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Shannon Scovel | NCAA.com | March 3, 2022

'I’m focused on dominating in March': Inside the mind of Nick Suriano on his quest for one more NCAA wrestling title

Watch Nick Suriano make Scarlet Knights history

“High spirits and full strength.” That’s how Michigan's sixth-year senior Nick Suriano describes his mentality heading into his final postseason as a collegiate athlete. There’s joy in his voice as he talks about Big Ten folkstyle wrestling, but he maintains that undeniable fierceness that has defined his career and his style. This latest version of Suriano that is now taking the mat for Michigan — his third Big Ten school in six years — is a wrestler who has been through it all and feels like he’s finally found his rightful home. 

“I have everything I need. [Michigan] was a long-time connection waiting to happen,” Suriano told NCAA.com. “I wish I discovered it earlier in my life, but great things take time and everything seems to be happening at the right time. I’m lucky and grateful to say ‘hey, I wanted to be here, and I’m here,’ and it’s working.” 

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With the clock ticking down on his NCAA career, the New Jersey native and now Wolverine graduate student has one final opportunity to win another national title before moving on from folkstyle wrestling and pursuing new goals. That’s the only thing on his mind. 

“Right now my focus is March in Detroit. And it’s really that simple," Suriano said. "There is a big future that wrestling can hold for me, and it’s been a wild ride, but right now I’m focused on dominating in March, and doing what I know I can do, and what I came here, to Michigan, to do.”

This self-belief, coupled with relentless determination, has been part of Suriano's wrestling philosophy dating back to his early days crushing his opponents on the New Jersey Prep circuit and making history as a legendary lightweight. Nick Suriano's journey has included a range of unexpected stops and starts, but each of those experiences has shaped him into this new, evolved wrestler committed to achieving greatness. This is the story of an athlete who has been in the limelight for years but will now put everything he has on the line in a few weeks at the NCAA tournament in Detroit for one last shot at college wrestling glory.

The early years: An undefeated Prep career

Suriano’s love for wrestling began early, and he remembers distinctly working with his father and the Paramus, New Jersey wrestling coaches to learn the skills and mental toughness needed to be a champion. Pretty quickly, wrestling transformed from something recreational to something much more serious, a space where dreams turned from goals to reality.

“[This] was a place where, a community where I [could] see ‘okay, wow, wrestling, boom, I like this. I want to be a state champ, I want to be a region champ, I want to be a county, district champ, state, NCAA champ, maybe Olympics',” Suriano said. “I think every decision I’ve made leading up to where I am now, I’m grateful for following through with my wants and taking the risks to leave one place and find another and enhance the quality of my life."

Suriano may not have been able to imagine where his life would end up taking him, but he did have a little foreshadowing of his final collegiate home, unbeknownst to him at the time.

Coincidentally, one of Suriano’s youth coaches at the time had attended the University of Michigan, leading Suriano to sport a Michigan Wolverines hat in middle school. He was rocking the Maize and Blue in the hallways of his middle school long before he would ever don a Wolverine singlet, and Suriano said the hat didn’t hold any personal meaning at the time; it was just the alma mater of his coach.

Now, of course, Suriano has followed in the footsteps of his coach, creating a sentimental full-circle moment, and the significance of the Michigan legacy and those who motivated him to keep pursuing his dream, wherever that dream might take him, are certain things he thinks about when he takes the mat.

"There’s just something about Michigan, for me at least, that’s where I gravitated, that’s where my purpose was calling me, and I went with it," Suriano said. "It’s a great place in general, everything seems to be high-end, not only the wrestling, the academics, just the whole culture and fit."

Back in those prep days though, Suriano's mind wasn't on Michigan. He was just zeroed in on making New Jersey state history.

As a freshman in high school, Nick Suriano established his authority early, going undefeated that first year and winning his first state title 3-2 against Kyle Bierdumpfel in the finals at 106 pounds. But this was only the beginning for Suriano.

The Bergen Catholic champ further separated himself from the field in his sophomore year, bonusing all 44 of his opponents leading into the championship match, including his semifinals opponent Zack Firestone, whom he beat 10-1. This all led Suriano into his second state finals where he ultimately topped Pat D'Arcy, 7-0 for another title, this time at 113 pounds.

His junior year brought him a third championship after he went up a weight to 120 pounds and secured a 5-2 win over Ty Agaisse in the finals to earn his 121st Prep career win. At no point in his first three years of high school did Suriano ever trail during one of these bouts, and he also never gave up an offensive point during any of his matches during his sophomore and junior seasons.

He would end up facing Agaisse again during the final match of his high school career, and, just like he had done before, Suriano prevailed over his lightweight foe, beating him 3-1 during his final match in a Bergen Catholic singlet. The win made him just the second wrestler in state history to win the New Jersey state tournament all four years and left him with a career record of 159-0 in high school. Suriano was a New Jersey legend, but he would go on to leave his home state, only to return one year later to add to his New Jersey record.

The college start: A year at Penn State 

Suriano's initial college decision to attend Penn State University, home of the defending champions at the time, was no surprise. Penn State has produced and developed a number of prep legends, and Suriano was on track to be the next Nittany Lion national contender.

The New Jersey native wasted no time proving to the collegiate wrestling world that he could compete, win and dominate at the NCAA level, earning a major in his debut match against Trey Chalifoux and then topping All-American Connor Schram of Stanford in his Rec Hall debut

Suriano had arrived.

The new Nittany Lion lightweight then went on to beat nine more opponents, including NCAA champion Darian Cruz and NCAA finalist Ethan Lizak, but ultimately took his first loss of this collegiate rookie season against eventual Olympic bronze medalist Thomas Gilman of Iowa 3-2 in the Penn-State Iowa dual. The setback didn't deter him though, as he moved forward and racked up five more wins against Big Ten opponents before wrestling in a dual that would change the trajectory of his college career.

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Against Oklahoma State’s Nick Piccininni in Gallagher-Iba Arena, Suriano faced a different test from a saavy All-American who wrestled fearlessly against the Nittany Lion. Suriano earned the first takedown in this match off an ankle pick, but Piccininni escaped and responded with a shot of his own only to be fended off by Suriano, who showed impressive poise in enemy territory. Suriano chose down to start the second period, and Piccininni rode him hard at first but Suriano ultimately escaped, though the escape effort wasn’t without issues. While sliding out from Piccininni’s hold, Suriano tweaked his ankle, an injury that forced him to take all the weight off that ankle.

Oklahoma State Athletics Nick Suriano wrestles Oklahoma State

Consulting with the trainers and his coaches, Suriano worked to get his ankle taped up and wrestle again, but the injury would prove to be too severe. He started on top against Piccininni after the reset, but the Cowboy quickly escaped, narrowing Suriano's lead 3-2. As Piccininni came charging at Suriano, looking for an attack of his own, Penn State head coach Cael Sanderson stepped in, calling the match due to his athlete's injury. Suriano was done, and that last bout would be his final one in the Blue and White singlet at Penn State.

Suriano medically forfeited and injury defaulted his way through the Big Tens and arrived at NCAAs with the intention of wrestling, but his injury proved too much. He then also forfeited his first two bouts and ended his freshman year after a fiery start and a disappointing finish.

Following the injury and that freshman season, Suriano started looking for a new home in college wrestling, and he found that home back in the Garden State with the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. 

The championship run: A historic Rutgers win 

New environment, new healthy Suriano. The former Nittany Lion picked up where he left off before his injury, this time wearing the Scarlet and Gray of his second school. Suriano's no-nonsense Jersey attitude spurred great wrestling, and he competed his way to a 20-0 regular-season record during his second year of eligibility and first year as a Scarlet Knight. Flash forward to the Big Ten tournament, and Suriano, again, had to take a series of medial forfeits, this time after a 9-2 win against Travis Piotrowski of Illinois. The adversity didn't stop him though, and Suriano recovered enough to compete and advance in the NCAA tournament two weeks later, beating JR Wert, Zeke Moisey, Louie Hayes and Darian Cruz on his way to facing Spencer Lee of Iowa in the 2018 NCAA finals.

That finals match, which ended 5-1 in favor of Lee would ultimately be a bout that would motivate him for the entire next calendar year and lead him to his own title 371 days later.

Enter Suriano 3.0. The Scarlet Knight junior knew what to expect now, he was ready, and he was on a mission to bring a championship to Rutgers and his home state. He either bonused or won by forfeit 12 of his first 14 matches in his third season of collegiate eligibility before two back-to-back losses to Daton Fix and Austin DeSanto, both worthy opponents but the first two athletes Suriano had lost to his college career since Spencer Lee in the finals match. He would only drop one more match that year, a 3-2 decision in the Rutgers vs. Michigan dual to Stevan Micic, but three years later he would join Micic as part of this Michigan Wolverine team chasing its own title.

THROWBACK: Relive how Nick Suriano won his first NCAA title with the Rutgers Scarlet Knights

But, back in 2019, Suriano took that first loss, only to reverse the outcome of the match at the NCAA tournament on his way to taking over the weight class. He won the Big Ten tournament that year in the finals against Ohio State's Luke Pletcher, and he then beat Dylan Duncan, Korbin Myers, Ethan Lizak, and Micic to earn a spot in the finals. This was his shot. He was going to be a national champion.

Justin K. Aller/NCAA Photos via Getty Images Nick Suriano celebratesNick Suriano celebrates after winning the 2019 NCAA tournament at 133 pounds

In one of the biggest bouts of his college career, Suriano pushed Oklahoma State star Daton Fix for seven minutes and fought carefully to a 2-2 tie after regulation. Sudden victory came and went. The score remained even after rideouts. But in the second sudden victory, with everything on the line, Suriano found a way to win with a crucial takedown to win 4-2. He had made Rutgers school history, the first athlete to ever win a wrestling title for the Scarlet Knights.

The Olympic redshirts: A freestyle transition

Suriano looked to be in his element, celebrating his national title with his friends and family in New Jersey, but this goal-driven champion started to shift his mind towards preparing for the Olympics, and that mission took him away from his home and searching for a new set of training partners.

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Suriano took an Olympic redshirt year and started bouncing around to different regional training centers in an effort to find his next fit, but, in the meantime, he was racking up wins. He beat world bronze medalist Joe Colon at Beat the Streets in 2019, immediately following his national championship, and he then beat Eddie Klimara, Dragos Robertson, Zach Sanders, Zane Richards and Nashon Garrett at the 2019 Bill Ferrell Invitational. A loss to Seth Gross prevented him from earning an Olympic Trials qualification spot at this tournament, but he moved on. At senior nationals, Suriano added more wins to his freestyle resume with victories over Shelton Mack, Britain Longmire, Richards and Cruz. His only losses in that tournament came against Vito Arujua of Cornell, but, with his fourth place finish, he had officially qualified for the Olympic Trials. Now everything became real. 

In an unexpected twist to his career, Suriano then chose to move out to Tempe, Arizona to train with Mark Perry and the Sunkist Kids Regional Training Center at Arizona State on a quest to become the best 57kg freestyle wrestler in the world. Suriano's freestyle career was just getting started, but the Olympics would require him to compete at an elite level in this new style, so that's what he would do. He would improve his neutral game, and he would commit to this new ruleset, even if it wasn't his preference.

"I like folkstyle, NCAA wrestling," Suriano said, when asked about the collegiate and international styles of competition. "I don't know why, there is something primal about it, top-bottom, getting out, someone is on top of you. Can you get out, can you hold him down? There is something more primal, more combative about it to me, that’s just my perspective."

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But, as his collegiate peers navigated COVID and the canceled NCAA tournament, Suriano continued to train as an Olympic redshirt athlete and look for international success. He returned to the mat in January 2021 to win the Henri Deglane Grand Prix, outscoring his opponents 7-1, 4-1 and 7-0. Three months later, he earned silver at the Matteo Pellicone. Things were lining up for Suriano. He was one of the top names heading into the rescheduled Olympic Trials on April 2-3, 2021, and everything was set for him to chase the Olympic gold he had been so driven towards. But, unfortunately for Suriano, his dreams would be crushed by a positive COVID test that forced him to withdraw from the tournament. All of that work, all of that commitment, and this was how his 2020 Olympic dreams would end. 

About six months later, he returned to the mat for World Team Trials and wrestled to wins against Sean Fauz and Shelton Mack but ultimately dropped a match to Nathan Tomasello before forfeiting out. He was ready to turn his attention back to the NCAA season. 

As the 2021-2022 season inched closer, Suriano’s name appeared in the transfer portal again, suggesting that maybe he wasn't planning to stay and wrestle collegiately at Arizona State. The champ looked to be on the move again, and rumors started to swirl. 

The finale: A Wolverine at last

There was speculation that Suriano would return to Penn State for this last season, potentially arriving back at the place he once called home. Others thought he might join the Iowa State program or become an Ohio State Buckeye. But, in the end, Suriano found himself drawn to Michigan, both for himself and for what the program offered him from a team perspective. 

“I think it was my purpose, I think that’s what pulled me here and it’s a little deeper than just winning a national championship, but that’s the gist of what it is," Suriano said. "That’s the focus, that’s the center point every day, that’s what this is all about."

STATE OF THE WEIGHT: How Nick Suriano fits into the national title conversation at 125 pounds

There's something special about wrestling for that championship crown on Saturday night of the NCAA tournament in front of 14,000+ people, and this sentimental moment is one Suriano’s waited two years to experience again. There's no secret this was his goal, but the only question became what weight he would look to achieve this goal at, having won his last championship at 133 pounds but wrestled down at 57kg for his international tournaments. 

For Suriano, that answer was simple: 125 pounds.

The weight class drop is part of a vision quest for the veteran athlete, a chance for him to "reedeem [him]self" and "evolve from [that] finals match when things weren't the healthiest" to where he is now. That last match at 125 pounds in 2018 isn't far from his mind, but Suriano said it doesn't matter who is in the weight class or who is wrestling in this year's championship — he still sees himself on top of the podium.

The people that stand on top of the podium in March, on the blue mat, the [ten] wrestlers, they all see themselves there,” Suriano said. “They believe it, and then they make it happen, and I think if you can think and operate like that it will happen.”

NCAA Photos via Getty Images Nick Suriano and the 2019 NCAA tournament

He's reflective and thoughtful about what his unique journey in college wrestling from Penn State to Rutgers to Michigan has meant to him and his community. He knows his story is unusual, though he’s not too caught up in what other people think about his experiences. Instead, he’s dialed in on his wrestling and his purpose-driven mindset.

Since arriving in Ann Arbor, Suriano has been looking every bit like a national championship contender, cruising to an 8-0 record in a tough Big Ten schedule and holding down an 87.50% bonus rate. He's adjusted back to the folkstyle technique that has always suited him, and he's ready to roll

"It is combat, it is a fight, it is a match, it’s a competition, it’s everything we train to do," Suriano said. "There are some adjustments, and I approach them humbly and do my time and got back into rhythm and here we are."

Suriano’s greatest strength and the trait that he thinks will help elevate him to greatness once again, he said, is his determination, his ability to remain steadfast in pursuit of excellence, and finding positives in the dark times. His spirits are high, and he's at full strength. Now it's up to him to see what he can do with that in this final run.

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