Every year the debate rages. Which of the brand new true freshmen across the country should redshirt and which should jump right into the fire. Nick Lee (Penn State) had his redshirt pulled in January. It looks like Mikey Labriola (Nebraska) is keeping his on. We will see, eventually, all of these young men in their respective lineups, barring something unforeseen, but it isn’t as if they have been sitting around idle either. Many redshirting freshmen have put together resumes that would see them ranked if they were eligible. Today, we take a look at the top 10 redshirting freshmen based on their performance this season. Only true freshmen were considered and we are focused on who is getting it done on the mat against quality competition.
Each of these freshmen has earned their way into our top 10 by winning big matches. We broke them and the other contenders down just as we do each week when ranking their varsity counterparts, looking at good wins and all losses to see how they stack up. This is the end result of that exercise, ranking the top 10 redshirting freshmen in the nation. A year ago, this list included current stars such as Hayden Hidlay (NC State), Chad Red (Nebraska), Alex Marinelli (Iowa), Evan Wick (Wisconsin), Ryan Deakin (Northwestern), and Sebastian Rivera (Northwestern). Which of these will we see inhabiting the top-10 next season?
10) Brandon Courtney (Arizona State), 125, 14-2
The three-time Arizona state finalist, winning twice, has certainly benefited from a strong group of 125s in Tempe including All-American Ryan Millhof and Josh Kramer. Courtney beat 20th ranked Rayvon Foley (Michigan State) at the Michigan State Open, then finished sixth in Reno, only losing to ninth-ranked Ronnie Bresser (Oregon State) before running out of matches. He earned another solid win there, topping Korbin Meink (Campbell), 5-2. With no losses to anyone outside the top-20, Courtney edged Nino Bonaccorsi (Pitt) and Louie DePrez (Binghamton) for the 10th spot.
9) Yahya Thomas (Northwestern), 141, 16-6
Thomas never won a state title during his career in Illinois, but that hasn’t kept him from having an impact as he waits for his time in the Wildcat lineup to begin. He has taken some losses, though most are to ranked opponents. However, it is his wins that earned him a spot on this list. He pinned 20th ranked Nate Limmex (Purdue) in his first college match and beat 2017 NCAA qualifier Cole Martin (Wisconsin) that same weekend. He added two more wins over national qualifiers from last year when he took down Colton Schilling (Cal Poly) and Jack Hathaway (Oregon State) at the Midlands. He added a win over Mike Van Brill (Rutgers), who has spent time in the top-20 this season on his way to a seventh-place finish.
8) Max Murin (Iowa), 141, 15-3
One of the few unranked wrestlers to beat Thomas is likely only outside the top-20 because he too is redshirting. Murin was a two-time Pennsylvania state champion and has beaten part-time Hawkeye starter Carter Happel twice this season. He beat Thomas, Happel, and 16th ranked Mike Carr (Illinois) at the Midlands, eventually finishing fifth. Murin also won the Luther Open. All three of his losses are to past NCAA qualifiers or currently ranked foes. He should be a nice upgrade at 141 by next season for Tom Brands team.
7) Austin O’Connor (North Carolina), 149, 15-3
Maybe we should have seen it coming when he upended teammate Troy Heilmann in wrestle-offs, but O’Connor has continued to have a strong year just as Heilmann has worked his way into the top-10 and stayed there. Austin became the 15th four-time Illinois state champion last spring and has lived up to the hype, pinning 2017 NCAA round of 12 finisher Steve Bleise (Minnesota) in less than a minute at Midlands to finish seventh. Considering a past national champion and a 2017 All-American finished fifth and sixth, it was a strong performance. O’Connor recently won the Appalachian Open, beating two-time All-American Solomon Chishko (Virginia Tech) and 2018 Southern Scuffle finalist Josh Heil (Campbell). If he continues to progress, Coleman Scott is going to have a great one in Chapel Hill.
6) Tanner Smith (Eastern Michigan),149, 22-0
Smith won an Ohio state title for Mechanicsburg last year, but he was not well known compared to several of the names on this list. That is changing fast. Tanner has yet to lose a match this season, winning titles at the Michigan State Open, Eastern Michigan Open, Cleveland State Open, Alma Open, and, last weekend, the Edinboro Open. It hasn’t been the toughest schedule in the country, but he did major 2017 NCAA qualifier Matt Zovistoski (Appalachian State), then knocked off Jamal Morris (NC State) to win in Edinboro. He might not have the quality wins that some others do, but that goose egg in the loss column after 22 bouts gives him a little extra credit.
5) Jacob Warner (Iowa), 197, 15-4
The 2016 Cadet world bronze medalist who recently competed at the Yarygin tournament in Russia might be the toughest of these first years to rank. He started off in impressive fashion after beating his teammate, Cash Wilcke, in a November wrestle-off. Warner won the Luther Open, then hammered two-time All-American Willie Miklus (Missouri), 16-7, to take top honors at the Lindenwood Open. However, Jake Woodley (Oklahoma), who he had beaten previously, tripped him up at the UNI Open and the Hawkeye lost three straight matches at the Midlands after reaching the semi-finals. He did add nice wins over Jake Smith (West Virginia) and Jackson Striggow (Michigan), but it was a tough lesson for the freshman.
4) Daton Fix (Oklahoma State), 125, 5-0
With his outstanding wins, but limited body of work, you could make an argument for the Junior world champ to be number one or excluded entirely. I didn’t like either option so we’re compromising by putting him fourth. Fix wrestled just one tournament, winning the Reno Tournament of Champions by beating first ninth-ranked Ronnie Bresser (Oregon State), then third-ranked Sean Fausz (NC State) by identical 2-1 scores. He is the only wrestler to beat Fausz this season, a feat his teammate, 10th ranked Nick Piccininni (Oklahoma State) could not duplicate. After having to withdraw from the Southern Scuffle due to illness, we may not see Daton again in folkstyle until next season. It will be worth the wait.
3) Mikey Labriola (Nebraska), 174, 17-2
The two-time Pennsylvania state champion came to Lincoln as a highly touted prospect, but with Beau Breske, another high-level recruit, having already redshirted, there was no need to push Labriola into the lineup right away. While Breske has struggled at times, Mikey has thrived, racking up wins over 13th ranked David Kocer (South Dakota State) and eighth-ranked Jacobe Smith (Oklahoma State) in the early season. He finished fourth at the Midlands, falling twice to 14th ranked Dylan Lydy (Purdue), but topping 17th ranked Johnny Sebastian (Northwestern) and 18th ranked Joey Gunther (Iowa) in the process. He’d be inhabiting the top-15 right now if he were eligible. Next year there will be no holding him back.
2) Mekhi Lewis (Virginia Tech), 165, 28-2
After winning a pair of state titles in New Jersey, Lewis has wrestled and won a slew of matches as he prepares for his first season in the Hokie lineup in 2018-19. With David McFadden looking strong at 165 someone will have to move to give both of these talents an opportunity to contribute. Mekhi won the Hokie Open, beat 17th ranked Demetrius Romero (Utah Valley) at the Wolfpack Open, claimed his third title at the Storm Open, then rolled into the Scuffle and took down 19th-ranked Keilan Torres (Northern Colorado), Lorenzo De La Riva (CSU Bakersfield), and Gordon Wolf (Lehigh), all of whom have been ranked this season. He did suffer his only two losses of 2017-18 at that event when fifth-ranked Chance Marsteller got him twice, 6-4 and 3-1. However, he rebounded to win titles at the Appalachian and Edinboro Opens. Lewis is coming, we’re just not sure which weight needs to worry.
1) Kaden Gfeller (Oklahoma State), 141, 20-4
There is only one redshirting freshman in Division I that has wrestled more than 10 matches and would have an iron-clad case to be ranked in the top-10 if he was eligible. Gfeller beat both 12th-ranked Luke Karam (Lehigh) and eighth-ranked Nick Lee (Penn State) on his way to a Southern Scuffle title after having beat last year’s number one on this list, Kanen Storr, earlier in the season. He has yet to lose to anyone that has not been an All-American in the past with each of the men who have beaten him occupying the top six. Second-ranked Jaydin Eierman (Missouri) has done the deed twice, 7-2 and 5-1, Kevin Jack (NC State) ranked fourth, beat him 7-2, and teammate Dean Heil (Oklahoma State), sitting sixth, was a 7-4 winner over Kaden at the Bob Smith Open. Other than that, Gfeller has gotten his hand raised. He is another prospect whose future spot in the lineup is a little murky due to the collection of talent in Stillwater. Regardless, look for Gfeller to have his say.