Photos by Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com
Each season the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational brings some of the toughest, if not the toughest, regular season competition together under one roof the first weekend in December. The old saying goes, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”, but as far as college wrestling goes “What happens in Vegas….is a sign of things to come in the future”. Almost on a yearly basis, there are freshmen who compete at the Cliff Keen and establish themselves as immediate contenders on the DI scene. Some of these youngsters are highly touted and this tournament is the first event where they see top-notch competition. Others have flown under the radar and have to pull a few upsets to prove to the rest of the nation that they are here to stay.
We looked at the last ten Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitationals and found ten freshmen who had huge tournaments and announced to the wrestling world that they would be a problem for the next four years. Who will it be this year?
2016 – Logan Massa (Michigan)
Logan Massa belongs in the category of “we knew he was good, just not sure how good” heading into last season’s tournament. Most fans and observers probably expected Massa to fight for a spot on the podium, more so than become one of the favorites. In early season action, Massa won the Eastern Michigan Open but did not face any ranked opponents. In mid-November Logan earned a two-point decision over then 10th ranked Clark Glass of Oklahoma, who at that time was a two-time NCAA qualifier. At the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational, Massa dominated a fellow top recruit in Arizona State’s Anthony Valencia in the semi-finals 17-4 and claimed the title with an 8-7 victory over Wisconsin’s returning NCAA runner-up Isaac Jordan. Not only did Massa get the win, he notched a pair of takedowns on the normally stingy Jordan and earned a riding time point.
2016 – Zahid Valencia (Arizona State)
Zahid Valencia’s college career started with huge expectations, but there were questions as to where he would appear in the Sun Devil lineup. In the summer of 2016, Valencia competed at 84 kgs at the Junior World Championships so some thought 184 lbs may be a more natural weight class. Whatever the weight, Zahid looked like a natural immediately, winning the Daktronics Open and then beating North Carolina’s All-American Ethan Ramos in an 11-10 shootout at the Journeymen Classic. Valencia held a number seven ranking nationally and earned the two seed coming into the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational. In the tournament itself, Zahid majored returning All-American Lelund Weatherspoon in the semi’s and won the event upsetting the top seed, 2015 NCAA runner-up Brian Realbuto of Cornell, 3-2.
2014 – Alec Pantaleo (Michigan)
Another wrestler who used this event as a coming out party, of sorts, was Michigan’s Alec Pantaleo during the 2014-15 campaign. Looking back through recruiting rankings, I did not have Alec among my top 150 HS Seniors in the Class of 2014. As a true freshman, Pantaleo earned his spot in the lineup winning two of three bouts over Angelo Latora. In his first appearance in a Michigan singlet, Alec dropped bouts to two top 15 opponents, Tywan Claxton of Ohio and David Habat of Edinboro, at the EMU Duals. Pantaleo entered the 2014 Las Vegas Invitational unranked with a 1-2 record. In the second round, Pantaleo took out the two seed Sal Mastriani of Virginia Tech, then proceeded to upset the seven, Victor Lopez of Bucknell, and the three, Cody Ruggirello of Hofstra. His luck ran out in the finals with a 4-0 loss to Cornell’s Chris Villalonga. Pantaleo built upon the momentum he created at this tournament, finishing fourth in the Big Ten tournament and earning the sixth seed at nationals while racking up a 22-9 overall record.
2013 – Gabe Dean (Cornell)
Gabe Dean had a decent season while taking the Cornell greyshirt, though his results did not indicate the type of career that the eventual two-time NCAA champion would put together. In his first competition for the Big Red as a freshman, Dean defeated a redshirting Nathaniel Brown of Lehigh before getting pinned in the first period of the finals at the Jonathan Kaloust Bearcat Open by returning NCAA champ Ed Ruth (Penn State). Dean then won the New York State Intercollegiate Championship before dropping another bout to All-American Jimmy Sheptock (Maryland) at the Grapple at the Garden. His early season results earned Gabe a #12 ranking nationally and a fourth seed heading into Vegas. At the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational, Dean upset top seeded and fifth-ranked Jake Swartz of Boise State in a tiebreaker in the semis, before majoring another upstart freshman, Nebraska’s TJ Dudley in the finals.
2013 – Adam Coon (Michigan)
While Adam Coon was a huge recruit for the Wolverines, literally and figuratively, projecting success for true freshmen competing at 285 lbs can be difficult. Therefore, expectations were not through the roof for Coon heading into Las Vegas. Though he accumulated an 8-0 record pre-Vegas, wins like a 3-3 TB victory on riding time over Jared Torrence of Northern Illinois and 2-0 over Mimmo Lytle of Kent State in his first dual action, did not lead one to believe Adam would take the title in Vegas. Depending on which outlet was used, Coon was ranked anywhere from 13th-19th heading into the the tournament. Out of the eight seed, Coon upset the top seed, returning All-American and future NCAA champion Nick Gwiazdowski of NC State in the quarters. Adam captured the title with a sudden victory win over then-top five ranked JT Felix of Boise State.
2012 – Nahshon Garrett (Cornell)
In order to put this one in perspective, you need forget about how Nahshon Garrett’s career played out. Heading into the 2012-13 season, the Big Red was looking to replace All-American Frank Perrelli and they had two freshman candidates, Garrett and Bricker Dixon. I will admit, based on high school level results and the opinion that he was “more ready” to compete immediately, I thought Dixon would be the starter, though Garrett had more upside. We don’t need to say how wrong I was. Nahshon actually garnered attention prior to Vegas when he defeated returning All-American Steve Bonanno of Hofstra in the finals of the New York State Intercollegiate Championships. He won his first 17 collegiate matches, a streak that continued into the finals of the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational. Though he was defeated in the title bout by Missouri’s Alan Waters, a returning NCAA round of 12 finisher, Garrett concluded his freshman season with a victory over Waters in the NCAA third-place match.
2011 – Hunter Stieber (Ohio State)
It’s safe to say that Hunter Stieber did not begin his Ohio State career under the radar, as he was a four-time Ohio State champion and younger brother of top recruit Logan Stieber. Expectations were a bit tempered after the younger Stieber was pinned by fellow true freshman Evan Henderson of North Carolina in his first dual action. Though Stieber did win the EMU Open, he did not face any ranked competitors. So, prior to the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational, the rankings were conservative for Hunter, #15 at 141, and he was given the eighth seed at the Cliff Keen. Stieber shocked the wrestling world by knocking off the returning NCAA champion, Kellen Russell of Michigan, in the quarters. It was the only loss that Russell suffered in his last two years of college. Stieber picked up another quality win in the semi’s over fourth seed Tyler Small of Kent State, a returning NCAA qualifier, before falling to Oregon State’s Mike Mangrum in the finals.
2008 – Zach Sanders (Minnesota)
Looking back, it’s kind of hard to believe that Zach Sanders was ranked 14th and was the sixth seed prior to the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational. Sanders began his 2008-09 campaign with a title at the Bison Open and then another at the Kaufman-Brand Open, where he defeated a redshirting freshman Andrew Long of Iowa State and Wyoming’s Michael Martinez. At the Northern Quad, Sanders upended then two-time NCAA qualifier Tony Mustari of Northern Colorado. Just to make the semis, Zach took out a pair of NCAA qualifiers from the West, CSU Bakersfield’s Brandon Zoetewey and UC Davis’ Marcos Orozco. His semifinal opponent, who he defeated 7-3, was then-sophomore Anthony Robles of Arizona State. Though Sanders fell in the finals to Penn Quaker Rollie Peterkin, it set the stage for the first of his four All-American finishes.
2008 – Tyler Nauman (Pittsburgh)
Tyler Nauman was a prominent recruit from the class of 2007, but he may have been overlooked nationally because he was wrestling at Pitt. In his first competition, Nauman took fourth place at the Michigan State Open. At the time his two losses at the event probably didn’t look too special, but the first came to Old Dominion’s Ryan Williams, the eventual NCAA runner-up, and a Penn State freshman named Frank Molinaro. Tyler also lost in the Keystone Classic finals to a young Matt Mariacher of American. That led to an eleven seed for Nauman at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational. His run of upsets started with a major of sixth seeded Filip Novachkov of Cal Poly in the round of 16, a four point win over eventual NCAA fourth-placer Zach Tanelli of Wisconsin in the quarters and then a major decision victory over his old high school rival Kellen Russell (Michigan) in the semis. Nauman’s luck ran out in the finals against Harvard’s Corey Jantzen, who had an improbable run of his own to the tournament title.
2007 – Kellen Russell (Michigan)
So I’ve mentioned Kellen Russell getting upset twice, it’s only fair to mention the performance that he put on at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational during his true freshman season. Russell came into the event as the 13th seed and knocked off All-American Drew Headlee of Pittsburgh in the round of 16, Big Ten runner-up Troy Tirapelle of Illinois in the quarters and Hofstra All-American Charles Griffin in the semis. That set the stage for the first collegiate meeting between Russell and Ohio State’s J Jaggers in the finals. In this meeting, Russell was victorious, however in their most important match of the season, Jaggers picked up the win in the NCAA quarters (along with the first of his two NCAA Titles).