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Shannon Scovel | NCAA.com | January 26, 2022

State of the Weight: The top NCAA wrestling contenders, challengers at 125 pounds

The top storylines to follow this college wrestling season

For the last three years, one guy has dominated 125 pounds: Spencer Lee. 

The Iowa senior went undefeated last season with 91.67% bonus on his way to a third national title and a second Hodge Trophy, and he had intentions to come back this year and do it all again, striving to become just the fifth four-time NCAA champion in history. 

In early January, however, Lee announced that he instead would be sitting out for the rest of the season and opting to repair both of his torn ACLs. Lee’s news created chaos and excitement at 125 pounds, as the remaining stars look to battle each other for a chance to stand on top of the podium in March.

SPENCER LEE: Relieve all of the Iowa champ's matches from 2021

The weight is stacked with talent and depth, making it one of the more interesting storylines to follow as the season progresses. We talked with many of the leading title contenders ahead of conference championships and the national tournament. Here's what they had to say.

Nick Suriano paces the group as the only former champ

Nick Suriano, a 2019 NCAA champion at 133 pounds, currently leads this pack of talented lightweights, and he’s returning for his final season of college wrestling after nearly two years of freestyle training in Tempe, Arizona with the Sunkist Kids Regional Training Center. Originally a wrestler for Penn State, Suriano transferred to Rutgers after his freshman year before going on to become an NCAA finalist and ultimately a national champion. Suriano is now sporting the Maize and Blue of Michigan, his third Big Ten school in six years, and he’s looking as strong as ever. Tough, skilled and motivated, Suriano’s advantage as a wrestler comes from his power and tenacity, and he’s here to make a splash (again). 

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Throughout his collegiate career, Suriano has assembled a 73-7 record, with his only collegiate losses coming against Olympian Thomas Gilman, NCAA champion Spencer Lee, NCAA finalists Daton Fix and Stevan Micic, NCAA All-American Nick Piccininni by injury default and NCAA All-American Austin DeSanto. His resume speaks for itself, but to further highlight Suriano’s accomplishments and skills, let’s discuss how he matches up against this year’s roster of top 125 pounders.

Suriano has never wrestled No. 2 Pat Glory or No. 3 Vito Arujau in folkstyle, but he did take a 2-2 loss to Arujau on criteria in freestyle at the 2019 U.S. Nationals.

The match displayed Suriano's aggressive hand fighting and power, and while he’s sometimes able to use that force to bully other wrestlers to the mat, Arujau is not one of those wrestlers. The Cornell All-American has the kind of length and speed that can be a problem. Suriano has shown that he can hang tight with Arujau, and a match between these lightweight athletes will likely come down to a point or two, perhaps in sudden victory.

“I’m no stranger to wrestling [Suriano], and [I’m] looking forward to seeing how it goes down this year,” Arujau said. “I’m not worried about it, I'm pretty confident going in, but I know it won’t be an easy match. It will come down to who makes no mistakes and capitalizes on the other guy.”

Suriano has only seen one of the top-10 wrestlers at the weight so far this season, as he beat Penn State’s Drew Hildebrandt earlier this month, but to put himself in the best position for the NCAA tournament, Suriano will need to continue to run the Big Ten gauntlet.

Pat Glory & Vito Arujau looking to battle for EIWA and NCAA gold

Arujau and his EIWA counterpart Pat Glory are both hungry for a victory over Suriano, and they are even more motivated to compete hard after missing out on the chance to wrestle last year with the Ivy League’s COVID protocols.

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Both athletes spent their COVID year competing in freestyle, with Glory securing a spot on the U23 freestyle World Team while Arujau also refined his skills and took on elite competition, advancing in the Olympic Trials finals at 57kg in April. The freestyle focus was a welcome change for Arujau who said he’s taken this time to develop his technique to the point where he believes he’s one of the best wrestlers in the world from his feet. The transition back to folkstyle — the college style of wrestling — took some time, Arujau said, but now he’s back and ready to roll. 

“Just because I haven't been competing in folkstyle doesn’t mean I haven’t been getting better at wrestling,” Arujau said. “I’ve gotten really good at neutral wrestling and that just comes from freestyle, the constant evolving of the idea of wrestling in my mind. I’ve learned a lot about wrestling in this two year span.” 

Watch Arujau wrestle Iowa’s Thomas Gilman for the Olympic spot in April at the 2021 Trials below. Gilman is one of the few losses that Suriano has in his college career, while Arujau has not wrestled Gilman in folkstyle: 

Given that Princeton and Cornell are both part of the EIWA, Glory and Arujau will likely see each other twice before the NCAA tournament, once at the Princeton vs. Cornell dual and again at the EIWA tournament. They’ve split their only two meetings thus far, with Arujau taking the first win by fall, and Glory responding with a 10-8 decision at the 2019 EIWA championships. Arujau did end up outplacing Glory at the NCAA tournament after Glory took losses to Sebastian Rivera and Nick Piccininni, but Glory has the last win.

That win ultimately held value beyond just being a conference win because when Iowa’s Spencer Lee opted out of the season in early January and elected to get ACL repairs on both of his knees, he dropped out of the rankings, and Glory took over the top spot. Suriano would later surpass him for the No. 1 ranking when he made his Michigan debut, but for a few weeks, Glory was the guy, a new position for him but one he took on without too much concern.

“I actually like wrestling as an underdog way more than I do being the top guy,” Glory said. “Rankings don't mean much. I mean, it’s great for the banter and the fans…but I don't think it really factors in anything. Nothing really changed.”

Rankings may not hold much value for Glory, but he is thinking about what it would mean to the Princeton program if he comes home with gold in March. Princeton has not had an NCAA wrestling champion since 1951 when Bradley Glass won the unlimited-weight title, and Glory believes he’s capable of adding to that legacy. He’s aware, though, of exactly who he’ll have to beat to get there within this stacked 125-pound field.

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“The weight class is hard, it's tough. You have Nick Suriano, you have Vito, a lot of these guys are probably All-Americans, national champs,” Glory said. “It's just a matter of taking it one step at a time, making sure we're peaking in March and just getting better and having fun with it.”

Neither Glory nor Arujau have wrestled anyone in the top 10 in folkstyle except each other — with one exception. Glory just racked up a solid, one-sided 12-6 decision over NCAA finalist Brandon Courtney in the Princeton-Arizona State dual. So where does Courtney fit into all of this?

NCAA finalist Brandon Courtney looks to make it to Saturday night again

After making the national finals last year opposite Spencer Lee and holding the three-time NCAA champion to a decision, Arizona State’s Brandon Courtney is back, this time he’s looking for a title of his own.

The Sun Devil senior went 15-0 last year before the finals with 50% bonus and picked up where he left off this year, surging to a 12-0 record before taking his first loss of the season to Glory 12-6.

Courtney is strong, but Glory was slicker in this dual and he offered another big test of the year for Courtney, who has already beaten Michigan’s Jack Medley and Virginia’s Sam Latona this season. Taking on these big out-of-conference matches, though, is important to Courtney, even if he takes a loss, because they help him prepare for the competition level he’ll see in March. 

COURTNEY VS. LEE: A play-by-play of Brandon Courtney's finals match against Iowa's Spencer Lee

“You have to go out there and compete in those big duals,” Courtney said. “You’ve got to get a feel for a lot of people because you could not wrestle a kid that’s really good until March, and you could lose, so it’s getting out there and getting as many matches, being put in situations that you might be in in NCAAs. It’s good for the team, and it’s good for me.”

As the No. 3 seed in last year’s NCAA tournament, Courtney put himself in a number of close matches with similarly tough non-conference foes, beating Wisconsin's Eric Barnett in the second round 9-7, topping NC State’s Jakob Camacho 4-2 and advancing to the championship bout after a 2-1 tiebreaker win over Taylor LaMont of Utah Valley. Courtney learned as the tournament progressed to not to overlook any of his opponents on his way to potentially wrestling again on Saturday night. 

“I can’t just think I’m going to go in there and beat this guy — anything can happen,” Courtney said, reflecting on his national tournament experience NCAA.com. “I've got to stay focused on that person individually 100% until I’m past them.”

Watch Brandon Courtney's five best takedowns from the 2021 NCAA tournament:

He’s had some early practice with that given his dual schedule thus far, and his competition remains steep, as LaMont, Barnett and Camacho are all back and ranked in the top 20. LaMont, despite finishing 5th in 2021, is 2-1 on the year with a loss to Brandon Kaylor of Oregon State, putting him in the No. 17 ranked spot so far this season. Barnett — who finished eighth in last year’s tournament — and Glory are the only two wrestlers in the top 10 right now at 125 that Courtney has faced, but there are a few other guys in the Big Ten in particular who could pose threats to Courtney and the weight class as a whole. 

How will the Big Ten continue to shake out?

With Suriano leading the way right now at the weight and Penn State, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Ohio State athletes also included in the top 10, the Big Ten has the most conference representation across the country at 125 pounds. 

Of this group, Minnesota’s Pat McKee placed the highest in last year’s NCAA tournament, finishing third after a series of breakthrough performances where he beat Noah Surtin, Codi Russell, Robbie Howard, Brody Teske, Eric Barnett, Taylor LaMont and Drew Hildebrandt. Barnett and Hildebrandt, who finished eighth and fourth at the NCAA tournament in 2021, wrestle in the Big Ten as well, with Hildbrandt now wrestling for Penn State after transferring from Central Michigan and Barnett making his return for Wisconsin.

These athletes have all swapped wins already this season though, so let’s take a look at a series of scores from the Big Ten that demonstrate the depth and chaos of 125 pounds: 

  • Michael DeAugustino beat McKee 8-7
  • McKee beat Iowa’s Drake Ayala 8-6, 6-5, 8-4
  • Drake Ayala beat Northwestern’s Michael DeAugustino 6-5
  • Michael DeAugustino beat Barnett 9-5
  • Barnett beat Pat McKee 8-5

These results highlight the circular nature of this weight, particularly in the Big Ten, but McKee isn’t worried about any of these results, even if his Barnett loss frustrated him. He knows to be a national champion, he’ll need to have a short-term memory regardless of the result and stay focused on his big goals. 

“With the Big Ten season, you're gonna have these ups and downs, whether it's emotionally, whether it's physically, whether you're battling some injuries, or whether you lose some matches that you shouldn't lose,” McKee said. “A lot of guys let themselves get too hyped up after a win and get too satisfied, so I think that it's super important for me to just stay hungry and keep wanting to improve at every single position.” 

McKee and Barnett are particularly familiar with each other, as McKee went 2-1 against Barnett last season, earning two falls against the Badger, but dropping by major decision to him in the dual, meaning that bonus points were awarded to one wrestler or another in every bout in the 2021 season. While this has been McKee's most recent, perhaps most frustrating loss this season, something wild happens every time they wrestle.

“The rivalry match with Wisconsin and Minnesota is obviously a big one, and me and Pat McKee have gone back and forth for the last three years,” Barnett said. “A big part of it for me though is to not get more or less amped up for any specific match, but just kind of going in with the same attitude every time and that just breeds consistency in my wrestling.” 

Wrestling with this newly developed sense of freedom and looseness, Barnett's victory over McKee came by way of two reversals, a takedown and an escape in this match against McKee, but he did give up the first takedown. In fact, in all five of the aforementioned Big Ten matches, the winners gave up the first takedown every single time, showing that sometimes it’s just about the wrestler who can grind through the tough moments in the third period as opposed to the one who comes out with speed. 

“When it gets to the end of the season, and when it gets to the important matches, where maybe you're down by a point or two, and you have to really dig deep and put some moves together, put points on the board, that belief [that you can win] comes from some extremely hard workouts that you go through,” McKee said. “It’s the belief that if I can go through those hard workouts and I can go through that pain, then…digging deep is really not anything super hard.”

McKee may have given up third-period points in the Barnett match, but he said he still considers his grit and his gas tank to be his most valuable assets as a national contender at the weight. His patient wrestling approach of grinding it out in the third period has worked in the past, as it did when he beat Iowa’s Drake Ayala 8-6 in Carver-Hawkeye to spoil the freshman’s debut after giving up the first takedown; other times, McKee’s opponents have outscored him late in a match despite him being the early aggressor, much like the sequence of events in the Barnett match.

Regardless of the outcome or order of takedowns in a match though, this weight is full of fast, technical athletes who put points on the board in close matches. 

Barnett is currently ranked No. 8, while Northwestern’s DeAugustino, who clearly has a knack for outmaneuvering top athletes but has taken some losses, is ranked No. 12. He dropped slightly after a loss to Ayala where the Hawkeye nearly put him on his back in the Iowa dual with Northwestern, and Ayala is someone that could expect to improve over the course of the season. The young Hawkeye, however, just took a loss to Ohio State’s Malik Heinselman, who took a major decision loss to Nick Suriano this year but beat Eric Barnett by major last year. Heinselman's win over Ayala helped him crack the top 10 and slot in exactly at No. 10 while Ayala dropped to No. 11. 

Watch Heinselman beat Ayala in sudden victory here: 

The Buckeye lightweight’s improvement over his four-year career has been noticeable, and his wrestling style is well-respected by his peers, particularly Arujua who described him as a “cool dude” and a “good competitor” who scraps hard against the best of the best. Heinselman’s demanding schedule continues though, and he’ll have Penn State’s Hildebrandt — who also can’t be overlooked at No. 7 — on Feb. 4 and McKee on Feb. 11. 

Hildebrandt just held Suriano to a close 2-1 decision in the Penn State-Michigan dual, so he’s someone to keep an eye on as well in this weight, given his narrow loss to McKee last year and his potential development in the Penn State wrestling room. 

BIG TEN BATTLES: Recapping Nick Suriano vs. Drew Hildebrandt

Then there’s the other two guys in the top 10 who are outside this conference who need to be considered in all of this: No. 5 Killian Cardinale of West Virginia and No. 6 Trevor Mastrogiovanni of Oklahoma State. Cardinale is undefeated on the year, but he hasn’t wrestled anyone in the top 20. His impressive seventh-place performance at last year’s NCAA tournament came as a result of wins over Codi Russell, Noah Surtin, Rayvon Foley, Jakob Camacho and Barnett, and his upcoming biggest competition will, of course, come from his own conference when he takes on No. 12 Brody Teske on Feb. 5 and gets set for a potential battle with Mastrogiovanni at the Big 12 tournament. Mastrogiovanni ended up in the Round of 16 last year, but he’s been impressive so far this season with a 9-0 record, his highest ranked winning coming by a 10-6 decision over McKee. 

Mastrogiovanni is young, as he’s only in his second year as a starter, and experience could certainly be a factor in this weight. Suriano, the No. 1 ranked lightweight, has been wrestling collegiately since 2017, whereas Ayala graduated high school only last year. Arjuna and Glory are sophomores by eligibility, but wrestled their first collegiate season in 2018-2019. DeAugustino will finish up his fourth year of college this spring, while McKee is in his third year as a starter and fifth year out of high school, though still a sophomore by eligibility standards. Barnett is the youngest of the group, aside from Ayala, as he’s competing for the third year in a row as the starter for the Badgers. All of these athletes continue to grow and develop, but the question will be who can peak when the lights are the brightest.  

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