Some of the best stories from the NCAA wrestling tournament every year come from the underdogs, the guys who outperform their seed, the wrestlers who pull off crazy upsets and the athletes who shock the world. Making those kinds of headlines though first requires qualifying for the tournament. Of the 330 NCAA qualifiers in 2022, 287 locked up their spots through automatic bids at their respective conference tournaments, but the other 43 needed at-large bids to book their tickets to Detroit. Here are some of the most notable takeaways from that list of at-large qualifiers and the ways in which their qualification could create added intrigue in each of their weight classes.
The quest for the podium begins again for 141-pound and 149-pound at-large qualifiers
The NCAA selection committee determined that these 141-pounders now earned a spot in Detroit: Kizhan Clarke, Parker Filius, Chad Red, Dresden Simon and Joe Zargo, and any number of these athletes could earn an All-American spot.
Let's start with the most experienced and accomplished wrestler on this list.
Chad Red, a three-time All-American and 2020 NWCA All-American, finished 1-2 in the Big Ten tournament with losses to Cayden Rooks and Parker Filius. But his 12-6 season record, previous performances and placement in the coaches rankings helped him earn a bid. His at-large selection makes him the eighth Nebraska wrestler to qualify for the tournament, giving Nebraska quite a lineup. If Red can perform at NCAAs like he has in the past and end up on the podium, he could help Nebraska push for a team trophy.
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Parker Filius and Kizhan Clarke both have wins over the All-American, and Filius also beat NCAA finalist Stevan Micic at the Big Ten tournament, so they're podium contenders as well. Additionally, Joseph Zargo, the 141-pounder from Wisconsin, beat an All-American in Dylan Duncan at the Big Ten tournament. Oh, and don't forget about Dresden Simon, a dangerous lightweight from Central Michigan who pushed NCAA finalist Jaydin Eierman to the final seconds back in December. This weight class is so deep, and the quality of these at-large bid proves that.
Watch Clarke beat Red in the Nebraska-North Carolina dual in November 2021:
The 149-pound weight class at-large selections tell a similar story. Stanford’s Jaden Abas and Northwestern’s Yahya Thomas, both of whom finished on the podium last year, officially earned their bids and can book travel to Detroit. Thomas took a loss to Michigan’s Kanen Storr, a middleweight Wolverine who did not earn an at-large bid, and Iowa’s Max Murin during the Big Ten tournament but the losses didn’t prevent him from earning his spot. Thomas may have to make another run from a lower seed this year, despite placing third last year, but any wrestler with a seed has a chance, and Thomas is going to make ripples in this year’s bracket if he wrestles his best.
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Abas had a wild Pac-12s, pinning one opponent but getting pinned by two others, but he’s back at nationals and will see a similar lineup of opponents. Abas wrestled Thomas twice at NCAAs last year, losing twice, but he also beat Murin, so the common opponents makes their rivalry interesting. Joining Abas and Thomas in the at-large selections at this weight is another former qualifier in PJ Ogunsanya of Army West Point, someone Abas beat in last year’s tournament but also someone who has been steady and solid for the Black Knights throughout his career and wrestles everyone tough. Josh Edmond of Missouri rounds out the at-large qualifiers at this weight becoming the ninth Tiger to earn a spot at nationals this year.
How high can a healthy Chris Foca and a healthy Jaron Smith finish?
Cornell 174-pounder Chris Foca officially punched his ticket to Detroit via an at-large bid after medically forfeiting out of the EIWA championship following an injury in his match against Nick Incontrera. Prior to the conference tournament, Foca had just five losses, with one coming by injury default against Michael O’Malley of Drexel, one via a 5-2 decision against Jake Logan of Lehigh, another against Adam Kemp 3-2 and the other two against NCAA champions Mekhi Lewis and Carter Starocci by two points or less. Essentially, Foca’s dangerous. He pushed Lewis to overtime and kept Starocci within a point. Foca’s injury defaults are a concern and could limit his rise to the top in Detroit if health issues continue to impact him, but a healthy Foca is a problem for anyone else at 174 pounds.
Chris Foca likes to strike first @ThisGuyFoca pic.twitter.com/NOMPJzFfkt— Cornell Wrestling (@BigRedWrestling) March 5, 2022
The Big Red have nine NCAA qualifiers, as 133-pound Dominic LaJoie and 157-pounder Hunter Richards also earned at-large bids to help round out this impressive team. Cornell is, of course, led by two-time NCAA champion Yianni Diakomihalis and EIWA champion and Olympic Trials finalist Vito Arujau, but Foca has podium potential for this team too, and his at-large bid makes that possible.
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Like Foca, Maryland’s Jaron Smith has battled injuries throughout his career, but he’s put together one of the most complete seasons in his seventh-year tenure with the Terps this year. Smith is 19-13 on the year and earned an at-large bid despite losses to Michial Foy, Andrew Davison and Thomas Penola at the Big Ten championships. His best win of the year came against Michigan’s Patrick Brucki, an upperweight Wolverine who took third in the Big Ten tournament, and if Smith wrestles like he did against Brucki, he can fight with the best in the country.
After years of injury hardship and adversity Maryland native Jaron Smith is going to the NCAA Championships. It’s Smith's first appearance ever in the NCAA Championships, and he will join No. 8 Kyle Cochran and Dominic Solis heading to Detroit for the Terps. @DBKSports. https://t.co/NvhevOSUvM— Ashkan AJ Motamedi (@AshkanJMotamedi) March 8, 2022
Smith’s strength is his power and speed, but the graduate Terp will need to keep himself healthy, focused and rested these next two weeks in order to use those advantages to their fullest potential in two weeks.
Anthony Valencia will be a dangerous draw
Any of the at-large qualifiers can make a run at the NCAA tournament and finish with honors, as Northwestern’s Thomas demonstrated last year when he raced from the No. 25 seed to finish third, but there are a few notable names on this at-large list that could create some significant problems for automatic qualifiers in the bracket.
Let’s start with Anthony Valencia. The 2021 Pac-12 champion lost to NCAA champion Shane Griffith and Oregon State’s Matthew Olguin in this year’s conference tournament, but the 2021 All-American has beaten both of those athletes before and can compete with the best in the weight class, when he’s at 100%. The Sun Devil grad student hit a bump in the road at the end of the regular season, taking three consecutive losses that hurt his ranking, but he’s wrestled top competition this year and earned his spot at NCAAs with an at-large bid.
Columbia’s Joe Manchio and Indiana’s DJ Washington also have notable career wins, as Manchio beat 2021 All-American Sam Latona earlier this year and Washington has an impressive win over NCAA champion Carter Starocci from last year; these at-large contenders have the potential to create chaos in their brackets.
Oklahoma State needs at-large qualifiers to step up for the team
The Oklahoma State Cowboys, last year’s third-place finishers at the NCAA tournament, qualified eight wrestlers for the 2022 tournament, but two of those came by way of at-large bid. All-American’s Dakota Geer and Wyatt Sheets both punched their tickets to the Big Show despite each taking two losses in the Big 12 tournament.
Geer has struggled a little more this year than last year in the competitive 197-pound weight class, but his at-large bid to the tournament gives last year’s fifth-place finisher another shot at the podium. Sheets, similarly, is just over .500 on the year with ten wins and eight losses, and he comes into the NCAA tournament with four consecutive losses. The middleweight Cowboys’ best career win came against Iowa’s two-time All-American Kaleb Young in the 2020 Oklahoma State-Iowa dual, and he’s training in an elite wrestling room in Stillwater that produces champions, so he’s capable of ending up on the podium again this year. He and Geer though will need to pull off some upsets to repeat the kinds of performances they had last season.
Zachary Knighton-Ward and Will Feldkamp give Hofstra, Clarion NCAA qualifiers
2020 & 2021 NCAA qualifier Zachary Knighton-Ward is back in the mix at the NCAA tournament after earning an at-large bid following his performance at the EIWA tournament. Knighton-Ward is 18-8 on the year, but records don’t matter anymore. Now it’s just about winning matches and staying alive in the national tournament. Last year, Knighton-Ward earned one win at NCAAs against Brandon Metz, but he’ll want to add to that total this season and look to moved deeper into the bracket. As the lone wrestler from Hofstra to earn a bid, Knighton-Ward’s qualification means the Pride will have representation in Detroit, and he’ll be someone to keep an eye out for when watching the heavyweight matches.
Ahead of @NCAAWrestling announcing the at-large qualifiers for the 2022 NCAA Championships, check out the résumés for outstanding #Hofstra wrestlers Charles Small and Zachary Knighton-Ward!— Hofstra Wrestling (@HofstraWREST) March 7, 2022
Keep an 👀 out tomorrow afternoon for the announcement of at-large bids!#RoarWithPride pic.twitter.com/KDQC0TMTDM
Joining Knighton-Ward as the only rep from his school at the NCAA tournament is Will Feldkamp from Clarion, a 197 pounder with a 19-4 record. Feldkamp previously wrestled for Northern Illinois during his career but transferred to wrestle for the Eagles in this fifth season. Qualifying for the NCAA tournament for the first time, Feldkamp is the true definition of a wild card at this weight, and he’ll likely have a chance to test himself against the best at the weight early in the tournament, given that he’s coming in as an at-large bid. Anything can happen in these upperweights, but regardless of the results, these two wrestlers — Zachary Knighton-Ward and Will Feldkamp — gave their programs two more weeks of wrestling.