As we head for the NCAA Division I Wrestling post-season, we know that stories will be written, unforgettable moments will unfold, and legacies will be cemented over the next month. Every wrestler who will compete at a conference tournament over the next two weeks will have a chance to prove they are the best in the country. However, certain wrestlers will have a little more on the line. Whether it be due to injury, past struggles, high expectations or their own mouth, these guys have a little more to prove this post-season.
10) Dylan Peters, Northern Iowa, 125
When Peters earned his second All-American award despite wrestling with a massive knee brace it was fair to wonder if, after off-season knee surgery, he might be even better once he recovered. Instead, the Northern Iowa senior is just 6-5 this season after a pair of losses over the weekend. One of the most prolific pinners in college wrestling coming into this season has just one fall all year and took over a month off before returning to wrestle on February 10th. There has been no point in the 2016-17 season where Peters has looked like the two-time All-American he is and he limps into the post-season not even being assured of a spot at nationals. However, he still has a chance to become UNI’s ninth three-time Division I All-American and 14th overall. Veterans like Peters can go one of two ways when heading to the post-season well below their best form. They can either raise their game one last time or they can exit early. The MAC tournament will be huge for Peters as he needs to qualify and he needs to build some confidence. If he does, he will be dangerous in St. Louis.
9) Joey McKenna, Stanford, 141
Make no mistake, McKenna is off to a fantastic start in his career becoming the first freshman All-American in Stanford history last year and having just four losses in nearly two years of college competition. Until he lost to sixth-ranked Joey Ward (North Carolina) in the Southern Scuffle semi-finals, McKenna’s only losses were to NCAA champion Dean Heil (Oklahoma State), twice, and NCAA finalist Bryce Meredith (Wyoming). Still, the losses to Meredith and Ward are the issue here. Both times, McKenna fell short of another show down with Heil. The matches between those two have been so close that many believe it is only a matter of time until the Cardinal sophomore gets the better of it. However, if he can’t get to the finals, he won’t get that chance. In this regard, McKenna is the victim of the high expectations that come with being a Junior world finalist and three-time prep national champion. I’m sure he expects to win national titles so, while he has three post-seasons remaining, anything less than finishing 2016-17 on the Saturday night stage won’t be good enough.
8) Dylan Palacio, Cornell, 157
Last season, Palacio didn’t wrestle his first match until January 10th, entered the EIWA championships with a 6-1 record after a 14-12 loss to Ken Theobold (Rutgers), and won the conference tournament. He would go on to finish fourth at the national tournament to become an All-American for the first time. This season, Palacio didn’t wrestle his first match until January 13th and enters the post-season with a 4-1 record after a 14-13 loss to Jonathan Viruet (Brown). The kicker is that his matches this season were up at 165 until Sunday, when he debuted at 157. Assuming Palacio is the starter at 157 for Cornell, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if he goes out and does great things in the post-season once again. However, given the late weight drop and the fact that he is, currently, a one time All-American, how the next few weeks go will have a dramatic effect on how we remember him. If the Cornell senior ends up on the podium again, especially if he ends up in the top-four, he’ll prove that he knows how to prepare himself and didn’t need a full season of competition to get ready. However, if he flames out, last year will look like an outlier where he simply got hot.
7) Dean Heil, Oklahoma State, 141
Rarely has a wrestler who has won 33 matches in a row been so reviled and less respected than Heil. The Cowboy junior is a two-time All-American and won a national title last season but the combination of his style and two matches this season where Heil got the benefit of controversial calls have him near the top of the list of wrestlers many fans would like to see lose. Add to that a loaded field at 141 pounds and this becomes a post-season that could vault Heil into the conversation of best college wrestlers competing right now or see him be swallowed up by the chase pack. Winning has a way of quieting critics and a second-title, especially if it comes at the end of a perfect season, could earn Heil some grudging respect even if it doesn’t put him near the list of most popular wrestlers. If he were to go on to win three, that would put him in rarefied air. Time has a way of changing how we evaluate wrestlers and a three-time national champion, four-time All-American would stand up well down the road. That is a long way off yet, but if Heil can finish this season as he hopes to, he’ll take another big step in that direction.
6) George DiCamillo, Virginia, 141
When you’re a three-time ACC champion and have fallen in the round of 12 in each of your three trips to the NCAA tournament, as DiCamillo has, the story writes itself. Entering the year, the Virginia senior moved up to 141 and has continued to wrestle at a high level. However, when second-ranked Kevin Jack (NC State) swatted him, 10-1, in late January, it was fair to wonder if DiCamillo might face a similar fate in 2017. However, Jack looks like a potential finalist and, at the very least, a semi-finalist which would mean DiCamillo wouldn’t see a wrestler like him in the round of 12. When the St. Ignatius (OH) product bounced back to pin sixth-ranked Joey Ward (North Carolina) in his very next match, it proved he has the mettle to stand up in a high-pressure situation. It may be a little unfair that three days each March play such a huge role in how wrestlers are remembered, but that is the world we live in. DiCamillo will either go down as an All-American who had a good career and finally broke through or one of the best wrestlers to never finish in the top-eight.
5) Joe Smith, Oklahoma State, 157
There was a time last season when Smith was viewed as the most likely wrestler to jump into the top-tier at 157, then populated only by Jason Nolf (Penn State) and Isaiah Martinez (Illinois). It made sense back then when Smith’s only losses were to those two, both coming by decision in relatively competitive matches. However, Nolf widened the gap on Smith by nationals and the true freshman fell twice down the stretch to Dylan Palacio (Cornell) on his way to a seventh place finish. That would have been just a foot note had Smith come out this season and lead the chase pack trying to hunt down Nolf. Instead, Smith has yet to look himself while wrestling a limited schedule and could easily miss the podium all together if he doesn’t find his form soon. This is not how the story was supposed to go for John Smith’s son, but something is amiss. If Smith can rally to finish the season on a high note, most of this will be forgotten. If he can’t, speculation as to why will be a talking point all off-season.
4) Jimmy Gulibon, Penn State, 141
Gulibon’s recent run of success has made his story all the more interesting as the Penn State senior enters his final post-season. After winning four Pennsylvania state high school titles, it took Gulibon a while to hit his stride in college. He was an NCAA qualifier his first season, though he finished just 18-15 overall. When he went 26-9 and finished fifth as a sophomore, it seemed a safe bet that he would finish as a three-time All-American and possibly challenge for a title. Instead, Gulibon moved up to 141 and struggled mightily, showing flashes of brilliance, but maddening inconsistency as well. He missed the podium at the NCAA tournament. This year, it looked like more of the same early as Jimmy dropped a couple of head-scratchers at the Keystone Classic and was handled by Colton McCrystal (Nebraska), 12-5, in early January. However, the Derry Area High School product seemed to find something in a come from behind win over Topher Carton (Iowa) that sparked a six-match winning streak, ended only by top-ranked Dean Heil (Oklahoma State) in a controversial 3-2 decision on Sunday. Is this the start of a magical run that will largely erase the memories of previous struggles or will this be another instance where Gulibon’s inconsistency rears its head at the wrong time? We’re about to find out.
3) Bo Jordan, Ohio State, 174
Jordan’s resume to this point in his career is sparkling despite his inability to get past his cousin, Isaac Jordan (Wisconsin). However, his loss to Brian Realbuto (Cornell) over the weekend leaves him without a win over the other title contenders at 174. His two third-place finishes at 165 suggest he’ll be in the mix, but his sparse schedule and injury struggles have raised questions as to whether he can finally win a title now that Isaac and Alex Dieringer (Oklahoma State) are out of his way. Bo was such a huge recruit coming out of high school that most expected him to win a national title at some point. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to be trending in the right direction to see that come to fruition. A strong post-season run will ease those concerns, but if he falls out of the top-four, it will be fair to wonder if we’ve seen Jordan’s best days already. Wrestling is such a grueling sport that bodies wear out sometimes well before what we think of as the age of peak physical prowess. That could be the case here or the Buckeye junior could be about to run off two-straight titles to finish his career.
2) Joey Dance, Virginia Tech, 125
When Dance became an All-American as a freshman, he put himself on track to become Virginia Tech’s first four-time All-American. Despite having outstanding regular seasons in his sophomore and junior year, he fell short of the top-eight each time. He admits he still thinks about those failures as he prepares for his final run at an NCAA title. Dance’s regular season has, once again, been fantastic. He has just one loss, is ranked fourth in the country and looks to have a chance to be in the national finals. However, the same could have been said the past two seasons as well. This is the crux of the issue for Dance. It no longer matters what he does in the regular season. Until he can shake off the demons and do well at the national tournament again, there will be doubters. His regular season success does make the path through the bracket simpler, at least in theory, but the Hokie senior wouldn’t be human if his history doesn’t cross his mind, particularly before a quarter-final or round of 12 bout.
1) Pat Downey, Iowa State, 184
UPDATE: Downey is officially off the team at Iowa State and will not compete this post-season.
It has been more than a month now since we saw Downey compete and he has just seven matches total this season. When he opened the campaign by bumping up to 197 and upending #11 Nate Rotert (South Dakota State), it looked like we might get to see a full season of Downey terrorizing NCAA foes. Instead, he didn’t wrestle from mid-November until January, then wrestled three matches and was gone again. After a fifth place finish last year up a weight, many expected Downey to be a threat at 184. Due to his constant proclamations of such on social media, he has been given a great deal of attention despite not wrestling a single top-10 opponent all season. Because of the structure of the NCAA season, that won’t matter if Downey shows up in the post-season and wins. However, if all his bluster comes to nothing, his reputation, such as it is, will take a big hit. There is some question as to whether he will even take the mat for the conference tournament. Downey’s twitter musings seem to indicate even he doesn’t know if he will be given the go ahead for the Big 12 tournament. If he does, there will be a lot of eyeballs on him and more than a few people rooting for him to fail. Calling your shot can make you a legend when you back it up. The results aren’t so pretty when you don’t.