Photo of Troy Nickerson by John Sachs, Tech-Fall.com
The greatest seasons in NCAA wrestling history can and will be debated. Eras are difficult to compare. As time wears on, many forget the stories of the champions, even more so those that they defeated in getting there. Still, the mystique surrounding a wrestler who wins every battle, defeating each foe who steps on the mat against him on his way to a national championship remains powerful. To have a little fun as we continue to wait for the season to begin, I decided to take a look at the best seasons in Division I wrestling history for each different win total, 11 through 55. Some of the decisions were easy, there has only been one wrestler to ever win a D1 title after going 55-0 for example, but others were incredibly tough. Choosing the best 34-0 season had me splitting hairs as the list of legendary athletes who have earned that record is long.
Today we continue our journey looking at win totals from 21 to 25. I used a blend of dominance, historical significance, and who a wrestler beat to make my choices. Win totals can be a little tricky to confirm, especially for older wrestlers, but using Jay Hammond’s historical work and school websites among other sources, this is what I came up with. We’ll be rolling out the list in increments of five throughout the fall so be on the lookout.
Mark Lieberman (Lehigh), 177, 1979
By 1979, Lieberman’s legacy as an all-time great at Lehigh was secure after a national title and pinning 1976 Olympic champion John Peterson in freestyle the year before, but he put himself in the conversation as the best wrestler in program history with a senior season the likes of which has rarely been seen in college wrestling. His 16 falls and 95.2% bonus rate still stand as Lehigh single-season records, he became the school’s first four-time EIWA champion, and he brought an eight-match pinning streak into the NCAA semi-finals before “only” beating Dave Severn (Arizona State), 12-2. Lieberman’s final victory was an odd one as Bud Palmer (Iowa), struggling to see after taking a thumb in the eye during his previous match, was stalled out, becoming the only wrestler in DI finals history to be disqualified.
Lincoln McIlravy (Iowa), 150, 1997
After a loss in the 1995 NCAA finals derailed McIlravy’s chance to become the second four-time NCAA champion in Division I history, he took a year off to pursue a spot on the 1996 Olympic team, watching a man he never lost to, Chris Bono (Iowa State), claim the NCAA title while Lincoln was away. When the Hawkeye returned as a senior, he was expected to dominate. While he generally did, a concussion and lingering symptoms kept him off the mat at times and threatened to end his college career on a sour note. However, by the post-season, McIlravy was right again, rolling into the NCAA finals where he survived a stern test from Bono, hitting his iconic boot scoot for the winning takedown in overtime. McIlravy’s third title helped Iowa set the still standing points record, racking up 170 to beat Oklahoma State by 56.5.
Curley Culp (Arizona State), UNL, 1967
Playing football and wrestling for the Sun Devils, Culp was a victim of the repechage system in 1966 entering as the six seed, losing to the three seed, and then having no chance to wrestle back when the three lost to the two in the semifinals. In 1967, Culp would make sure that didn’t happen again. Despite an undefeated regular season, the Arizona State junior came to Kent State for the NCAA tournament seeded second behind Dave Porter (Michigan). After a 15-5 opening win and a pair of falls, Culp found himself in the finals against Nick Carollo (Adams State), who had knocked off Porter in the quarters. It took just 51 seconds for Curley to record his 17th fall of the season, tied for fifth-most in program history, and become the Sun Devils’ first national champion. He claimed the Gorrarian Award for the tournament. Culp did not compete at the 1968 national tournament but went on to have an outstanding NFL career. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2013.
Derek Moore (UC Davis), 141, 2007
Despite a productive career, Moore had never been an All-American entering his senior season. He had made it as far as the round of 12 twice, in 2004 and 2005, both times after being pinned by top-seeded Travis Lee (Cornell) to open the tournament. That was as far as any UC Davis wrestler had ever gotten at nationals. He was injured in a second-round loss in 2006 after earning the number eight national seed. Looking to finally become the school’s first All-American, Moore was flawless during the regular season, won the Pac-10 tournament, helping UC Davis to a third-place finish, and earned the number two seed heading to Auburn Hills, Michigan. His 10-4 win over Michael Keefe (UTC) in the quarters clinched All-American status. Putting away Nathan Morgan (Oklahoma State), 6-2, in the semis earned him a trip to the finals. What was already a remarkable story turned borderline absurd in his showdown with top seed Ryan Lang (Northwestern). After Lang earned the first takedown, Moore strung together 17 unanswered points, 11 of them nearfall, to become the first UC Davis student-athlete to win a national title in any sport. Moore was named the Outstanding Wrestler and remains UC Davis’ only All-American after the program was dropped in 2010.
Troy Nickerson (Cornell), 125, 2009
After an incredible high school career that saw him become New York’s first five-time state champion, Nickerson arrived in Ithaca as one of the most highly anticipated recruits in college wrestling history, largely due to the rise of the internet around that time. Recording second and third place finishes his first two seasons was excellent work, but it still didn’t live up to the hype some fans had generated around Troy. After taking a year off in 2008, the Cornell junior was firing on all cylinders, going undefeated through the regular season and EIWA tournament before heading to St. Louis as the number two seed behind Paul Donahoe (Edinboro), who had beaten Nickerson in the 2007 national semis, 2-1 in tie-breakers. Before a rematch would be possible, Nickerson would need to beat 2008 national champion Angel Escobedo (Indiana), seeded third, in the semifinals. After breezing through his first three matches, Nickerson gutted out a 2-1 victory over the Hoosier to earn another shot at Donahoe. The match would again proceed to tiebreakers with Nickerson earning the winning point on a locked hands violation before riding Donahoe out to become a national champion. Troy pinned 12 of 25 opponents for the season, posting one of six perfect records in Cornell history among those who wrestled at least 20 matches.