We are just over one month away from the Pac-12 Championships opening NCAA Division I wrestling’s post-season and there are still a lot of weight classes that seem up for grabs. Even in the ones where there is a clear favorite, we see large groups in the top-10 and beyond that could seemingly finish in any order when the national tournament rolls around. That means that the run in, the rest of the regular season, will be vital as wrestlers not only jockey for a good seed but try to find their best form before the most important matches of the season. There is still time to save a season that hasn’t been your best so far, while all the work you’ve done to date could be for not if you don’t finish strong. We’ve got a slate of mostly top-10 showdowns this week that will tell us a little bit more about where this thing is headed. Here are the most important matches of the week!
TOM Predictions Season Record: 29-21
All times eastern. Matches are in chronological order.
#7 Nick Lee (Penn State) vs. #10 Tommy Thorn (Minnesota), 141 pounds, Friday, Jan, 26th, 7:00 pm at Penn State
Lee has continued to gain steam since he came out of redshirt after the Southern Scuffle. A steady diet of solid, but not spectacular opponents has seen the true freshman go 4-0 in the line-up, extending his record to 19-3 on the year. As with many other Nittany Lions, Nick’s pace is hard to handle for many. He has just one win by decision this season. Lee’s biggest win to date was headed that direction with eight-ranked Josh Alber (Northern Iowa) pushing hard late for what would have been a go-ahead takedown. Instead, Lee put Alber on his back and got the fall. In 10th ranked Tommy Thorn (Minnesota), Lee will face his first opponent this season that has earned All-American honors. The junior is riding a six-match winning streak that includes a shocking 13-3 major decision win over Joey McKenna (Ohio State). It was McKenna that Thorn upset last year in St. Louis en route to the top eight. The Gopher is well conditioned, keeps good position, and can do some work on top. That sounds like the type of wrestler that could give Lee fits. However, this match will almost certainly go seven minutes and, as we’ve seen, Lee will be dangerous throughout. This could be a quarterfinal or round of 12 type match in Cleveland.
Prediction: Thorn by Decision
#3 Sean Fausz (NC State) vs. #11 Louie Hayes (Virginia), 125 pounds, Friday, Jan. 26th, 7:30 pm at NC State
That Fausz can even make 125 pounds at this point is a story in itself. That he can make it and wrestle hard for seven minutes is nothing short of remarkable. The junior’s length gives many of his opponents fits and both of his big wins this season, over fifth-ranked Taylor LaMont (Utah Valley) and 10th-ranked Nick Piccininni (Oklahoma State), came by margins of four points or greater. He doesn’t wrestle often, but when he has taken the mat he has been outstanding. The problem for Fausz might be his schedule. Though he has those two quality victories, he doesn’t have much else to bolster his potential seed. A clash with sixth-ranked Nathan Tomasello (Ohio State) looms in the final week of the regular season, but Hayes could be the only other ranked foe he faces before Cleveland. The freshman is now 23-5, has proven he can compete with the best in the weight, and is likely to face Fasuz again in the ACC final. Hayes does take an odd loss here and there which has pushed his ranking down a bit, but his ability is undeniable. Fausz needs the win for his resume, Hayes may need it for confidence purposes. The top seed at the conference tournament is almost certainly on the line.
Prediction: Fausz by Decision
#2 Michael Kemerer (Iowa) vs. #7 Alec Pantaleo (Michigan), 157 pounds, Saturday, Jan. 27th, 6:00 pm at Iowa
To the astute observer, this match might look like one that could get out of hand in favor of the Hawkeye. Kemerer has established himself as the second-best wrestler in the country at 157, no small feat at a weight that includes Jason Nolf (Penn State), and has been putting up bonus points at a rapid rate. Pantaleo struggled early in the season, seemed to have righted the ship when he won the Cliff Keen in Vegas, then has been stuck in neutral since, save for an impressive performance against Nolf, though he fell, 6-4. It would be tempting to diagnose Pantaleo as someone who prefers tournaments to duals, there might be something to that, especially after he lost to Andrew Crone (Wisconsin), 3-0 last weekend. However, it may be simpler than that. The Nolf match proves Pantaleo can be very good in a dual. It could be that he has trouble getting motivated at times. It is impossible to say for sure, but if that is the case, Kemerer should have his full attention. If we get the best version of Alec, this could be a more intriguing match than some might think. Add in that Kemerer has struggled to finish his last two matches, missing bonus against Jonce Blaylock (Oklahoma State) and giving up a late takedown against Micah Jordan (Ohio State). If the Wolverine is close and Kemerer fades again, we could see a big upset. I still think the Hawkeye finds a way, but I’ll be watching closely.
Prediction: Kemerer by Decision
#7 Alex Marinelli (Iowa) vs. #10 Logan Massa (Michigan), 165 pounds, Saturday, Jan. 27th, 6:00 pm at Iowa
After three consecutive losses sandwiched around an absence due to injury that stretched over more than a month, Massa finds himself in an unexpected position. Entering the season, most expected the sophomore to challenge Vincenzo Joseph (Penn State) and Isaiah Martinez (Illinois) for the title, forming a formidable big three that it would be hard to dislodge at the top. There is still time for that, of course, but with every loss, Massa makes his road a little bit more difficult. David McFadden (Virginia Tech) is wrestling well, while Chad Walsh (Rider) and Chandler Rogers (Oklahoma State) are dangerous foes, not to mention Evan Wick (Wisconsin) who beat Massa in Vegas or Nick Wanzek (Minnesota) who upset him last week. To underscore the point, if the NCAA tournament were seeded as the rankings currently stand, this match would take place in the round of 16 with the winner facing Martinez just to get to the semi-finals. Massa needs quality wins soon. Meanwhile, Marinelli remains undefeated, has displayed a raw physicality that fans love, and will fight for every point. If conditioning and fine-tuning remain problems for Logan, this is not the best match-up for him. Every week back in the room working should bring him closer to the Massa we saw before the injury, though. How close he is now may determine the outcome here. This is an incredibly difficult call and not one I’m confident in.
Prediction: Massa by Decision
#2 Adam Coon (Michigan) vs. #3 Sam Stoll (Iowa), 285 pounds, Saturday, Jan. 27th, 6:00 pm at Iowa
Usually, when a battle between the second-ranked and third-ranked wrestlers in a weight class occurs, there are national title implications with a rematch likely in the NCAA semi-finals. However, there is more uncertainty surrounding this one, largely due to Stoll. The junior has yet to finish a season in the lineup at full strength and saw his 2016-17 season end in mid-January. Sam has looked healthy in his 13 matches, winning all of them, but it is a couple of matches he didn’t wrestle that raise questions. First, he missed a potential clash with eight-ranked Youssif Hemida (Maryland) two days after wrestling against Rutgers. After he won at the Midlands, beating Tanner Hall (Arizona State), it was fair to wonder if that sort of thing was behind Stoll, but he was not sent out once again on Sunday when he would have faced top-ranked Kyle Snyder (Ohio State). Whatever the reasoning behind those decisions, it raises questions as to whether this match will even happen. Coon redshirted last season and is a massive 285, one of the few in the division that is as big as the Hawkeye. He too is undefeated, though his list of high-quality victims is quite a bit longer than Stoll’s. Sooner or later, Stoll will have to face someone of Coon’s quality. If it is this weekend, we’ll find out a lot about where he stands right now. I think Coon wins, but I’m interested to see how close it might be.
Prediction: Coon by Decision
#4 Chad Walsh (Rider) vs. #6 Chance Marsteller (Lock Haven), 165 pounds, Saturday, Jan, 27th, 7:00 pm at Rider
In a dual that could decide the EWL regular season title, the 165-pound bout will be the main event. Walsh is a two-time All-American who enters the match undefeated, though his slate of opponents has not been the strongest. Marsteller has already racked up 31 wins against just one loss, claiming four tournament titles before finishing third at the Southern Scuffle. He lost in Chattanooga to the redshirting Bryce Steiert (Northern Iowa), 3-2. I’m not sure we know exactly where either of these competitors fits in the overall picture at 165, but with Walsh’s history and Marsteller’s pedigree, both could have a say in Cleveland. First, they’ll square off with the conference tournament top seed hanging in the balance. Neither of these scrappers is afraid to get after it so we could be in for a treat. Walsh’s Rider squad just beat Edinboro and will be keen to build on that. Lock Haven may need a Marsteller win to take the dual. This one has everything you could want!
Prediction: Marsteller by Decision
#5 John Erneste (Missouri) vs. #9 Kaid Brock (Oklahoma State), 133 pounds, Saturday, Jan. 27th, 8:00 pm at Oklahoma State
Seeing Brock ranked ninth is still a little jarring, but the combination of a largely uninspiring schedule and a couple of big moves that went against him have kept him down. It does nothing to diminish what he brings to the table, however. The 2017 All-American is still as slick as ever and willing to throw everything he has at an opponent. Sometimes that ends with him on his back, as it did in both his losses, but it is entertaining to watch. Erneste didn’t move into the Missouri lineup last season until Jaydin Eierman moved up to 141. Since then, he has grown into another dangerous Tiger whose length can put his foes in danger. Brock got the best of this match-up twice last season, majoring Erneste, 14-5, at the Scuffle, then rolling to a 15-8 win about a month later. Now we’ll find out just how much John has grown. He comes into the weekend at 19-1, but despite that and the rankings, Brock has to be the favorite. I don’t expect it to be as lopsided as the last two times they met, but I’m not sure the Missouri junior is quite ready to win this one.
Prediction: Brock by Decision
#2 Jaydin Eierman (Missouri) vs. #5 Dean Heil (Oklahoma State), 141 pounds, Saturday, Jan. 27th, 8:00 pm at Oklahoma State
Heil’s two-match losing streak after winning 55 in a row had plenty of people writing off the two-time defending national champion in a weight that promises to be all kinds of fun at the NCAA tournament. However, the margins have always been thin for the Cowboy and both his losses, to other title contenders, were the type that it wouldn’t take much to reverse. The question that will loom over everything he does from here until March is, can he find the preternatural ability to win close matches that he had before or is the aura broken beyond repair? Eierman is an excellent test of that as he has never beaten Heil, Bryce Meredith (Wyoming), or Kevin Jack (NC State). He did take down Yianni Diakomihalis (Cornell), still the only wrestler to do so this season, with a late takedown and nearfall, but six-point moves to rescue victory from the jaws of defeat aren’t something to be relied upon exclusively. There is no question Eierman is an All-American threat, but can he win multiple matches in a row against the top contenders as he’ll have to do to win a title? Winning this one would go a long way to proving that, but I’m not sure the sophomore can win a low-scoring bout and Heil won’t be drawn into a shootout. Give me the Cowboy.
Prediction: Heil by Decision
#3 Preston Weigel (Oklahoma State) vs. #7 Willie Miklus (Missouri), 197 pounds, Saturday, Jan. 27th, 8:00 pm at Oklahoma State
Displaying an improved ability to go get takedowns against quality opponents and still making it incredibly difficult for the foes that end up underneath him, Weigel is looking like a darkhorse title threat in a weight once thought to be owned by Kollin Moore (Ohio State) and Jared Haught (Virginia Tech). Before the season started, some thought it might be Miklus growing into that role and there is still time. However, the two-time All-American at 184 pounds has been majored twice, by Jacob Warner (Iowa) and Ben Darmstadt (Cornell), in addition to losing an overtime match against Daniel Chaid (North Carolina). He remains as high as he is in the rankings thanks in large part due to a win over Haught, though even that comes with a caveat. The Hokie had a solid lead before Miklus pinned him when Haught was going for the major. This is Miklus in a nutshell. He was a double-digit seed both times he earned top-eight finishes at nationals. He takes baffling losses in the regular season. Just when you’re ready to write him off, he makes a run and you feel silly for doubting him. That may be where this ends, but this is still the regular season. Weigel has a great chance to avoid Moore by winning out and getting the two or three seed. Miklus might not care about his seed, but he could use a more conventional win over a top 197 just to prove he can do it. If the best version of Willie shows up, this could be quite a battle. I’m not sure that happens and Weigel might overpower him anyway.
Prediction: Weigel by Major Decision
#7 Sebastian Rivera (Northwestern) vs. #8 Ethan Lizak (Minnesota), 125 pounds, Sunday, Jan. 28th, 2:00 pm at Minnesota
A battle between two wrestlers who are mostly overlooked these days when talking about who will win the 125-pound title will cap the most important matches of the weekend. It is a little understandable that many don’t know whether Rivera fits into that conversation. He is a redshirt freshman, after all, and his biggest claim to fame this season might be giving Nick Suriano (Rutgers) a tough match at Midlands. Close losses aren’t enough, but the Wildcat has a chance for more than that against Lizak. The returning NCAA finalist was always going to be a high wire act given he isn’t as good as the other contenders in neutral, but even his trump card, that impressive top game, hasn’t been hitting lately. Nathan Tomasello (Ohio State) escaped with ease in an 18-3 blitzkrieg, then the Gopher couldn’t earn nearfall in a 4-2 tiebreaker loss to Drew Mattin (Michigan) last weekend. Mattin picked neutral in his half of the tiebreaker period, earning the winning takedown. That is a tough route, but expect other coaches to have noticed. Lizak is still very good and his ability to score nearfall makes him dangerous against anyone. However, the more matches he has to win against strong opposition, the more likely it will be that he trips up somewhere. His seed is important and his recent losses have him on the verge of something in the 7-10 range. That would mean a strong round of 16 foe and someone nasty in the quarters. Rivera is much more conventional, but no one wants to run more of a gauntlet than they have to. This one is crucial for both. Can Rivera stay off his back?
Prediction: Rivera by Decision