas Tank" Gary Traub of Oregon State rolling through the bracket to showcase the value of the Beaver program. Traub came into the tournament seeded No. 10, but seeds have never been a part of Traub's mindset. He barreled past Stanford's Peter Ming in the opening round 14-7 before racking up his first upset of the tournament over No. 7 Josh Heindselman and moving into the quarterfinal round. A win against No. 2 Brian Andrews 3-1 led him to face Christian Lance of Nebraska, a man he defeated 3-1 again before winning by injury default against Yaraslau Slavikouski of Harvard in a match unfortunately genuinely cut short by injury. 

At the other end of the weight spectrum, Pat Glory did Pat Glory things for the Princeton Tigers. As expected, the All-American showed off his fierceness against tough opponents like Big Ten finalist Devin Schroder and took the crown at 125 pounds. In his four matches of the tournament, Glory pinned Jace Koelzer, majored Schroder and picked up solid decisions against Jack Medley and Antonio Lorenzo, suggesting that he has the capacity to run through All-American contenders, but he may be in a few more close matches than expected.

This lightest weight has been interesting the last two years with most of the talent concentrated at the top and podium spots being up for grabs depending on who finds momentum in March, and this tournament aligned with that pattern. Glory and Schroder, the top two seeds, put together solid performances to finish first and second, but the bracket didn't go entirely chalk. Brandon Kaylor of Oregon State picked up an upset win in the quarterfinals against Ohio State's Malik Heinselman 5-3 before going on to finish third as the No. 7 seed, and Lorenzo, Jake Svihel and Jake Ferri all also placed in the top eight despite coming into the tournament unranked.

BEST WRESTLERS TO WATCH: Who's the most exciting wrestler in the NCAA? 

The 125-pound weight class is going to continue to be more and more interesting as the season progresses, as Spencer Lee will ultimately return to the weight and Cornell's Vito Arujau could also drop down. Then there's the Nick Suriano factor, with the Michigan transfer looking to potentially enter the weight for his final semester of collegiate eligibility this spring. Vegas was just a glimpse into the excitement at 125, but that's not the only weight class-generated chatter. 

At 133 pounds, it was Ragusin, a skilled freestyle wrestler who has proven himself on the senior level, who earned a breakthrough folkstyle championship title this weekend with a win over Chris Cannon in the 133-pound finals to put him in a good position heading into upcoming conference duals in January. With Suriano, as previously mentioned, joining the Michigan lineup and serving as a potential new training partner for Ragusin, his upside is huge and he could continue this momentum and become a podium finisher. Also making a statement at 133 pounds, Haiden Drury put Utah Valley in the headlines with his third-place finish while Devon Turner and the Beavers earned team points with a fourth-place finish. 

Ragusin was Michigan's only champ, but he certainly wasn't the only Big Ten wrestler to claim a crown. Ryan Deakin, Northwestern's dependent 157-pounder who has proven repeatedly how well he wrestles in the city of Las Vegas, reigned supreme once again in Vegas, beating a tough Quincy Monday in the finals 8-3. Monday, who beat Nebraska's Peyton Robb in the semis, is an NCAA title contender, but Deakin clearly still has the edge at this weight class that is becoming increasingly competitive with every upset. One significant upset here was Dazjon Casto of the Citadel beating Justin Thomas of Oklahoma, and while medial forfeits throughout the tournament impacted the opportunity for upsets in some cases, Casto's win deserves particular credit. 

It's always neat to see a smaller program pick-up wins, and Clay Carlson did a nice job at 141 pounds beating another freestyle star Andrew Alirez in the finals to give his program some recognition. Alirez beat Chad Red in the semifinals, while Carlson topped Filius to set up the championship final. With a 10-0 record on the year, Carlson has a high likelihood of picking up another All-American honor in March if he continues this streak. 

Much like Carlson, Stephen Buchanan of Wyoming also finished on the podium last year for the first time in his career and had a Vegas performance that hints at his ability to repeat such an achievement. At 197 pounds, Buchanan upset Michigan's No. 2 Patrick Brucki in the semifinals to earn a match against No. 4-seeded Eric Schultz of Nebraska in the finals after Schultz topped Oklahoma's No. 1-seeded Jake Woodley 6-2 in his semifinal. Buchanan's definitive 7-3 win over Schultz shows that he's not settling, and Wyoming is not settling.

Brackets at tournaments like Cliff Keen that feature a unique set of stars and shake up the rankings are why fans love wrestling. Nothing is guaranteed, little can be predicted and all rivalries are settled on the mat in front of avid supporters and opponents. 

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