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Shannon Scovel | NCAA.com | December 31, 2021

21 historic and memorable NCAA wrestling highlights from 2021

The top storylines to follow this college wrestling season

From the return of college wrestling in 2021 to Gable Steveson’s gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics, it’s been a wild year for college wrestlers in the NCAA. The calendar year started rocky and uncertain, as COVID continued to be a concern, but the year progressed in a positive direction after a historic NCAA tournament, Stanford’s decision to reinstate wrestling (among other sports) and the development of two influential new programs at Iowa and Morgan State. 

There’s a lot to love about everything that happened in college wrestling this year, but here are 21 of our favorite moments: 

January 2, 2021 — College wrestling returns after COVID-19 delay 

The cancellation of the 2020 NCAA wrestling tournament was still fresh in everyone’s mind as the calendar turned to 2021 and college wrestling made its slow return. COVID-19 still engulfed the country, and concerns over crowds and close contact remained. On January 7, when NCAA.com released its preview article of the year, so much remained unknown. 

LOOKING BACK: Here’s what we knew in January 2021 about the upcoming season

But, the wrestling community is persistent, and less than three months later, the NCAA tournament would go on as scheduled, with ten champs crowned and a team title awarded. This was, unquestionably, one of the best moments of the year: the return of college wrestling. 

January 31, 2021 — Nebraska wrestling pays tribute to Christian Miller with custom memorial shoes 

Wrestling is a family. On January 31, Nebraska epitomized this mentality, honoring one of their Husker brothers, Christian Miller, with a tribute that could bring a tear to anyone’s eye. Miller, a junior at the time, passed away in November 2020 after a tragic car accident, but his teammates will never forget his legacy. They celebrated Miller’s life by all wearing custom shoes during their January 31 duals, showcasing a portrait of Miller and the phrase “Forever a Husker.” It’s these moments that remind us all how special this sport is and how we all feel about the loss of a fellow wrestler. 

March 7, 2021 — AJ Ferrari tops Stephen Buchanan to help Oklahoma State and Oklahoma tie as Big 12 champions

There's a lot of things you can say about AJ Ferrari, but one thing is certain: that Cowboy knows how to show up for his team. With a team Big 12 title on the line, Ferrari took the mat against Wyoming's Stephen Buchanan needing a win to tie for the team crown and a major to win it, and Ferrari fought for the whole seven minutes. You can see it from the way he attacks, from the way he battles and from the way he looked for points at every opportunity. He was on a mission. While the final score from that match — 13-8 — wasn't enough to give the Cowboys his bonus points, his grit and toughness in that match, combined with the fact that the win gave him in the individual Big 12 title at 197 pounds as a true freshman, earned Ferrari Most Outstanding Wrestler honors at the conference championship.

FLEX ON 'EM: Full recap of Ferrari's NCAA tournament run

The win, however, was just the beginning. Ferrari would go on to win the NCAA title at the weight, flex on ESPN, and pronounce to the world his famous "665 pound deadlift, baby" line that would ultimately form the foundation of his apparel line once Name, Image and Likeness policies changed. 

March 9, 2021 — Paul Bianchi becomes Little Rock’s First NCAA wrestling Qualifier

Qualifying for NCAAs at a conference tournament or through an at-large bid is always an exciting thing for a wrestler, and Paul Bianchi, Little Rock's first NCAA qualifier, was the feel-good positive story that led the entire wrestling community into the national tournament.

TROJAN HERO: Everything you need to know about Paul Bianchi's historic NCAA appearance

Bianchi, who started his career at North Dakota State, came to Little Rock in 2020 and finished his first year 13-7. The following season, in 2021, he wrestled 11 matches before the Pac-12 tournament, where he went 1-2 but earned an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. He earned the No. 26 seed and would ultimately go 1-2 at the NCAAs with a win over Zach Redding of Iowa State. Bianchi has since graduated, but the legacy he left at Little Rock is one that the Trojans will remember forever and one that current athletes will strive to emulate. 

March 19, 2021 —  Jesse Dellavecchia makes Rider University history as the school’s first NCAA Finalist 

Heading into the 2021 NCAA tournament, Northwestern’s Ryan Deakin and N.C. State’s Hayden Hidlay were the frontrunners at 157 pounds. They were expected to steamroll their way to the finals and faceoff for an epic showdown. Jesse Dellavacchia of Rider, though, had other plans. Dellavecchia came into the tournament as the No. 4 seed after becoming Rider’s first MAC champion, and he looked solid in his opening rounds, beating Joshua McClure 5-0, topping Hunter Willits 4-2 and earning an injury default win over Brady Berge of Penn State to advance to the semifinals.

DELLAVACCIA OVER DEAKIN: Relive the moment the 157-pound finalist upset the No. 1 seed

In one of the biggest upsets of the tournament, Dellavacchia then pinned No. 1-seeded Deakin in the second period to become Rider’s first NCAA finalist. The Broncs senior would later fall to David Carr in the finals of the national championship, but his run is one that will be remembered forever in Rider history. Just as important as Dellavacchia’s success in the NCAA tournament is the information that he later shared with Intermat’s Courtney Woods about his journey to that point: his battle with depression and anxiety and his vulnerability and leadership in the Rider room. Despite being seeded No. 4 in the national tournament, Dellavacchia was an underdog, but that never stopped him from making history. 

March 20, 2021 — NIU’s Mason Kauffman wins the Elite 90 Award to become first Husker honoree 

The NCAA tournament yields all kinds of historical moments, and while this list attempts to highlight events beyond just those three days in March, there are a few highlights from that tournament that can’t be ignored. Just before the finals on March 20, the NCAA announced Mason Kauffman as the winner of the Elite 90 Award, the trophy presented each year to the wrestler at the NCAA tournament with the highest GPA. Kauffman was the first NIU wrestler to win such an honor, and his achievement highlights the true value of the student-athlete experience. 

KAUFFMAN’S CREDENTIALS: Read all about the Elite 90 winner from 2021 

"It's a statement on him personifying the kind of student-athlete we want and we preach about being here at NIU," NIU head coach Ryan Ludwig said, according to the press release. 

With a 4.0 GPA in Kinesiology, Kauffman stands out as a wrestler worth celebrating as we wrap up 2021. 

March 20, 2021 — Spencer Lee wins his third NCAA title, delivers viral ESPN interview

Spencer Lee came into the 2021 NCAA tournament as the unquestioned favorite at 125 pounds, but his performance at the event and the news that he would drop in his championship ESPN interview sent the wrestling world into a frenzy. Lee cruised through his opening rounds of his bracket with a dominant tech fall over Patrick McCormick of Virginia and major decisions over Killian Cardinale of West Virginia, Devin Schroder of Purdue and Drew Hildebrandt of Central Michigan before meeting Brandon Courtney of Arizona State in the finals. For seven minutes, Lee shut out Courtney, refusing to give up any points while scoring seven of his own points to top the Sun Devils. 

SPENCER LEE’S TITLE RUN: A complete recap of Lee’s 3rd championship  

He was officially the three-time NCAA champion that most wrestling fans assumed he would be. His win, the last dual of the night, also sealed Iowa’s first team win in a decade. But it was in the final ESPN interview of the tournament that Lee announced he won his title on two torn ACLS, tearing the first against Jack Mueller in the 2019 NCAA tournament and re-tearing his previously injured other knee against Schroder in the 2021 Big Ten finals. Injured or not, “excuses are for wusses,” and Lee is now back on the hunt in an effort to become just the fifth four-time NCAA champion and the first Hawkeye to accomplish such a feat. 

March 20, 2021 — Roman Bravo-Young & Nick Lee become first Penn State 133 & 141 pound champs in school history 

It’s hard to make history at Penn State — a school that has produced Olympic champions like David Taylor, two-time Hodge winners like Zain Retherford and three-time NCAA champions like Jason Nolf and Bo Nickal. But, in March 2020, Penn State lightweights Roman Bravo-Young and Nick Lee managed to do what no other Penn State wrestler in history had ever done: win 133 and 141 pound national titles. 

ALL-TIMERS: Creating the best Penn State wrestling lineup in history, across generations 

Penn State has had a national champion at every other weight, and they’ve had national champs at old weights of 130, 134, 137 and 142, but, until 2021, they didn’t have champs at the modern weight classes. But they do now. This dynamic duo started the momentum for the Nittany Lions in 2021 at the NCAA tournament, and they’ll look to do the same again in Detroit as they strive to become the first two-time NCAA champions in Penn State history at these weights. 

March 20, 2021 — Five black athletes win NCAA titles, making history 

In addition to Bravo-Young becoming the first 133-pound national champion for the Penn State Nittany Lions, he and his NCAA champion teammates Carter Starocci and Aaron Brooks, along with David Carr and Gable Steveson, became the first five Black NCAA champions in the same year in college wrestling history. Each of these athletes recognized the magnitude of the moment, celebrating with each other and holding up a “five” on their hands to mark the occasion. USA Wrestling confirmed the historic nature of their achievement on March 24, noting that “The previous high for black athletes winning NCAA titles side-by-side came at the 1978 NCAA Div. I Championships” when Andy Daniels, Kenny Mallory, Lee Kemp of Wisconsin and Jimmy Jackson won titles.

March 30, 2021 — David Carr wins Big 12 Wrestler of the Year honors, follows in father’s footsteps

David Carr had an incredible year in 2021, and he doesn’t appear to be slowing. The Cyclone then-sophomore wrestled 20 matches last season, culminating in an NCAA tournament championship that included wins over Markus Hartman, Will Lewan, Brayton Lee, Hayden Hidlay and Jesse Dellavecchia. His win came exactly 40 years after his father accomplished the same feat, and Carr celebrated his title win by paying tribute to his coach, Brent Metcalf, and doing a back handspring into his arms. 

CARR CHAMP: Reliving how David Carr won the 157-pound NCAA title last year

Carr’s success made him a Hodge Trophy finalist, and his undefeated season helped him win Big 12 wrestler of the year honors, a particularly noteworthy accomplishment given that he wasn’t the only Big 12 wrestler to win a national title that year, but he was the only conference champ to go undefeated. Carr went on a small celebration tour following his title, as he was honored as Iowa State’s Male Athlete of the Year, celebrated at a football game and promoted in all of Iowa State’s marketing materials as the symbol of the next era of Cyclone wrestling. The Champ is living up to the hype too, as he’s now 8-0 on the year with 75% bonus and notable wins over Kendall Coleman, Kaleb Young, and Peyton Robb. 

April 22, 2021 — Missouri joins the Big 12

The Missouri Tigers have been running through the MAC conference without much challenge for the last ten years, but a change announced on April 22, 2021 will make things interesting for the Tigers moving forward. A release from the Big 12 announced that Mizzou would be joining the legendary wrestling conference, home to the winningest NCAA wrestling team of all time — Oklahoma State — and their Bedlam rival Oklahoma.

Missouri started its first season as a Big 12 member later in 2021, on November 6, and they faced their first Big 12 conference opponent on November 11 against North Dakota State. Mizzou has been successful in conference competition so far, with their only losses this season coming against Virginia Tech and N.C. State of the ACC, but they'll see the No. 4 Cowboys in February for a battle that will no doubt be intense. This is going to be a fun conference for the Tigers, and it's all thanks to this big realignment change in 2021. 

May 18, 2021 — Stanford announces decision to keep wrestling, 10 other sports 

After a year of adversity and uncertainty, Stanford University made the decision to reinstate college wrestling, as well as 10 other sports that the school had originally planned to cut following the 2020-2021 athletic seasons. The decision came less than two months after Stanford wrestler Shane Griffith won the 165-pound national title at the 2021 NCAA championships, topping Alex Marinelli, Zach Hartman and Jake Wentzel along the way.

SAVING STANFORD: How Stanford wrestler Shane Griffith won a dramatic title

Griffith’s run through this bracket and his success at the tournament was highlighted by his powerful ESPN interview where he described some of the challenges that the COVID season had presented, including having to train outside and not being able to compete at home at any point during the regular season. Wearing a plain black singlet in protest of Stanford’s decision to cut his program, Griffith became the face of the movement to Keep Stanford Wrestling; his Most Outstanding Wrestler honor at the tournament also helped highlight just how much talent the program has and the potential great future of this team. His message and his call on Stanford to keep the program made a difference, and, on May 18, the administration decided to keep its support and continue to invest in Stanford Wrestling, giving Griffith the opportunity to attempt to defend his title this March in Detroit. 

June 30, 2021 — NCAA changes Name, Image and Likeness policies

The tide had been turning towards athlete branding for years, but, on June 30, the NCAA made it official: "Governance bodies in all three divisions today adopted a uniform interim policy suspending NCAA name, image and likeness rules for all incoming and current student-athletes in all sports." 

NAME, IMAGE AND LIKENESS: Everything you need to know about the new rule

Athletes like Gable Steveson can now find ways to profit off Olympic success through college branding efforts, as he has already done, and they can continue to wrestle while setting themselves for business experiences down the road. Michael Kemerer of Iowa has also signed numerous deals and is another example of an older athlete choosing to stay and compete in college while maximizing his Name, Image and Likeness. The ultimate impact of this change is unknown, but its, certainly, a notable, memorable, historic event of the 2021 season. 

August 6, 2021 — Gable Steveson wins the Olympic gold at 125kg

To call Gable Steveson’s Olympic gold medal a ‘college wrestling moment’ is a little bit of a stretch, but he was a college wrestler at the time, and he returned for a final college wrestling season after the title. On August 6, 2021, Minnesota’s Gable Steveson lived up to the expectations that he put on himself and that the world placed on his shoulders and delivered one of the most exciting Olympic final performances of all time. Trailing by three points with ten seconds to go, Steveson took down his opponent — Geno Petriashvili — and then cut him, a folkstyle decision that the ref allowed, before taking him down again at the buzzer, creating an iconic photo and securing his name in the history books. Gable was golden. 

GOLDEN GOPHER: Steveson’s complete journey to winning Olympic gold 

The Olympic win came less than six months after Steveson won his first NCAA title and Hodge Trophy, joining Spencer Lee as a 2021 honoree of the famous wrestling honor. Now, a senior, Steveson is back competing for the Gophers, giving his fans one last season with the superstar in their lineup. 

September 12, 2021 — Daton Fix and Yianni Diakomihalis make a senior World Team 

Much like Gable Steveson winning an Olympic gold medal, this “college wrestling moment” isn’t necessarily a moment that occurred in an NCAA dual, but it features two college wrestlers. On September 12, at the 2021 World Team Trials, two college athletes — Daton Fix and Yianni Diakomihalis — punched their tickets to Oslo, Norway for the 2021 Senior World Championships by winning their brackets and demonstrating just how tough and competitive they are with the best in the country.

THROWBACK: Predictions for the 2021 Senior World Team Trials

For Diakomihalis, this marked his first trip to Senior Worlds and represented a culmination of two Olympic redshirt years and multiple previous attempts at making this team. For Fix, the opportunity to be on a senior world team is something he had earned before, but that didn’t make the win any less special. Up a weight at 61kg because Olympian Thomas Gilman had a hold on 57kg, Fix wrestled about as well as he ever has, beating Nathan Tomasello 8-3 and 7-0 in their two matches and securing another trip to the World Championships, where he would go on to place second.

September 23, 2021 — Iowa adds women’s wrestling program 

Of all of the college wrestling teams in the NCAA, Iowa had the best 2021. From the men’s team winning NCAAs to the school’s athletic director announcing the start of a women’s team, this was a golden year for the Hawkeyes.

LEADING THE WAY: The complete story of how and why Iowa added women’s wrestling

The women’s program, announced on September 23 after much speculation, became the first Power 5 Division I women’s program in the country and recently hired Clarissa Chun as the head coach, sending a message about the high quality of the program and the tremendous expectations of success that the administration expects from this team. Chun brings a wealth of experience to the mat and is one of the most respected women in the sport — she’ll no doubt be an important leader for this program. 

October 21, 2021 — Morgan State announces the addition of a college wrestling program 

After several years of schools like Old Dominion and Fresno State, among others, dropping their programs, the news that Morgan State would be adding a program was welcomed information for the wrestling community.

HBCU WRESTLING: Everything you need to know about the development of the Morgan State program

The announcement came on October 21, less than a month after Iowa announced the start of it’s women’s program, and the addition of an HBCU program opens new doors for athletes and creates an important opportunity for athletes interested in this valuable athletic and academic experience. 

November 1, 2021 — College wrestling returns (again), this time with the Ivies

And we’re back! After a shortened 2021 season, the absence of the Ivies and a fanless national tournament, the 2021-2022 season started with hope on November 1 that things were headed towards normalcy. North Carolina opened the season with two wins over Queens University in Charlotte and Life University, with returning NCAA champion Austin O’Connor picking up a major and a fall in his 2021-2022 debut. 

NEW SEASON, SIMILAR STARS: 5 storylines to know for the 2021-2022 wrestling season

Wisconsin also wrestled on opening day, beating Buffalo 30-3 behind bonus-point performances from Dean Hamiti, Andrew McNally and Chris Weiler. Cornell and Princeton, the two ranked Ivy League teams, made their debuts on November 20 and November 7, respectively, ushering in a new era of success for the conference with two-time NCAA champion Yianni Diakomihalis of Cornell beginning his run for a third title with a win over Stanford’s Jaden Abas in his highly anticipated return. After a bleak 18 months, things were starting to look up. 

November 21, 2021 — Austin O’Connor honored by North Carolina for national title 

After winning the 2021 NCAA title at 149 pounds, the University of North Carolina officially unveiled O’Connor’s championship banner and lifted his flag into the rafters just before the Tar Heel’s Division I opening home dual against Campbell. O’Connor won the title by beating Ohio State’s Sammy Sasso 3-2 to become the first NCAA champion since T.J. Jaworsky in 1995. 

UNIVERSITY OF NATIONAL CHAMPS: Here’s how O’Connor beat Sasso for the 149-pound title

The national title, along with O’Connor’s undefeated season, made him a 2021 Hodge Trophy finalist and helped him earn ACC Wrestler of the Year honors. O’Connor is 7-1 on the year now with his only loss coming against Peyton Robb of Nebraska in a fiery dual against the Cornhuskers, and the reigning champion will look to defend his crown this year, up a weight at 157 pounds. 

November 28, 2021 — Nick Suriano announces his decision to transfer to Michigan 

When Seth Gross transferred from South Dakota State to Wisconsin in 2019, he branded himself as the “the most anticipated transfer of the year” in college wrestling, and Nick Suriano took that title for 2021 when he teased wrestling fans for over a year about his next move before finally announcing his decision to become a Wolverine. 

SURIANO’S STORY: How Nick Suriano became the first NCAA champion in Rutgers history 

Twitter went wild, speculating that he might be a Sun Devil, or a Buckeye, or even a Cyclone. Michigan rarely came up in the rumor mill, but Suriano doesn’t concern himself with what others think. He’s here to leave a legacy in his final season, and he wants to do that in the Maize and Blue. With his NCAA championship credentials, he’ll be a powerful force for a team that is shooting for a national title in March in their home state. 

December 22, 2021 — Wrestling community comes together to create two new tournaments after Midlands cancellation

The year started with COVID concerns and ended with COVID concerns, as the famous Midlands tournament was cancelled just several days before the event was supposed to start. A staple in the post-Christmas schedule, Midlands frequently serves as a site of breakthrough stars — perhaps most notably in recent history it’s the tournament where Sebastian Rivera beat Spencer Lee for the first time — but this year, concerns about the virus prevented such headline-worthy results from possibly happening. 

COLLEGIATE DUALS: How this new winter tournament shook up the rankings 

In response to this news, the wrestling community came together, developing both the Illinois Matmen tournament and the, ultimately cancelled, Hawkeye Open. The Matmen tournament will wrap up just days before the Southern Scuffle, giving teams the chance to wrestle their redshirts against their starters, see some high level competition, and compete intensely before conference duals start again. The 2021 calendar has had its highs and lows, but seeing tournament organizers and media leaders including Israel “Izzy” Martinez, Willie Saylor of MatScouts and Frank Popolizio come together, with the support of coaches and athletes, to create this event, is a nice positive note to end the year.

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