College Wrestling News

2018 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships Preview: 149 Pounds

Grant Leeth, Zain Retherford, Brandon Sorensen

Left photo by Mark Lundy, LutteLens.com, middle, right photos by Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, we’ve got brackets!  The 2018 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships is rapidly approaching and we now know what everyone’s path to the title looks like.  Before we head for Cleveland, we’re breaking down every weight class in depth.  We’ll start with some facts for reference, break down who can win the weight, who will contend for All-American honors, who needs to be on upset alert in the first two rounds, how this weight will affect the team race, and end with a little analysis for those of you participating in fantasy wrestling contests. Enjoy and check back later for much more!

Other weights: 125133141157165174, 184197, 285


Conference Champions

ACC – Troy Heilman (North Carolina)

Big Ten – Zain Retherford (Penn State)

Big 12 – Boo Lewallen (Oklahoma State)

EIWA – Matt Kolodzik (Princeton)

EWL – Ronnie Perry (Lock Haven)

MAC – Grant Leeth (Missouri)

Pac-12 – Jason Tsirtsis (Arizona State)

SoCon – Tyshaun Williams (SIUE)

Performance by Seed, Last 10 Years (13-16 seed started in 2014)

1: 9 AAs, 8 finalists, 6 champions

2: 6 AAs, 4 finalists, 1 champion

3: 7 AAs, 3 finalists, 1 champion

4: 8 AAs, 1 finalist, 1 champion

5: 9 AAs, 1 finalist, 1 champion

6: 6 AAs, 1 finalist

7: 5 AAs, 1 finalist

8: 4 AAs

9: 4 AAs

10: 4 AAs

11: 3 AAs, 1 finalist

12: 1 AA

13: 0 AAs

14: 0 AAs

15: 3 AAs

16: 0 AAs

US: 11 AAs

Returning All-Americans

Zain Retherford (Penn State) – Champion in 2017, Champion in 2016, 5th in 2014 at 141

Brandon Sorensen (Iowa) – 3rd in 2017, 2nd in 2016, 4th in 2015

Max Thomsen (Northern Iowa) – 5th in 2017

Matt Kolodzik (Princeton) – 7th at 141 in 2017

Justin Oliver (Central Michigan) – 7th in 2016

Jason Tsirtsis (Arizona State) – 3rd in 2015, Champion in 2014

Who can win?

Two-time defending NCAA champion Zain Retherford (Penn State) has not lost a college match since the consolation semifinals of the 2014 NCAA tournament and heads to Cleveland riding an 89 match winning streak. That stretch includes six wins over second-seeded Brandon Sorensen (Iowa), a three-time national top four finisher himself. Retherford is the heaviest favorite of any competitor to win a title in 2018 and he will put up plenty of bonus points as he works his way through the bracket. He has scored bonus points in every match at nationals during his two title runs and could end his career with an amazing 15 consecutive bonus-point wins in this event. For comparison, Cael Sanderson’s longest bonus streak at the NCAA tournament was nine. Sorensen has been able to keep it close with Retherford at times with four of the six matches in the series being regular decisions. However, both of their meetings on this stage have been one-sided with the Nittany Lion winning 10-1 in the 2016 NCAA finals, then pinning the Hawkeye in the semis a year ago. Barring injury or one of the biggest upsets in the sport’s history, Retherford will reach the final again. All signs point to a third title and a career that includes just three losses, all coming his true freshman year.

Upset special

Grant Leeth (Missouri) is an amazing story and has not lost since November. It is difficult to pick against him. However, the draw did him no favors as he’ll be up against a quality opponent regardless of who wins the pigtail. Leeth has a tendency to wrestle close matches, a fact that Eleazar DeLuca (Rutgers) or Steve Bleise (Minnesota) could capitalize on. We’ve already seen DeLuca throw a top-10 opponent, Ke-Shawn Hayes (Ohio State), to his back in an upset this season and Bleise seems to be getting back to where he was at the end of last year, after missing all of February, when he made the round of 12 in St. Louis. Missouri fans will feel a lot better about that one if the pigtail turns into a hard-fought scrap as the winner has to wrestle again in the same session on minimal rest. As good as Boo Lewallen (Oklahoma State) looked in the Big 12 final, beating Max Thomsen (Northern Iowa), 9-3, he first had to survive an overtime battle with Davion Jeffries (Oklahoma). That match wasn’t nearly as close in the February dual, but Jeffries is capable of putting up a strong performance when he is on. That could be a difficult opener for the Cowboy.

In round two, 2017 All-American Matt Kolodzik (Princeton) hasn’t had the best season, but he got a nice draw pulling Justin Oliver (Central Michigan) in the round of 16. Oliver would usually be a tough out but after wrestling just one match between a January 19th loss to Leeth and the MAC tournament, then going 2-2 there for a fourth-place finish, it is hard to expect the Chippewa to flash his best form. Oliver’s two losses at the conference tournament were to unranked wrestlers, one of whom didn’t even make this field. If Justin is anywhere close to healthy, this will be a tight, low-scoring match, but I like Kolodzik to get the win. Jason Tsirtsis (Arizona State) is the master of winning that type of match and he will pose a threat to Ryan Deakin (Northwestern) in their 7/10 battle. That might tell us a lot about where Tsirtsis is having last earned All-American honors in 2015.

The race for the top eight

With no 2017 All-Americans seeded from three through eight and only one of those, Oliver at six, has ever stood on the national podium, it is difficult to say just how some of these wrestlers will react on this stage. Leeth has been amazing, but his knack for winning close matches and getting late takedowns when he needs them could leave him at a crucial moment. Heilmann has been one of the most improved wrestlers in the country, but his best wins came early. When you have those two as top four seeds, it opens the door for a lot of people to make a run. Maybe both hold serve, they certainly have shown themselves to be capable, but they aren’t prohibitive favorites like the top two. The key for both men is to avoid disaster early and win their quarters. That looks to be a much simpler task for Leeth who has Oliver as his scheduled opponent, though that could turn into Kolodzik. Heilmann should face Hayes in a clash that has all the makings of a toss-up. The Buckeye missed the bulk of last season due to injury. He has lived up to his potential this season, though he did lose to the Tar Heel, 10-8, in December at the Cliff Keen. The loser of that match will likely face a round of 12 test against the Deakin/Tsirtsis loser. The Deakin/Tsirtsis winner, assuming a loss to Sorensen in the quarters, probably ends up facing Ryan Blees (Virginia Tech) or Colton McCrystal (Nebraska) in the blood round.

The other two matches to decide All-Americans are tied to the 8/9 and 6/11 matches. If Oliver continues to struggle, it could open the door for Beau Donahue (NC State) to reach the round of 12. If Oliver comes out strong and beats Kolodzik, but loses to Leeth, he’ll likely face the Lewallen/Thomsen loser to earn his second All-American award. In that scenario, Kolodzik would drop down into Donahue’s path with the winner clashing with the Lewallen/Thomsen winner. Lewallen is a bit of a wildcard as he is capable of being exceptional and challenging for a finish as high as third. However, he fights confidence issues which leaves him vulnerable. He’ll be riding high after a Big 12 title, though. Getting Jeffries and Thomsen to open, two wrestlers he just beat, won’t hurt either. However, that first match after an almost certain loss to Retherford will be interesting. Thomsen was an All-American a year ago and has also had an up and down year. He had Leeth on the ropes in a February dual only to have the Tiger find a winning takedown to get a 3-2 win. Then the Panther looked strong at Big 12s only to see Lewallen take it to him in the final.

Alfred Bannister (Maryland) is a dangerous 16 seed, but its hard to see him making a long run through the consolations. An upset or two isn’t out of the question, though. Jared Prince (Navy) is a darkhorse All-American threat who enters unseeded. He hasn’t faced the strongest schedule, but he was 2-2 at nationals last year down at 141 and crushed several other qualifiers at EIWA before losing to Kolodzik. Drawing Sorensen first round hurts, and he will likely face Bannister in the second round of wrestlebacks with the winner to face the Lewallen/Thomsen loser. Still, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if the Navy sophomore survived that string of challenges to end up in the round of 12, probably facing the Oliver/Kolodzik winner.

Team race implications

Retherford is expected to win and score a slew of bonus points. Anything less will be a negative for Penn State, though he seems highly likely to do so. Hayes is another key member of the Buckeyes as he could go as high as third or drop into a round of 12 test against someone like Tsirtsis. Ohio State needs him in the top four which would be a lot simpler with a win over Heilmann in the quarters.

Iowa is counting on Sorensen to do his job and reach the finals. He should do so and could score bonus early that will help the Hawkeyes. If the senior falls earlier than that, Iowa will struggle to finish third. Oklahoma State wasn’t projected to get much of anything from Lewallen for much of the season, but suddenly he has a chance to get on the stand. That would be a boost for John Smith’s team and if he climbs into the top six, it could make all the difference. Leeth is another Tiger whose floor is substantially lower than his seed as it will be tough to move up at all, but there are a number of wrestlers close enough to knock him off. His early draw is tough, but his quarter is as good as you could have hoped for. If he makes it that far, he should get the points Missouri is expecting from him. If he were to fall out of the top six, it would be a blow to Missouri’s team trophy chances. Michigan has unseeded Malik Amine in the field up against the five seed Hayes in round one. Anything he earns would be gravy.

Fantasy analysis

With his bonus point ability and being a heavy favorite, Retherford is the man to have regardless of format. In most drafts, he’ll be the number one pick and most salary cap teams will include him unless top seeds are assigned a ridiculous cost. Sorensen is a strong number two, but his inclination to earn bonus comes and goes. He is capable, but if the mood strikes, he’ll settle for a decision rather than put himself at risk. That limits his potential. Leeth and Heilmann would be tough to take as they aren’t likely to reach the finals, neither is a bonus point guy, and each could fall below their seed without wrestling poorly. Hayes is more palatable at five with a better bonus rate against this level of competition and a lower seed, but I think if you can’t get Retherford, and Sorensen in draft formats, you cast your eyes to lower seeds.

Oliver is a stay away because we don’t know what he’ll do and the recent returns aren’t good. Deakin has a tough second round match and a looming battle with Sorensen in the quarters. If you have strong feelings about the winner of Lewallen/Thomsen, either man, perhaps both, could finish above their seed. Tsirtsis could provide a storybook ending to a career that has hit the skids, but he won’t score bonus either. Kolodzik is probably the play here if you’re looking for value as he should beat Oliver in round two barring a miracle recovery and I wouldn’t rule out an upset of Leeth either. Anytime you can snag an 11-seed with a reasonable chance at the semi-finals, you have to consider it. That said, the Princeton man is another who won’t run up bonus points. For that, you have to look to the top line at 149.


1st – Zain Retherford (Penn State)

2nd – Brandon Sorensen (Iowa)

3rd – Grant Leeth (Missouri)

4th – Ke-Shawn Hayes (Ohio State)

5th – Ryan Deakin (Northwestern)

6th – Troy Heilmann (North Carolina)

7th – Boo Lewallen (Oklahoma State)

8th – Max Thomsen (Northern Iowa)

Round of 12 – Jason Tsirtsis (Arizona State), Justin Oliver (Central Michigan), Ryan Blees (Virginia Tech), Matt Kolodzik (Princeton)

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