From left to right, photos by Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com, GoPSUSports.com, and Huskers.com
27 Division I wrestlers lost in November of 2016, then finished the season as All-Americans in the spring of 2017. One of those All-Americans lost four times in November, several lost three matches in the first month. The NCAA wrestling season is long and arduous. Contenders who compete throughout the entire calendar ebb and flow sometimes, taking weird losses before peaking at the right time. While some of the defeats taken by the eventual All-Americans were simply due to clashing with another top competitor, there are a fair number that look a little odd knowing what we know now. As we progress through this November’s competition schedule, keep in mind the following 10 wrestlers who took a hit early, but found their way to the podium in St. Louis.
10) Paul Fox (Stanford)
California high school fans knew who Fox was after three trips to the state finals and a 2014 title, but few college fans around the country new the name as he started his sophomore season. Fox lost his first three matches of the season, falling to Colt Shorts (Cal Poly), 3-2, Jason Nolf (Penn State) by fall, and Alex Griffin (Purdue), 5-2. Heading into the Roadrunner Open winless, Fox started to turn things around winning three matches to advance to the semis before falling to Griffin again, 1-0. The Stanford man did get revenge on Shorts in the third-place bout, pinning his rival from Cal Poly. In all, Fox lost 15 times last season but pulled four upsets of seeded wrestlers at the national tournament to finish seventh. He started this season off a little better, though he still has a loss. He sits at 4-1 after the opening week.
9) Kevin Jack (NC State)
Jack was trying to shake off a loss in the round of 12 at the 2016 NCAA tournament as he returned for his junior season. Instead, he stumbled again at his first tournament of the season, losing in tie-breakers to Randy Cruz (Lehigh) at the Journeyman Collegiate Classic. At the time, this was barely considered an upset. Cruz had finished eighth at the 2016 NCAA tournament and seemed to be making his case as one of the best 141s around. However, Jack made it look like an aberration, winning 29 matches in a row following the loss until Bryce Meredith (Wyoming) beat him in the national quarters. Jack would rally to finish third and become a two-time All-American. Cruz earned the 11 seed at that tournament, going 2-2.
8) Bryce Meredith (Wyoming)
After his scintillating run to the national finals in 2016 as the 14 seed, everyone wanted to know if Meredith was a true title contender in 2017 or if he was just another in a long list of strong competitors at 141 pounds. When he lost to Colton McCrystal (Nebraska), 6-2, in a November 20th dual, it spurred even more questions. However, this was part of a red-hot start for McCrystal during which he beat several ranked opponents. Meredith would suffer several more losses throughout the season, though all but one came at the hands of a highly ranked opponent with past All-American honors. Bryce was the 10-seed in St. Louis and cemented his reputation as a wrestler who does his best work when the lights are brightest, advancing to the semi-finals and finishing fourth.
7) Alex Kocer (South Dakota State)
Entering last season, Kocer wasn’t on the radar as an All-American threat, being a two-time national qualifier that was a combined 0-4 lifetime at the national tournament. Opening his senior season at the Daktronics Open, Kocer fell to Josh Maruca (Arizona State), 12-10. While Maruca would prove a solid grappler, he was not expected to be a top-eight threat then and entered the NCAA tournament unseeded before winning a pair of matches in the consolations. Kocer had a solid regular season after that, winning the matches he was supposed to win and only losing to wrestlers ranked higher than Maruca. However, when he stumbled at the Big 12 tournament, losing to a couple of wrestlers he had beaten previously, a podium finish in St. Louis seemed unlikely. Alex’s wins over the eight and nine seeds to reach the quarterfinals were shocking, then he took down 14 seed Steve Bleise, then of Northern Illinois, now wrestling for Minnesota, to become an All-American. He finished eighth becoming one of the first two All-Americans, along with Seth Gross, for South Dakota State since they moved up to Division I.
6) Zac Brunson (Illinois)
Sometimes November losses look worse to the casual fan than they really are. This was the case for Brunson who was pinned by Jacobe Smith (Oklahoma State) at the Lindenwood Open. If you weren’t paying close enough attention to understand that Smith was two-time NJCAA champion expected to take over at 174 pounds for the Cowboys after a redshirt season, this loss might have looked bad. It still wasn’t ideal for someone like Brunson, a three-time NCAA qualifier at the time who was still looking for his first top-eight finish. Smith wouldn’t lose a single match wrestling unattached in 2016-17. Brunson continued to be solid as he had been his entire career, though he was still squarely on the All-American bubble when he traveled to St. Louis as the 10 seed. In the end, he got the job done, reaching the quarterfinals, then beating Jadaen Bernstein (Navy) to finally become an All-American. He finished sixth.
5) Aaron Studebaker (Nebraska)
A two-time round of 12 finisher, Studebaker entered his senior season as one of those athletes who was always good but had consistently come up just short. That sort of reputation seemed to be following him as his final campaign began. First Nate Rotert (South Dakota State) knocked him off, 3-1 in overtime. Then four-time DIII national champion Riley Lefever (Wabash) got him at the Harold Nichols Open. When Jake Smith (West Virginia) picked him off in a dual, 2-0, it seemed maybe Studebaker was in for another round of 12 type of year. None of these losses were bad, but each was the type of opponent he would need to beat to stand on the podium in St. Louis. However, Studebaker won his next 14 matches, earned the seven seed at nationals, then overcame an upset loss to Kevin Beazley (Old Dominion/Michigan) in the second round, avenging his loss to Rotert and topping three more top-10 foes on his way to a fifth-place finish.
4) Jacob Kasper (Duke)
When Ben Stone (Wisconsin) stepped in for Connor Medbery and pinned Kasper in a mid-November dual, it barely registered on the national level. Kasper had won the Southeast Open, earning a win over Billy Miller (Edinboro), but the former 184 had yet to make his presence known like it would be later in the season. Kasper would not lose again until Ryan Solomon (Pitt) upset him on February 18th in the last dual of the regular season. In between, the Duke 285 beat four opponents who would become 2017 All-Americans and won the Southern Scuffle. He earned the four seed in St. Louis, reached the semifinals before falling to Kyle Snyder (Ohio State) and finished sixth.
3) Stevan Micic (Michigan)
Do you remember the opening weekend of last season when Brenden Fitzgerald (Ohio State) was pinning nearly everyone in his path at the Eastern Michigan Open? Micic probably does as he was one of the victims of the then third-string Buckeye 133. Fitzgerald got both the Michigan freshman and Corey Keener (Central Michigan) on his way to the finals where he and teammate Luke Pletcher did not wrestle. That would be Micic’s last loss to someone who had yet to All-American and he acquitted himself well while navigating a gnarly Big Ten schedule. He earned the fifth seed at nationals and finished fourth, losing only to eventual champion Cory Clark (Iowa) and top seed Nathan Tomasello (Ohio State). It is safe to say that early loss by fall didn’t mean much in the end.
2) Mark Hall (Penn State)
Not even future national champions are immune to a November hiccup. Hall was still redshirting as a true freshman when he was knocked off by CJ Brucki (Central Michigan) at the Michigan State Open. A key to Brucki’s win was a four-point tilt leading some to speculate that Hall might struggle on bottom. While this wouldn’t be the last head-scratching loss for the two-time Junior world champion, Hall answered that question and any others, rebounding from a loss to Bo Jordan (Ohio State) in the Big Ten final to claim a national championship, outlasting both Zahid Valencia (Arizona State) and Jordan on his way to the top step.
1) Vincenzo Joseph (Penn State)
Hall wasn’t even the only wrestler on his team to lose in November, then win it all in March. Joseph, a redshirt freshman at the time, lost his second official college match in a wild 18-12 scrap against Keaton Subjeck (Stanford). Vincenzo’s willingness to go big and wrestle in any position seemed likely to yield a few more of this sort of loss, but instead, only two-time NCAA champion Isaiah Martinez (Illinois) and four-time All-American Isaac Jordan (Wisconsin) would best him the rest of the way. The young Nittany Lion avenged his loss to Jordan at the Big Ten tournament before losing to Martinez again. He was seeded third nationally, topped Subjeck in the opening round, then worked his way to the final, getting past All-Americans Daniel Lewis (Missouri) and Logan Massa (Michigan) en route. Another clash with Martinez was set and every wrestling fan remembers what happened next. A back and forth first period ended 3-3. Then, with Joseph leading 6-5 in the third, an upper body exchange ended with Joseph nailing an inside trip for a fall and the national title.