Every college wrestling season prompts exciting storylines and interesting athletes to watch, but this year is particularly notable. Two wrestlers chase individual history, Penn State gears up for another team title run and women's wrestling continues to grow at the college level. Here are the key things you need to know ahead of the 2022-2023 season.
1. Spencer Lee and Yianni Diakomihalis look to make history
Only four athletes in collegiate wrestling history have ever won four NCAA titles. Two more individuals will look to add their names to that exclusive list this season.
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Cornell’s Yianni Diakomihalis and Iowa’s Spencer Lee put themselves on the path toward this goal after each won their first national titles as true freshman in 2018 and followed those performances with a second national title in 2019. The conversations quickly started: do you see yourself winning four? What would it be like to win four? Lee quickly shut down the discussion. He had to win three first, he said. Then he won a third title in 2021. Diakomihalis won his third in 2022. The intrigue grew.
Now, these two elite athletes will try to finish the mission in Tulsa at the 2023 national tournament. Both have battled through adversity, injuries, COVID complications and more, but, if both of these guys are healthy, they will be as dangerous as ever.
A healthy Diakomihalis is a real problem for anyone at 149 pounds, and the Cornell senior comes into his final season with just one loss on his 94-1 record from a match against Iowa and Missouri graduate Jaydin Eierman in 2017. Since then, Diakomihalis has not only rolled through all of his collegiate competition, but he's also made two back-to-back senior world teams and demonstrated his talents on the international stage. Diakomihalis will be competing for a medal at the 2022 senior world championships this month as well before returning to Ithaca with goals of another undefeated season and a final run with his Big Red squad.
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Diakomihalis' biggest competition last year came from NCAA finalist Ridge Lovett of Nebraska who pushed the Cornell star to overtime at the Cliff Keen Invitational. North Carolina's Zach Sherman, Oklahoma's Willie McDougald, Ohio State's Sammy Sasso and Iowa's Max Murin also kept Diakomihalis to decisions in the national tournament. Diakomihalis' biggest strength though is his ability to stay calm when matches become close. His first two titles came at 141 pounds, as he beat Wyoming's Bryce Meredith in 2018 and Ohio State's Joey McKenna in 2019 before taking redshirts and focusing on freestyle. His bump up to 149 pounds last year opened up the lighter weight class for a teammate, and JJ Wilson filled that position, though the Big Red also have Vince Cornella as an option at this weight in the 2022-2023 season.
Other notable names for the Big Red this year include, of course, two-time All-American Vito Arujau who will be looking for a title of his own, as well as All-American Jonathan Loew at 184 pounds. Diakomihalis' leadership and history of winning titles provides proof to the team that such accomplishments are possible, and, if he wins his fourth title, he'll be the second wrestler Cornell's history to achieve this goal.
Unlike Diakomihalis, Spencer Lee is looking to become the first wrestler from his school to win four titles. With an overall record of 78-5 and a career bonus rate of 79.52 percent, Lee has certainly separated himself from the pack, and his two Hodge Trophies are proof of that success. But Lee’s faced his fair share of adversity. As he shared publicly after his third title, Lee tore his ACL in the 2019 finals match against Jack Mueller of Virginia, a match he would ultimately win 5-0, and he tore his other ACL in the Big Ten finals against Devin Schroder. Wrestling through these injuries impacted Lee in the 2021 national tournament, but he still bonused his way through all but one of his matches in that event before shutting out his finals opponent Brandon Courtney 7-0. Lee has since had surgery on both knees and has been back in the wrestling room training for this final season. If Lee’s healthy, it’s hard to see who might be able to stop him, though there are a few at 125 pounds who want a shot at the champ.
Lee's national title in 2021, combined with All-American performances from Jacob Warner, Tony Cassioppi and former Iowa Hawkeyes Austin DeSanto, Jaydin Eierman, Kaleb Young and Michael Kemerer, helped lift Iowa to team title that year. Head coach Tom Brands will be counting on his star to help guide the Hawks again this year. Though many of the top athletes from that 2021 team have graduated, the Hawks have reloaded with All-American Real Woods at 141 pounds and highly-anticipated potential starters in Patrick Kennedy at 165 pounds and Round of 12 finisher Brody Teske at 133 pounds. Three-time Blood Round finisher Max Murin is also back at 149 pounds, as are Nelson Brands and Abe Assad at 174 and 184 pounds, respectively. Bretli Reyna could also slot in at 157 pounds, creating more depth for the Hawks.
Lee and Diakomihalis are both top-level wrestlers capable of making history. But both of them also have leadership traits that make them stars off the mat. This year is their chance at history, and they'll chase these goals while proudly elevating their programs along the way.
2. Penn State returns four of five 2022 NCAA champions
While Lee and Diakomihalis top the list of individual athletes to follow, the Penn State Nittany Lions headline the 'teams to watch' list. They'll come into the season ranked No. 1 following a dominant performance in 2022. Head coach Cael Sanderson's squad won its ninth title in 12 years last season behind championship performances from Roman Bravo-Young, Nick Lee, Carter Starocci, Aaron Brooks and Max Dean, and everyone except Nick Lee is back again this year. Add All-American Greg Kerkvliet to the mix, and this team is, as usual, a championship-caliber program.
The Nittany Lions finished last year with a perfect dual record of 17-0 with shutout wins against Maryland and Rider. While the team hasn't posted its schedule yet this year, a similar result should be expected from the Blue and White in 2023. Penn State also finished second in the Big Ten tournament behind Michigan after Bravo-Young, Lee, Starocci and Dean all claimed titles, but the addition of Brooks' win at the NCAA tournament helped elevate Penn State past the Wolverines and allowed them to finish on top.
Bravo-Young, Starocci and Brooks will now all be chasing their third titles this season, while Dean will look for his second title. Each of these athletes could see familiar opponents in 2022, and the road to another title is far from easy. Bravo-Young's foe from the 2021 and 2022 national finals, Daton Fix, will be back looking for his shot at a title, and while the Nittany Lion lightweight has held off Fix twice, the Cowboy rival kept the match close both times. Bravo-Young though has not lost a collegiate match since 2020 when he dropped to Seth Gross and Sebastian Rivera, who have both graduated, so while Fix may be looking for his shot at the Penn State champ, Bravo-Young's results suggest that he's really on a tier of his own, at least for now.
Starocci also has limited losses, and his only two career Ls came against Donnell Washington of Indiana and the now-graduated Michael Kemerer of Iowa. The toughest competitor for Starocci in 2023 though will be former NCAA champion Mekhi Lewis of Virginia Tech who pushed the Nittany Lion in overtime last year. Lewis is elite, and while he doesn't yet have a win over two-time champ Starocci, he'll be the first Hokie wrestler to win two titles of his own if he can overcome the No. 1-ranked wrestler in his weight.
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Penn State's 197-pounder Max Dean is also expected to see his finals opponent, Jacob Warner, on multiple occasions ahead of next year's national tournament, as these two will likely meet in the always intense Iowa-Penn State dual and then again at the Big Ten tournament. Warner does not yet have a win over Dean, but he kept his bout close last year and is right there with the champ. Dean's only loss in college at 197 pounds so far came against Cameron Caffey of Michigan State, and the Spartan will be back for one last ride in 2023 as well. Training alongside Dean, above and below him in weight, are fellow national champion Aaron Brooks and All-American Greg Kerkvliet, both of whom have the potential for titles in 2023 as well. The only two wrestlers with collegiate wins over fellow NCAA champion Aaron Brooks have both graduated, meaning that Brooks is even more separated from the rest of the athletes in his weight class than he was prior to this year. He has faced tough challenges from Northern Iowa's Parker Keckeisen and N.C. State's Trent Hidlay before, but Brooks consistently finds ways to win.
Kerkvliet is in a tougher weight, but if Olympic gold medalist Gable Steveson remains retired from college wrestling, Kerkvliet has an even better chance to take home a title of his own. With a 41-7 record, Kerkvliet has shown he can compete with the best of the best, and his only losses last year came against Steveson, Iowa All-American Tony Cassioppi and NCAA semifinalist Jordan Wood of Lehigh by medical forfeit. It's hard to beat a team that puts four, and maybe even five, athletes on the podium, giving Penn State a serious edge in the team discussion heading into this season. But with some new faces back in the lineup, there's excitement and interest in the Blue and White as they look to hold off Iowa, Michigan, Arizona State and a number of other teams who would like to take Penn State down.
At 125 pounds, the Nittany Lions graduated All-American Drew Hildebrandt but will be expecting to replace him with returning starter Robert Howard, a New Jersey native who qualified for the NCAA tournament as a true freshman in 2021. Penn State has a couple of options at this weight, including Baylor Shunk and Gary Steen, though both have seen little varsity action thus far in their careers. Howard came to State College with high expectations, and he'll look to have a breakout season this year by putting some points on the board for Penn State at the lightest weight. This weight, of course, is dominated by Iowa's Spencer Lee, and the Hawkeye will aim to be a key factor in helping his team push Penn State for the team title. Howard will likely meet Lee in the Penn State-Iowa dual later this season, and his goal will be to avoid being pinned or teched.
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Another young star who will aim to break through this year wrestling down at 141 pounds is last year's 149-pound starter Beau Bartlett. He will likely be the one to try to fill the big shoes left behind by two-time NCAA champion Nick Lee. Bartlett is 23-13 in his career thus far with the Nittany Lions, and he went 1-2 at last year's NCAA tournament with his win coming against Colin Realbuto of Northern Iowa. Bartlett has wrestled tight matches with All-American caliber athletes, as he has kept Sammy Sasso of Ohio State and Yahya Thomas of Northwestern to two-point matches. His big challenge will be reversing the outcomes of those matches and scoring the critical takedown to win instead of just keeping the match close. Bartlett, like Howard, has talent, and he's certainly training with the kind of top-tier athletes that could help him make a difference this year.
Beau Bartlett warming up Carter Starocci pic.twitter.com/n2YzhYj60u— Wrestling is Inclusive by Nature (@JpPearson71) March 20, 2022
Highly-touted recruits Shayne Van Ness and Alex Facundo are expected to join the lineup at 149 and 165 pounds. Terrell Barraclough could slot back in at 157 pounds, a spot he held down temporarily last season before veteran Brady Berge took over. Barraclough is 27-14 in his career and will look to qualify for this first NCAA tournament, while Van Ness and Facundo are hyped up to be potentially podium finishers. Facundo went 12-3 in his redshirt season, but he's also gained experience on the international stage in this summer, winning U20 nationals and World Team Trials to earn his spot on Team USA. Van Ness, on the other hand, was a two-time Prep national champion and the No. 1-ranked wrestler in his weight class coming out of high school. He wrestled just two matches in his redshirt year and won them both by major. Intermat has Van Ness ranked at No. 29 because of his lack of NCAA results so far, but this will be a guy to keep an eye on.
3. A new era of women’s college wrestling
While Penn State comes into the season with the edge over Iowa on the men's side, the Hawkeyes are making history on the women's side, as the nation's first Division I Power 5 team continues preparing for the start of its first season under emerging sport status. The Hawks generated great excitement from the wrestling community last fall when they announced the addition of this team, and, since then, head coach Clarissa Chun has recruited a number of stars to fill her lineup.
Of the 15 women on the roster this year, three came to Iowa City from other collegiate programs. The lone senior on the squad, Felicity Taylor, joined the Hawks following four years at McKendree College where she won a National Collegiate Women’s Wrestling Championship title in 2021. Taylor, an Iowa native, will now compete unattached for Iowa this season in anticipation of wearing the Black and Gold as a likely starter next year. In the meantime, she'll also represent the United States at the 53kg in the U23 World Championships this October, a tournament where she went 1-2 in 2019 but will now aim to compete for a medal. Taylor is expected to compete at 116 pounds collegiately, and she's currently the only athlete listed at that weight on Iowa's roster.
At 130 and 143 pounds, the Hawks have two additional transfers joining the team in Nanea Estrella and Anayka Besco who moved to Iowa City from Menlo College and Dixie State, respectively. Estrella, a four-time state champion in high school, won her first conference title last season and finished second at the NAIA national championships at 130 pounds. She's also made noise beyond the collegiate season, winning senior nationals at 59kg last summer and taking home gold at the 2022 U20 Pan American championships. She's one of two wrestlers listed at 130 pounds, as Iowa native and three-time high school state champion Ella Schmit is also slated to compete as a redshirt this year at 130. Besco, a 2022 conference champion and NWCA third-place finisher, is one of three athletes at her weight, as she's joined by Reese Larramendy and Bella Mir, both of whom have stellar credentials that include a U16 national championship and a junior folkstyle national championship.
Iowa's biggest star though, and the top name to watch in open tournaments and other competitions this season is Kylie Welker, the No. 1 high school recruit last season and a reigning junior world champion. Welker committed to the Hawks back in February and became the first woman to sign with the team after the announcement of the program. She, like the rest of the team, will redshirt this season in anticipation of the first year of competition in 2023-2024, but she's someone to watch in the collegiate season and on the international stage.
The Hawks may have to wait one more season to compete, but other Division I women's wrestling programs will be in action this year. Sacred Heart has already announced its schedule, and Presbyterian College is back in the mix too. Lindenwood University is also making the transition to Division I competition, though the Lions have also not yet released their competition dates yet this year. Several other programs including the Tar Heel RTC and the Sunkist RTC also have active women collegiate wrestlers competing at an elite level, further demonstrating the increased opportunity of the sport.
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Women's wrestling remains an emerging sport in the NCAA, but the momentum surrounding the growth and potential of these programs creates great excitement and offers fans a fun new storyline to follow as Iowa, Presbyterian, Sacred Heart, Lindenwood and others continue to develop.
4. Defending champs look to add to their legacies
Speaking of history and legacy, a number of returning Division I men's wrestlers will also come into the year with big goals, as five athletes look to reclaim the top spot in their weight class after either missing last year due to injury or finishing just short of their goals in 2022. Iowa's Spencer Lee, of course, tops this list, and he'll aim to finish his career with four national titles after taking a medical redshirt in 2022 due to knee injuries.
Joining Lee on the list of former NCAA champions are North Carolina's Austin O'Connor, Iowa State's David Carr and Stanford's Shane Griffith, all of whom won titles in 2021 but finished eighth, third and second in 2022. Virginia Tech's Mekhi Lewis, a 2019 champ, is also back for another season this year and looking to reclaim the national title that he missed by seconds after an overtime loss to Penn State's Carter Starocci.
Carr and Griffith will both be in the same weight class this year as they chase titles at 165 pounds. Griffith won this weight in 2021 after an improbable championship run. The story around Griffith's win, however, was less about his performance and more about the fact that he achieved this feat despite wrestling being one of nearly a dozen Stanford programs to be potentially eliminated. Just several weeks prior to the tournament, Griffith lost in the Pac-12 finals to Anthony Valencia for his first varsity collegiate loss, and he could have let that loss bring him down. Instead, wearing an all-black singlet with his school's logo blacked out, Griffith found another gear. The champion won his weight, gave a viral interview on ESPN afterwards and played a key role in raising national attention for saving Stanford wrestling. Griffith came just short of defending that title in 2022 before ultimately falling to Keegan O'Toole of Missouri, but, now, with David Carr in the mix, the weight becomes even more fun.
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Like Griffith, fans gravitate towards David Carr because of his positive personality and classy interviews. He won the 2021 title at 157 pounds and was also the favorite to defend his title in 2022 before he took an upset loss in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Carr ultimately battled back for third, and his grit made him an even more popular wrestler.
North Carolina's O'Connor showed similar heart when he wrestled back after an upset in the first round before ultimately winning his Blood Round match and forfeiting out for eighth. O'Connor, much like Carr, has become of the biggest names in his conference, and his talents and previous success make him someone worth keeping a close eye on in 2023. O'Connor and Lewis are the only former champions in the ACC coming back this year, and they both have a legacy they want to leave. Lewis made history in 2019 when he become the first national champion in Virginia Tech history with his win over Vincenzo Joseph in the national finals, but a different Penn State wrestler — Starocci — prevented him from winning a second title in 2022.
Winning one title is hard. Winning two is even harder. O'Connor, Carr, Griffith and Lewis will now try to take that next step in deep weight classes where none of them are coming in as the top-ranked pre-season athlete.
5. Team trophy race could inspire breakthrough performances
Champions generate most of the attention every year, but the battle for a top-four team trophy also creates some drama. Penn State, Michigan, Iowa and Arizona State claimed team trophies last year, with Nebraska, Northwestern, Cornell, Virginia Tech, Missouri and NC State looking in from the outside.
Arizona State will once again be a threat, as the Sun Devils have two NCAA finalists in their lineup including 2021 finalist at 125 pounds Brandon Courtney and last year's heavyweight finalist Cohlton Schultz. The Sun Devil big man, Schultz, comes into the season ranked No. 1 at the weight, given the assumed retirement of Gable Steveson, though if Steveson comes back, Schultz will drop back to No. 2 until those two have a chance to meet again. Michael McGee, Kyle Parco and Jacori Teemer also all hold top-ten pre-season rankings spots at 133, 149 and 157 pounds, and all three have previously earned All-American honors.
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Teemer put on quite the show last year at the NCAA tournament, particularly in his consolation semifinals match against Nebraska's Peyton Robb, where, despite ultimately dropping to the Husker, Teemer captured fan support for his effort and grit. Robb will return again this year as part of a strong Nebraska lineup that also includes NCAA finalist Ridge Lovett and fellow All-American Mikey Labriola. While the Huskers did graduate a number of stars including Chad Red, Taylor Venz, Eric Schultz and Christian Lance, both Robb and Labriola have finalist potential and could put up big points for the Red and White. Nebraska won the Cliff Keen Invitational in 2019 and 2021 and will be returning to the tournament in 2022 for another chance to work out their lineup and see their athletes in a national setting. Though Nebraska's Big Ten schedule hasn't been released yet, the Huskers will no doubt have plenty of competition and opportunities to see where they match up against programs like Penn State and Iowa.
Nebraska, however, isn't the only team in the Big Ten threatening to compete for a trophy. Minnesota, Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin all have athletes who could be in the conversation for individual national champions, and the Bucks, in particular, also have an exciting group of underclassmen ready to make their mark on college wrestling. The highest ranked wrestler among these four teams though is No. 1 Brayton Lee, a 2021 All-American for Minnesota who is looking to return to form at 157 pounds after missing part of last season due to injury. Lee has wins over Michigan national semifinalist Will Lewan, former Iowa All-American Kaleb Young, Teemer and NCAA finalist Sammy Sasso of Ohio State, though Sasso and Lee have been back and forth quite a bit in their careers. At 157 pounds, Lee's biggest competition will come from familiar opponents in Robb, Lewan and Teemer, as well as Virginia Tech's Bryce Andonian, but if Lee can stay healthy, he's the guy to beat at 157 pounds.
Michigan's Lewan is currently ranked No. 2 at the weight though, and he's one of four top-five ranked athletes for the Wolverines including No. 5 Dylan Ragusin at 133 pounds, No. 5 Cameron Amine at 165 pounds and No. 3 Mason Parris at heavyweight. Competition will be heavy in the Big Ten, as Minnesota also has additional top-five wrestlers of their own beyond Lee including No. 5 Patrick McKee, the king of the consolation bracket, at 125 pounds, and Jakob Bergeland, the No. 3 ranked wrestler at 141 pounds, making them a solid team even without Olympic gold medalist Gable Steveson.
The Ohio State roster also looks strong with Dylan D'Emilio holding down the No. 8 spot at 141 pounds and former NCAA finalist Sammy Sasso locked in at a No. 3 pre-season spot. Just ahead of Sasso in the 149 pound rankings is No. 2 Austin Gomez of Wisconsin, one of three top-ten ranked athletes for the Badgers. The Bucks, on the other hand, have seven total athletes in the top-ten this preseason including All-Americans Carson Kharchla, Ethan Smith, Kaleb Romero, Gavin Hoffman and Tate Orndorff ranked No. 7, No. 6, No. 4, No. 9 and No. 7 respectively at 165, 174, 184, 197 and 285 pounds.
Outside of the Big Ten, the Missouri Tigers are holding down the top spot in the Big 12 with one returning champ and a number of athletes poised for their breakthrough moments while N.C. State controls the ACC in the rankings right now led by 2021 NCAA finalist Trent Hidlay. The best part about college wrestling though is that pre-season rankings mean nothing except that the potential storylines they inspire, and this season is destined to be full of great rivalries, matches and team races.