photo courtesy of SCSU athletics
There will be 56 teams sending athletes to the 2018-19 NCAA Division II National Wrestling Tournament in Cleveland in two weeks. To kick off our coverage of this incredible event, I am going to take a look at what teams could contend for a national title this year. 12 teams are sending six or more athletes and it is time to make some predictions separating the wheat from the chaff.
Be sure to follow along with all the coverage over the next week leading up to the tournament including my full predictions for every weight. Follow along @theopenmat and @bvilltheopenmat for all the DII coverage you could ask for. And probably some that you did not request.
I have broken the top teams in the tournament down into three categories: Contenders, Maybes, and Pretenders. Now if your team falls into the second or third group, do not @ me. I am just looking at how I think their athletes will finish at the tournament. This will be the first season that seeding will come into play at the national championship under the new regional tournaments. I am going to start with the last group, the Pretenders.
These are teams who qualified six or more athletes for the national tournament but do not have the firepower needed to crown individual champions or enough All-Americans to take the title. They all have a shot at finishing top ten, but their ceiling is most likely outside of earning a team trophy. If they prove me wrong, I will be the first to eat say how wrong I was, but here they are in alphabetical order.
I am not detracting from a program-best seven national qualifiers for the Limestone College Saints. This is truly a historic team for the South Carolina school. They may find that they do not have quite the firepower they need to finish in the top ten. They are a young team of qualifiers which could mean a better year next season. This is a team that will only graduate their 197 senior Clif Decius. Head coach Kelly Revells has to be thinking even bigger things are to come in 2019-20. Without a wrestler ranked before the regional and just two wrestlers who won their respective weights in Matt Rose (141) and Matthew Rodriguez-Kirkland (165) the Saints will need to keep on marching into Cleveland with a little chip on their shoulder to show they are a team to watch.
I am not picking on Super Regional II, but when you have three teams that took up 22 of the 30 available allocations you have to wonder about the depth of the tournament. Head coach Cy Wainwright is building the Wolves into a force to be reckoned with above and below the Mason-Dixon Line. A year after sending four wrestlers to the national tournament they are sending seven. They finished the regular season ranked 23rd and both of their ranked wrestlers are headed to Cleveland. This is a team led by 141 Super Regional II champion and fourth-ranked Isaiah Royal. The returning national qualifier will need to lift his squad’s title hopes on his shoulders and hope that 11th ranked Austin Palmer can also find his way to the podium. Two All-Americans will not be enough to contend for a title or a trophy, but it could give them Newberry’s best finish under Wainwright.
University of Indianapolis
It is unfortunate that this team will be without their senior leader Dylan Faulkenberg in Cleveland. The previous national qualifier and multiple time Midwest Classic champion was unable to make his way through the loaded Super Regional III field despite entering the tournament ranked fourth in the nation. Head coach Jason Warthan will send six Greyhounds to the national tournament and in my mind are a top 10 squad. I just have to think of what might have been. They will be without Faulkenberg and another ranked wrestler Kyle Barkovich (149) who despite being ranked 11th was unable to punch his ticket. Sheldon Struble (165), Brody Conner (184), and Angelo Robles (141) will all need to push towards the podium, but this is a team that might surprise some teams. They lack the firepower needed to really shake up the standings though.
University of North Carolina-Pembroke
Othello Johnson’s Braves seem destined to turn in their eighth straight top 25 performance, but I am expecting them to be even better than their 15th place finish from a year ago. Only St Cloud State University qualified more wrestlers for the national tournament. UNC-Pembroke will send eight athletes out to battle and they will two returning All-Americans to help this team hunt down its best finish. Nick Daggett (125) and Rodney Sheppard (165) are ranked sixth and second in the nation. Brandon Sloop (184) is ranked ninth in the country and if he can join his teammates and this squad earns three All-American honors, it will match last years total. They need other athletes to step up and that is why for now they are on my pretender list.
I desperately want to believe that Lindenwood can be a top-four team at the NCAA tournament this season. They have one of the best stories in sports with their signing of Chris Bini and I find myself cheering for the former NAIA squad against whom I have a career losing record. Head coach Jimmy Rollins crowned three champions in a ridiculously difficult region and nearly ran down McKendree University for the team trophy. This is a team led by number one ranked and returning All-American Carlos Jacquez (125). They have four other wrestlers that were ranked before the Super Regionals. Eighth-ranked Tanner Hitchcock (133) and ninth-ranked Voss Morrow (Hwt) joined Jacquez in winning a regional title. Kyle Jolas (165) was a runner-up and showed his seventh ranking was deserved. If this team can earn four All-Americans, watch out. The wildcard here may DI transfer Gavin Londoff (149), for him it will all depend on how the seeding plays out. He has shown he can be right there with the top wrestlers at this weight, but he also seems to miss bonus point opportunities. He will need to score big to help his team forward.
If you are a fan of wrestling, then you know the story of Mike Denney and the creation of Maryville wrestling. His 49th year as a head coach sees him leading a squad of seven athletes to the national tournament. Maryville ended the season in 12th place in the final tournament rankings and then pushed three wrestlers into the Super Regional III finals. The Saints came up short in all three of those bouts, but this is a squad that has a proven leader at the helm. All three of Maryville’s ranked wrestlers made it to the tournament led by eighth-ranked Tyler Kreith (125). Tyler Harrington (165) battled back to finish third and punch his ticket to nationals and the fifth-ranked wrestler is an All-American threat. Coach Denney has a possible finalist in second-ranked Ethan Sheretz (197) if whatever caused him to medically forfeit the finals match is not too serious. Maryville will need to fight hard to not drop from a “Maybe” to a “Pretender,” but one thing I know is that winners win. Mike Denney is a winner.
The next two teams could easily be in the “Contender” category. The McKendree Bearcats are sending seven athletes to the national tournament including four who won their Super Regional tournament. They also just outpaced a very deep field of teams to win a team title over the likes of Lindenwood and Maryville. Head coach James Kisgen will be without ninth-ranked Charles McNeal (133), but still has seven wrestlers currently ranked headed to Cleveland. This is a program with three returning All-Americans in fourth-ranked Marcus Povlik (125), eighth-ranked Isaiah Kemper (149), and fifth-ranked Nick Foster (174). This team will compete for a team trophy if Micheal Pixley (184) does what he does and make it to the finals. In my mind he is the most critical wrestler to this teams chances, he is a multiple time All-American and has won titles with Grand View in the NAIA. He knows what it takes to win on the biggest stage, what may slow him down is Heath Gray (Central Oklahoma) who has had his number this season in two of their three meetings. If they are the two and three seeds, then McKendree’s tournament might hinge on a semifinal matchup. I said might.
The University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown
Why is a team with two potential finalists on the “Maybe” list? Because this is my list and I can do whatever I want! In all seriousness, the Mountain Cats are a team that could finish top four at the tournament. They are led by returning national champion Chris Eddins (141) and the dangerous second-ranked Joey Alessandro (141). I have to wonder if their lineup that features just two other ranked wrestlers will score enough points to contend for a team trophy, but I am high on coach Pat Pecora getting the most out of his squad. I just wonder at the ceiling of this team, keep an eye on Brock Biddle (184). He is part of this teams 22nd regional championship and he has just a single loss on the year and it is to top-ranked Jeff Reimel (Kutztown). He is the type of wrestler who could enter the tournament unseeded and absolutely blow up the bracket.
The University of Nebraska-Kearney
We can get the list of “Contenders” started with the Kearney Lopers. This team managed to get all five of its ranked wrestlers through the Super Regional and on to the national tournament. Head coach Dalton Jensen’s lineup features four returning All-Americans as well as the top-ranked Calvin Ochs (165). Returning NCAA Division II national champion Matt Malcolm (157) is joined by fellow All-Americans Josh Portillo (125), Zach Stodden (174), and Jarrod Hinrichs (Hwt). Stodden entered the Super Regional ranked outside the top 12 and he is going to be a dangerous wrestler if he is drawn into the bracket without being seeded. For a brief time this season, Kearney was ranked ahead of St Cloud State, was that a momentary snapshot or is this the team that can take down the returning national champions? Wesley Dawkins (133) ended the season ranked 12th and then was a finalist in his region falling to second-ranked D’Andre Brumfield (Colorado State-Pueblo). If he can make a run to the podium and Zach Stodden is a bracket buster, look out!
Notre Dame College
It must be tough to be a wrestling program like five-time NCAA Division II national champion Notre Dame College. If you can pull your 12th ranked 165 and replace him with an unranked Anthony Daily in your lineup and have him qualify for nationals, you have yourself a deep bench. Head coach Frank Romano will bring seven Falcons to the tournament and have a great chance at pushing St Cloud State and being able to change their Twitter handle to @ndcwrestling6x. They crowned two champions and a runner-up at the Super Regional and they won the team trophy. This is a squad with six wrestlers currently ranked including returning All-Americans Tony Vezzetti (184) and Kameron Teacher (Hwt). If Hunter Bray (133) can find a way to take out D’Andre Brumfield in the semifinals and make his way to the national finals, look out this team has an incredibly high ceiling.
St Cloud State University
We should not crown the St Cloud State University wrestling team just yet. They did qualify nine wrestlers for the national tournament, the only weight they missed out on was heavyweight. Head coach Steve Costanzo has four returning All-Americans including two returning finalists. This looks like a team destined to repeat as champions, but there may be chinks in the armor. Brett Velasquez (125) was an All-American a year ago but fell out of the rankings before the regional tournament. Then he went out and won the regional championship. Ok, maybe not so much a chink. Listen this is their tournament to lose, but that means all the pressure is on them. I do not think this is a squad that will crack, but you never know what could happen on the big stage.
Wheeling Jesuit University
I am wondering if this is the year head coach Danny Irwin takes his Cardinals to the promised land and earns a team trophy. He is in just his second season at the helm and thus far it has been a resounding success. The program has sent six qualifiers to nationals and returns two All-Americans. That includes top-ranked Tyler Warner (133) and returning national champion Terrance Fanning (Hwt). They have to be thinking, “why not us?” And they are right. This could be the year they bring home a team trophy and if St Cloud State and Kearney stumble, it could be The trophy.