Photo by Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com
While we work hard at TOM to be objective and as unbiased as possible, we all were fans before we started writing about wrestling professionally. With that, we have our favorite teams that we pull for and, especially this time of year, want to see do well. In that spirit, we thought it would be fun to let our hair down a little at the most exciting time of the college wrestling season to enter the Fan Zone. We’ll have fans of Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, Missouri, Oklahoma State, and Iowa getting a little partisan over the next few days as they take a look at their team’s outlook as we head for Cleveland. For these pieces, at least, we’re going back to our roots as fans of the greatest sport in the world! In the final installment of the series for this year, our editor Alex Steen embraces his roots by telling us why Oklahoma State will do better than most anticipate.
Since the beginning of the NCAA tournament era in college wrestling, Oklahoma State has been a power. The team with more Division I wrestling titles than any other, 34, has finished outside the top seven just once in a national tournament they were allowed to compete in since team scores were introduced in 1929. Throughout every era, no matter who the dominant force was at the time, as other teams come and go, the Cowboys remain. There is no question, though, that the program is, by its own impossibly high standards, struggling. Oklahoma State is currently suffering through their second-longest title drought ever having last lifted the trophy in 2006 to cap a run of four straight. It isn’t as if the program has faded far, of course, after second and third place finishes the past two seasons, but when you have 34 NCAA trophies that say, “1st place” on them, earning a lesser team award just doesn’t cut it.
This year, there are many who question whether John Smith’s team will be called to the stage Saturday night in Cleveland at all. An up and down season that saw their top-ranked 141 pounder, two-time national champion Dean Heil, fall off his perch while the rest of the roster produced inconsistent results has left the Cowboys with less than advantageous seeds in many places. In fact, if everyone wrestled to their seed and only decisions were scored, not only would the 2018 NCAA tournament go down as the most boring ever, but Oklahoma State would end up eighth, a historically bad result for the school. If you’re headed to Cleveland with a bag full of orange shirts, many of which include the image of Pistol Pete in a singlet, fear not. There is plenty of room to overachieve and, contrary to popular belief, John Smith’s team is one of the best around at performing when it matters most. When factoring in All-Americans and placement, the wrestlers in orange have done better than average, based on seed, in the last five NCAA tournaments. Look for them to do so once again in Cleveland.
Last year, a freshman Nick Piccininni (Oklahoma State) headed to St. Louis as the eight seed and looked to be on track to wrestle right around that until he avenged two prior losses to Sean Russell (Edinboro) which sparked the Cowboy to a fourth-place finish. This season, Nick is being written off by many once again due to the amount of talent moving into 125. However, the sophomore is on the opposite side of the bracket from Sean Fausz (NC State), who beat Piccininni 9-5 and seems to be a bad match-up for him, has Russell in the second round, Nick beat him again this season, and should face Spencer Lee (Iowa) in the quarters. The Hawkeye won their first clash 10-5, but now that Nick has felt Lee’s tilt, he’ll have a better chance to stay out of it in the rematch. He outscored Lee over the last two periods in their first meeting, giving hope to Cowboy fans. While neither match to secure a top-eight finish will be easy, a loss to Lee could mean a rematch with Ethan Lizak (Minnesota) or a battle with Ronnie Rios (Oregon State), Piccininni has proven he can come up big on this stage. I expect him to do so again and I like his chances to match his seed at the very least. Another scrap with defending national champion Darian Cruz (Lehigh) could be in the cards in the consolation semis. You might remember Nick beat Cruz in the All-Star match back in November.
Prediction: 5th place
Kaid Brock has lost just one match this season during which he did not throw himself to his back for six points. He still has just three losses overall and fell to his kryptonite, Seth Gross (South Dakota State) in the Big 12 finals, 8-5. What makes Brock so much fun to watch is also what can get him into trouble, his willingness to go big. While that can backfire from time to time, more often than not, it makes the 2017 All-American a dangerous man. While drawing the four seed probably means another date with Gross in the semifinals, there isn’t anyone in the field that the sophomore cannot beat. However, he does struggle on bottom and, please, I’m begging you, can he please stop choosing that position? It nearly cost Kaid a match against John Erneste (Missouri) this season when Brock was in total control, chose down, got put on his back, then had to mount a furious third-period comeback. Against Gross, going underneath, which the Cowboy did at last year’s NCAA tournament already trailing, 6-0, is death. Brock is going to have to pull the upset by winning the takedown battle decisively. Assuming he doesn’t, I like him to reach the bronze medal match against Luke Pletcher (Ohio State). If he can take the Buckeye down once, he can win, but Pletcher’s style might be tough for Kaid the first time he sees it.
Prediction: 4th place
How did we get here? After posting a 64-1 record over the past two seasons and winning a pair of national titles, Dean Heil was supposed to end his career in style. Sure, when you wrestle close matches like he does and when the NCAA installs a rule aimed largely at one of your most effective counters, a dropped match or two would not have been surprising, but watching Dean lose five times has been jarring. For one weekend in late January, when he picked up his third and fourth losses to Jaydin Eierman (Missouri) by fall, then Ian Parker (Iowa State), the champ looked lost. However, he bounced back the next weekend to beat Josh Alber (Northern Iowa), seeded ninth here, then beat the Panther again at the conference tournament. After his 6-5 loss in the finals to Bryce Meredith (Wyoming), a wrestler he had owned before this season and has now lost to twice, Heil is the six seed. Have faith, though, all is not lost. That match with Meredith featured flashes of the old Dean and the loss had him raging for the rest of the night. The fire is there and the form is coming around. 141 is a wide-open weight class that any of the top six can win. Heil thrives in that environment. While his greatest challenge may come from Yianni Diakomihalis (Cornell) in the quarters, Heil is going back to his home state as a two-time defending champion with one more shot at this event. He hasn’t shown much promise in freestyle so this is probably his last chance to stand atop a major podium. For that reason and so many more, Dean Heil will win it all, defiantly thumping his chest as his hand gets raised on the Saturday night stage for the third consecutive year.
Prediction: 1st place
The Boo Lewallen story has more twists and turns than Lombard Street. After injuries kept him off the mat as a true freshman and he sat behind Heil at 141 last season, Boo’s first year in the lineup has been wild. He had to beat out past All-American Geo Martinez just to win the spot. When he did, he was 17-1, then promptly lost his first two duals including a rough one in Carver-Hawkeye Arena where he was crushed, 23-8, by Brandon Sorensen (Iowa). A couple more losses down the stretch had Lewallen in the teens in the national rankings, but he looked like an All-American when he handled Max Thomsen (Northern Iowa), who finished fifth a year ago, 9-3 to win the Big 12 title. That was Boo in a nutshell. A month prior, he hadn’t been able to crack Thomsen’s defense in a 3-1 sudden victory loss. In Tulsa, he finished early and often, then came off the mat brimming with confidence. He should see Thomsen again in round two with Zain Retherford (Penn State) waiting to usher the winner into the consolations in the quarters. Really, though, Lewallen will determine his own fate. If he believes, he is talented enough to wrestle with anyone outside of Retherford and Sorensen. If his head isn’t right, he’ll lose to Thomsen and miss the podium. After his best performance of the season and 10 days being pumped up in preparation, look for Boo to wrestle up to his potential, rolling past the round of 12 and potentially into a consolation semifinal rematch with Grant Leeth (Missouri). He can win that match, but Leeth has the look of a wrestler destined for a strong finish. A spot in the fifth-place match would be a good finish.
Prediction: 5th place
If Chandler Rogers had not wrestled last year, it might be fair to wonder just where he stands considering his schedule wasn’t overly difficult and he lost to Branson Ashworth (Wyoming) in December. However, Rogers was an All-American in 2017, from the nine seed, beating the eight, five, and six seeds en route to a fifth-place finish. We know he can handle himself against most of those outside the returning finalists, he wrestled a 4-3 match with David McFadden (Virginia Tech) back in November, and should reach the top eight once again. As dangerous as Rogers is, what has made him such a solid All-American type wrestler has been his ability to pick his spots. He rarely forces the issue when he doesn’t need to, but will strike aggressively if he spots an opening to exploit. Opponents like Alex Marinelli (Iowa) who rarely get out of position and have heavy hips give the Cowboy junior trouble, but there aren’t very many of those lurking in this field. If Chandler handles former teammate Chance Marsteller (Lock Haven) in the second round, he should once again find himself in the late stages of the consolation bracket. Then it will be up to his performance and the way the bracket breaks just how high he climbs.
Prediction: 7th place
I want to believe in Jacobe Smith, but I’m afraid his knee injury might have hindered his progression just enough to keep him off the podium. He looked good enough at the Big 12 tournament, despite wearing a bulky brace, and seemed to trust his bad wheel more as the tournament went on. However, his loss to Taylor Lujan (Northern Iowa) was symptomatic of why I have trouble seeing Smith on the podium this year. Jacobe wrestled well, was close several times to key scores that could have changed the outcome, but fell 10-7 in the end. It was all too similar to his 13-8 loss to Ethan Ramos (North Carolina) back in November. Maybe, had Smith not gotten hurt against Daniel Lewis (Missouri), he’d have found that next level he seems to be so close to. Certainly, when he goes upper body, he is incredibly dangerous which gives him a puncher’s chance against anyone, but he has only beaten one seeded wrestler this season, number 14 Yoanse Mejias (Oklahoma). Smith will be fun to watch, but he might be a year away from reaching his best. Getting that last win is going to be tough.
Prediction: 3-2, round of 12
I will say this about Keegan Moore at the Big 12 tournament, he wrestled well and he seemed to be loving life. I’m not sure I saw him without a smile on his face when he was off the mat all weekend. That is good news for a guy who has had to grind through the season without always having the level of success he is used to. Keegan seemed like a guy who knew he was wrestling his best at the right time. A 13-8 loss to Drew Foster (Northern Iowa) kept Moore out of the finals and he’ll be unseeded in Cleveland, facing an opening round bout with fourth-seeded Pete Renda (NC State). Moore lost to Renda 3-0 over in Italy this season and, even in his improved form, is probably going to the back early. His run there probably ends after one match when is scheduled to meet Nick Gravina (Rutgers). However, an upset isn’t out of the question. Expect Moore to wrestle hard.
I don’t know what to expect from Preston Weigel at this point. Something, reportedly an injury, clearly happened to him between his wins over Michael Macchiavello (NC State) and Cash Wilcke (Iowa) and his loss to Willie Miklus (Missouri). The confident on his feet Weigel that could go get a takedown when he needed one and was a killer on the mat has only made intermittent appearances since culminating in an upset loss to Jake Smith (West Virginia) at the Big 12 tournament. That has pushed Preston down to the nine seed, but his upside is high for someone in that spot. The 2017 All-American faces an early test from Nate Rotert (South Dakota State) in round two, an opponent he lost to, then majored last season. Keep an eye on the Cowboy in that one. If he rolls and especially if he gets multiple takedowns, his quarterfinal with top seed Kollin Moore (Ohio State) suddenly becomes really interesting. Moore beat Weigel 13-5 at the 2017 NCAA tournament and was widely seen as the favorite to win a title this year. However, he has proven vulnerable and if Weigel is at the top of his game, that clash could be fun. Even a loss there sets Preston up with a winnable round of 12 match, probably against Wilcke or Corey Griego (Oregon State) and he can go as high as his form or health will allow from there.
Prediction: 6th place
Derek White has been one of the most consistent wrestlers in the Oklahoma State lineup, turning what was a question mark coming into the season into another weight with All-American potential. The bulked-up 197 has gained an impressive amount of size and lost just twice this season, early to Mike Hughes (Hofstra), then in the Iowa dual against Sam Stoll (Iowa). Along the way, he has beaten three seeded wrestlers including an early win over the 10-seed Jordan Wood (Lehigh). White led the entire team in takedowns during the regular season and has a solid ability to ride, especially against smaller heavyweights. The question for him will be if he has gotten good enough to compete with wrestlers like Tanner Hall (Arizona State), Amar Dhesi (Oregon State), and Jacob Kasper (Duke). Hall is his likely second-round foe and that could make the difference between a top-eight finish for Derek and a loss in the round of 12. If White beats the Sun Devil, he might see Hughes again in the round of 12, which won’t be easy. That scenario is preferable, though, to a likely battle with Dhesi or Nick Nevills (Penn State) at that stage that could be the task of the 8/9 loser. White may be one of the top eight 285s in the country, but that prior loss to Hughes and a tough draw overall might leave him on the outside looking in.
Prediction: 3-2, round of 12
Six All-Americans, a national champion, and two more in the round of 12 should leave Oklahoma State in the hunt for a top-four finish depending on how many points Penn State and Ohio State soak up. There is a large group contending for third, but especially if the round of 12 goes well and another Cowboy or two push above the predictions here, there is no reason Oklahoma State can’t beat them all. Yes, title number 35 will have to wait another year, but eighth? No chance.