While every new college wrestling season brings a fresh set of storylines, names to know and teams to follow, one theme has been almost consistent for over a decade: the success of the Penn State Nittany Lions.
Head coach Cael Sanderson's team will once again be a hot topic leading into the 2023-24 season, so here's everything you need to know about the Blue and White, as well as the coaches, programs and competitors that will be aiming to challenge the reigning champs this year.
1. Penn State looks for its 11th title in 14 years behind two three-time NCAA champs
The Nittany Lions roll into this upcoming season with a pair of three-time champions, two NCAA finalists and four additional All-Americans. It's a scary roster, one capable of making a mark on the record books.
No team in college wrestling history has ever crowned two four-time NCAA champions in the same year. Penn State has the chance to do that with 174-pound Carter Starocci and now-197 pound Aaron Brooks. Starocci and Brooks have a combined varsity career record of 128-5 and finished last year with bonus rates of 66.67-percent each. Penn State has had a number of stars come through the ranks of the program, including Olympic gold medalist David Taylor and fellow two-time Hodge winner and world team member Zain Retherford. Yet, no Penn State wrestler has ever won four titles in college. Starocci and Brooks enter this season on rare ground.
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But they aren't the only title contenders on this team. Levi Haines, a 2023 NCAA finalist at 157 pounds, will enter the season as the No. 1 wrestler at his weight. Fellow 2023 finalist, Greg Kerkvliet, now holds down the top spot at heavyweight following the graduation of Michigan's Mason Parris. Cal Poly transfer Bernie Truax will start the year at No. 2 at 184 pounds, and 149-pound All-American Shayne Van Ness will start the year No. 2 as well. If all six of those athletes — Brooks, Starocci, Haines, Kerkvliet, Truax and Van Ness — win, Penn State will set the record for the greatest number of champs at one tournament. Penn State has had five champs before, but no team has had six. But this historic result is possible.
Depth is a key marker of this year's Penn State team too, and there's another record that this group, a squad stacked from top to bottom, could chase after as well. Only one program has ever crowned 10 All-Americans at the NCAA tournament: the Minnesota Gophers in 2001. Penn State has the chance to add its name to that list.
In addition to their six guys ranked in the top two, Penn State has Aaron Nagao at 133 pounds ranked No. 3 and Beau Bartlett at 141 pounds ranked No. 3. Their last two expected starters, Robbie Howard and Alex Facundo, come in ranked 19th and 14th respectively in the preseason. Howard started as a true freshman in 2021 and advanced to the round of 16 before injuries and a redshirt sidelined him these last two seasons. Facundo came in as a redshirt freshman last year and went 19-6 overall but 0-2 in the NCAA tournament to miss the podium. The Penn State middleweight has wins over All-Americans Carson Kharchla and Cam Amine though, while Howard has wrestled tight bouts with All-Americans Taylor LaMont and Eric Barnett. Both these guys have the potential to end up with top-eight finishes at NCAAs, and if they do, and if their teammates live up to their preseason rankings, Penn State may just be one of the best teams college wrestling has seen this century.
2. Michigan, Iowa reload with transfers in an effort to stop the Nittany Lions
Penn State has certainly been the class of college wrestling as of late, but this success has caused the target on their back to grow. The Nittany Lions now have a long list of teams that are doing everything they can to try and shut down the success of the Blue and White, and several of their biggest competitors are within their own conference.
2022 BIG TEN CHAMPS: How Michigan upset Penn State in the conference tournament
Michigan, a team that beat Penn State in the Big Ten championships in 2022, has almost built an entirely new roster of stars that are focused and fired up to try to slay the Goliath that is the Nittany Lions. Among the top returners for the Wolverines are All-Americans Will Lewan and Cam Amine at 157 and 165 pounds respectively, but the addition of three Northwestern All-Americans — Chris Cannon, Michael DeAugustino, and Lucas Davison — plus 2021 Stanford national champion Shane Griffith, makes this team capable not only of just competing for a trophy but competing for national titles.
Then there are the Hawkeyes. Iowa won it all in 2021, but the graduation of three-time NCAA champion Spencer Lee means the loss of big points for the Hawks. In an effort to add strength to the lineup following Lee's graduation, as well as the graduation of other longtime point scorers like Jacob Warner and 2023 All-American Max Murin, Iowa picked up two All-American transfers in the portal in Mikey Caliendo and Jared Franek from North Dakota State, and they'll fill in at 157 and 165 pounds. Returning NCAA finalist Real Woods is also back and will aim to make another national finals for the Black and Gold with the goal of finishing on top this year.
The portal has been beneficial to Michigan and Iowa, but other Big Ten teams, notably Ohio State, will rely on some of its stellar freshman and young recruits in its quest for another team trophy and top conference honors. The Bucks return All-Americans Jesse Mendez, Dylan D'Emilio, Carson Kharchla and Gavin Hoffman with blue-chip recruits Nic Bouzakis, Nick Feldman and Seth Shumate potentially making themselves staples in the varsity lineup this year.
There are multiple ways to build a championship roster in 2023-2024, and this year, the biggest question will be: is there a team that has been able to use the transfer portal and recruiting effectively enough this off season to stop Penn State?
3. Coaching changes bring new spark to ACC, Pac 12 and Big 12 teams
While the storylines heading into a college wrestling season almost always revolve around student-athletes, this offseason and early fall brought a number of notable coaching changes that could impact the landscape of the sport and the future depth of some big-name programs.
The most recent coaching announcement — Stanford's hiring of former Princeton head coach Chris Ayres — was met earlier this week by an outpouring of support from the wrestling community. Ayres has been at the helm of the Princeton program for 17 years, and he recently capped off his most successful season yet, guiding the team to an 13th-place finish behind a championship performance from Patrick Glory and a third-place result from Quincy Monday. The longtime Tiger leader will now take his talents to the west coast, inheriting a program last coached by Rob Koll. At Stanford, Ayres will have athletic scholarships to offer to his athletes and vast alumni support to grow in Palo Alto. If his experience in Princeton is any indication of his potential, he'll likely take the Cardinal program to new heights. His move leaves an opening at Princeton for a new head coach though, and an announcement has yet to be made about who will be taking over the program.
Ayres' hire at Stanford is the latest in a sequence of coaching changes prompted by former USA wrestling youth development coach James Green's decision to leave his post in Colorado Springs and rejoin the Nebraska Wrestling Training Center (NWTC) to make an Olympic run in 2024. When Green's old job with USA Wrestling opened up in June, longtime Oklahoma State associate head coach Zack Esposito made the decision to move from Stillwater to Colorado to take over the role. Esposito's departure left an opening at Oklahoma State, causing North Carolina head coach Coleman Scott to leave the Tar Heels and move back to his alma mater to work as an associate head coach under program leader John Smith.
Scott's move was unusual in that he left a head coaching job to take an associate head coaching position, but Scott explained to The O'Colly, the Oklahoma State student newspaper, that the opportunity to work with his collegiate coach in Smith and be part of the Cowboy program was too good of an opportunity to pass up. The Cowboy Olympian is now back in Orange and Black, looking to help rejuvenate the team and improve on its 18th place finish last season.
With Scott moving to Stillwater, North Carolina needed a head coach, prompting Rob Koll, formerly of Stanford, to move back to his alma mater and take over the strong ACC program. The decision was a homecoming moment for Carolina and Koll and a reunion that brought an excitement (and relief) to Chapel Hill following Scott's unexpected move west.
These changes all involved big name, high-level coaches, guys who have all coached national champions and found success at the highest level in college wrestling. Their immediate impact on these new programs will be a fun development to follow as the season kicks off.
Ayres, Koll and Scott, however, weren't the only coaches to change roles this off-season. The Big 12 also saw two big moves that will make this conference particularly interesting in 2023-2024. Longtime Oklahoma head coach Lou Rosselli resigned from his position in Norman almost immediately following the 2023 NCAA tournament, leading the Sooner administration to open up a national search. His replacement turned out to be former North Dakota State head coach Roger Kish, a former Big 12 foe who knew the conference well and now joins a Power 5 program with perhaps more resources and a richer history of wrestling success.
NORTH DAKOTA STATE: The rebuild of the Bison program under Blanc
Obe Blanc, the former associate head coach at North Dakota State and now current head coach, has embraced his role as the new leader of the Bison and almost immediately hired five-time N.C. State assistant coach Hayden Hidlay to join his staff as an assistant to help rebuild the team. His energy and passion will make the Bison a team to follow this year as they battle for wins in a fiery conference with growing depth.
4. The Keegan O'Toole vs. David Carr rivalry continues
Speaking of the Big 12, two of the conference's biggest stars return to the mat this year at 165 pounds to once again battle for middleweight supremacy. Missouri's two-time NCAA champion Keegan O'Toole will enter his fourth season with the Tigers boasting a 64-3 record, with two of those two losses coming against the same guy: David Carr.
Iowa State's Carr, who won an NCAA title in 2021 but moved up to 165 pounds in 2023, beat O'Toole in the Missouri-Iowa State dual and in the Big 12 finals but dropped to the Tiger in the NCAA finals. Carr will enter the season with a 115-4 career record and chase another NCAA title in his last year of collegiate eligibility.
Iowa State will dual Missouri this year on Feb. 25 in Ames, Iowa, and Carr and O'Toole will likely cross paths in the Big 12 tournament as well. Much like 2022, O'Toole will come in as the favorite, as he notched the last win over Carr and won the weight at the national tournament, but Carr is tricky. His length and skillful defense makes him a challenging opponent for anyone, even two-time champion O'Toole.
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Carr and O'Toole are far from the only talents at this weight too. Dean Hamiti, the 2023 Big Ten champion, and Cameron Amine, the 2022 Big Ten finalist, will be back as well, along with All-Americans Caliendo, Peyton Hall and Izzak Olejnik, the latter of whom will compete in the Big 12 this season as well, representing Oklahoma State. Only two athletes in this weight though have won a national title: Carr and O'Toole. Their rivalry was all class last year, and fans are in for a treat as they set to take the mat again in just a few months.
5. The Olympic (redshirt) factor
If the drama of college wrestling dynasties, transfers, coaching changes and rivalries isn't enough, this year will also bring the unique wrinkle of the 'Olympic Redshirt'. With the Paris 2024 Olympic Games set for this upcoming summer, select college wrestlers have the opportunity to take an additional redshirt year to prepare for the U.S. Trials in April. Team USA identifies six ways that a wrestler can qualify for an Olympic redshirt, one of which is a top-three finish at the 2023 NCAA tournament.
OLYMPIC REDSHIRT: Here's how this factor played out in 2020
Based on that qualification, the following wrestlers are eligible for an Olympic redshirt: Matt Ramos, Vito Arujau, Andrew Alirez, Real Woods, Beau Bartlett, Sammy Sasso, Shayne Van Ness, Levi Haines, Keegan O`Toole, David Carr, Chris Foca, Aaron Brooks, Parker Keckeisen, Tanner Sloan, Rocky Elam, Greg Kerkvliet and Wyatt Hendrickson.
Additionally, any wrestler who finished in the top eight at the April 2023 Senior US Open qualify. The following wrestlers earned their Olympic redshirts through their finishes in the freestyle tournament: Jakob Camacho, Drew West, Cooper Flynn, Caleb Smith, Ridge Lovett, Derek Gilcher, Trent Hidlay, Dylan Fishback, Maximus Hale, Jacob Cardenas, Sam Mitchell, Silas Allred, Cade Lautt, John Gunderson and Isaac Trumble.
The U.S. also has a number of athletes who have qualified for an Olympic redshirt based on their top-eight performance at the U.S. Open in Greco, headlined by 2023 Senior World Team members Cohlton Schultz and Zac Braunagel. Previous U17, U20 and U23 World Medalists as well as previous national team members also qualify, as do those who previously won an NCAA and finished in the top two at the 2023 U23 national championships.
While the list of Olympic redshirt qualifiers is long, the list of those who are expected to take advantage of their redshirt eligibility is not. In 2020, a number of big name wrestlers like Daton Fix and Vito Arujau sat out of the college season in preparation for the Olympic Trials. Those Trials, of course, were postponed because of COVID, prompting Arujau to take a second Olympic redshirt. The consequence of this decision, however, is that now Arujau and Fix are going into their sixth and eighth collegiate wrestling years, respectively. Lengthening a career has advantages, but too much lengthening can put wear and tear on the body in ways that have not historically been conducive to success. Given the fact that so many athletes in the field are able to take the 2021 COVID free year and add it towards their eligibility, the number of athletes who choose to redshirt for the Olympics and add yet another year will likely to be low.
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The suspense around who may or may not take an Olympic redshirt creates some intrigue early in the college season. Those who elect not to take the redshirt but still chase an Olympic dream this cycle may also wrestle a modified schedule, altering the college scene slightly as well, so while the Olympic redshirt factor itself may not play as large of a role, the impact of the Olympic Trials, and subsequent scheduling changes, may have a ripple effect on who competes when.