Photos by Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com
At any level of wrestling, winning is difficult. It takes hard work, discipline, and sometimes a little luck to get your hand raised at the end of a match when your opponent is doing everything they can to steal that honor for themselves. Stringing wins together over a long period of time presents an even greater challenge as health comes into play. In Division I college wrestling, only one athlete has completed his career without a loss while also winning four national titles. Cael Sanderson’s 159 match winning streak won’t be approached this year and we may not see its equal for a long time. Still, there are plenty of dominant grapplers preparing for the upcoming season. These are the five who will begin the year with the most consecutive wins in official college matches.
Darian Cruz (Lehigh) – 21
Despite suffering a loss to Ethan Lizak (Minnesota) in the Southern Scuffle quarters, Cruz rallied to finish third, then tore through the rest of the Lehigh dual schedule, topping Joey Dance (Virginia Tech), 4-2, for his biggest win during that stretch. After cruising to the EIWA finals, he topped Josh Terao (American) a second time for the tournament title. Entering the NCAA tournament as the four seed, Cruz survived a stern second-round test from Shakur Laney (Ohio), 1-0, advanced to the semis over Sean Fausz (NC State), and then stunned top-seeded Thomas Gilman (Iowa) with a takedown in sudden victory. After avenging his loss to Lizak in the finals, Cruz finished the year riding a 21 match winning streak, good for fifth best in the country.
Jason Nolf (Penn State) – 27
After only losing to Isaiah Martinez (Illinois) as a freshman, the second time coming in the national finals, Nolf was perfect as a sophomore. With Martinez moving up to 165, Nolf went largely unchallenged, winning all but two matches by bonus points and never ending a match with less than a five-point cushion. He bonused his way through the NCAA tournament and enters 2017-18 as a heavy favorite to repeat his perfect season from a year ago. If Nolf runs the table over the next two years, he would almost certainly claim the record for Penn State’s all-time best winning percentage, currently held by Ed Ruth (136-3, 97.84%).
Kyle Snyder (Ohio State) – 28
We haven’t seen the world and Olympic champion lose a college match since he was famously decked by Kyven Gadson (Iowa State) in the 2015 NCAA finals. While his last folkstyle loss occurred longer ago than all but one other wrestler on this list, Snyder’s winning streak isn’t as high as it usually would be thanks to his half a year in redshirt during the 2015-16 season and his international competition schedule. For reference, when Snyder beat Nick Gwiazdowski (NC State) in the 2016 heavyweight final, with Gwiz going for title number three just as Snyder will be this season, the Wolfpack senior had won his last 88 matches. If last year is any indication, Snyder won’t even get to 50, but his overall resume is hard to top.
Dean Heil (Oklahoma State) – 41
Much maligned for his style, no one can argue with Heil’s results. His only loss over the past two seasons came to North Carolina’s Joey Ward who took the Cowboy down in sudden victory for a stunning 3-1 upset in February of 2016. Those two would meet up again a month later in the NCAA quarters with Heil blowing the match open late to win, 8-3. Last season, the two-time national champion had a slew of close matches but got his hand raised at the end of every one. With the new rule changes, many will see Heil as more vulnerable than ever this season. Watch closely early in the season to see if that theory holds water or if the senior keeps right on winning.
Zain Retherford (Penn State) – 63
Because he redshirted in 2014-15, we have to go all the way back to the 2014 NCAA tournament in Oklahoma City to find Retherford’s last loss. The third-seeded true freshman lost to four-time NCAA champion Logan Stieber (Ohio State) and top-seed Mitchell Port (Edinboro) back-to-back before finishing fifth. Post-redshirt, Zain has been remarkable, posting two flawless regular seasons during which he has rarely been pushed then, somehow, getting even better in March. His 63 match winning streak includes just six decisions, though one of those was a 9-8 barn burner with Brandon Sorensen (Iowa), who returns this season as well, that reached the second set of tie-breakers last January. Zain pinned the Hawkeye in 2:37 at the NCAA tournament. Retherford sits third on the Nittany Lion all-time winning percentage list, needing 39 and 41 more wins without a loss to catch David Taylor and Ruth respectively.