photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com
The 2021 NCAA Championships are rapidly approaching and since brackets have been released, we now know everyone’s path to an NCAA title. Before the action gets underway from St. Louis, we will break down each bracket in detail. We’ll start with some historical facts for reference, break down who can win each weight class, who will contend for All-American honors, who are scary matchups for potential upsets, and how this bracket will affect the team race. Let’s move on to the 149 lbers!
ACC: Austin O’Connor (North Carolina)
Big 12: Boo Lewallen (Oklahoma State)
Big Ten: Sammy Sasso (Ohio State)
EIWA: PJ Ogunsanya (Army West Point)
MAC: Brock Mauller (Missouri)
Pac-12: Jaden Abas (Stanford)
SoCon: Jonathan Millner (Appalachian State)
Other Automatic Qualifiers:
ACC: Bryce Andonian (Virginia Tech), Josh Finesilver (Duke)
Big 12: Mitch Moore (Oklahoma), Kyle Parco (Fresno State), Jarrett Degen (Iowa State), Triston Lara (Northern Iowa)
Big Ten: Ridge Lovett (Nebraska), Mike Van Brill (Rutgers), Michael Blockhus (Minnesota), Kanen Storr (Michigan), Graham Rooks (Indiana), Griffin Parriott (Purdue)
EIWA: Jimmy Hoffman (Lehigh), Luke Nichter (Drexel), Greg Gaxiola (Hofstra)
MAC: Marcus Robinson (Cleveland State), Anthony Cheloni (Northern Illinois), Kody Komara (Kent State)
Pac-12: Legend Lamer (Cal Poly)
SoCon: Josh Heil (Campbell)
Big 12: Andrew Alirez (Northern Colorado)
Big Ten: Max Murin (Iowa), Peyton Omania (Michigan State), Yahya Thomas (Northwestern)
EIWA: Casey Cobb (Navy)
Pac-12: Cory Crooks (Arizona State)
Performance by Seed; Last 10 Years (13-16 seed started in 2014–2020 excluded)
1: 9 AA’s, 8 finalists, 7 champions
2: 7 AA’s, 5 finalists, 1 champion
3: 7 AA’s, 2 finalists
4: 8 AA’s, 1 finalist, 1 champion
5: 8 AA’s, 1 finalist, 1 champion
6: 5 AA’s
7: 3 AA’s, 1 finalist
8: 6 AA’s
9: 3 AA’s
10: 5 AA’s
11: 4 AA’s, 1 finalist
12: 1 AA
13: 0 AA’s
14: 0 AA’s
15: 1 AA’s, 1 finalist
16: 0 AA’s
US: 10 AA’s
Sammy Sasso (Ohio State) 2020 1st Team
Austin O’Connor (North Carolina) 2020 1st Team, 2019 3rd Place
Brock Mauller (Missouri) 2020 1st Team, 2019 6th Place
Boo Lewallen (Oklahoma State) 2020 1st Team, 2018 8th Place
Kanen Storr (Michigan) 2020 2nd Team
Max Murin (Iowa) 2020 1st Team
Josh Heil (Campbell) 2020 1st Team
Jarrett Degen (Iowa State) 2020 1st Team, 2019 7th Place
Who Can Win?
Probably more wrestlers can win at this weight as opposed to any other one in 2021. The top three seeds are all returning first-team All-Americans and are undefeated in 2021. Top-ranked Sammy Sasso (Ohio State) recently claimed his first Big Ten title after coming up just shy a year ago, as a freshman. Sasso, an excellent scrambler, has been able to display more of his offense in 2021, which is a scary proposition for the rest of the weight. He racked up three falls this season and one came against, then unbeaten Max Murin (Iowa), while another was at the expense of former Big Ten finalist Mike Carr (Illinois). Another contender at this weight who has taken his offense to another level in 2021 is Austin O’Connor (North Carolina). In his ACC final, O’Connor got down early, 6-0, to Bryce Andonian (Virginia Tech), but chipped away at the lead and prevailed, 10-8. Austin will assume the second seed for the second consecutive season. In 2019, he became the highest freshman finisher in UNC history when he took third in Pittsburgh. This year’s #3 seed is Brock Mauller (Missouri), who moves up a slot from 2020, when he received the four. Mauller continues to be one of the most challenging wrestlers to score on in the nation. He doesn’t necessarily light up the scoreboard offensively, but at the same time, he doesn’t allow many points.
Even a narrow loss to Mauller doesn’t take away from the fact that #4 Boo Lewallen (Oklahoma State) could win this whole thing. Lewallen is a sixth-year senior that has battled through a variety of injuries during his time in Stillwater. Boo made the podium in 2018 at 141 lbs and was named a first-team All-American last year. This year, Lewallen has grabbed his third Big 12 title and owns three wins over the #13 seed, Mitch Moore (Oklahoma).
A pair of true sophomores have brought some more fun to this weight class, with their entertaining styles, and have even emerged as title threats in year two. They are #5 Ridge Lovett (Nebraska) and #6 Bryce Andonian (Virginia Tech). Lovett is up two weights from 2020 and did not take over the starting role for the Huskers until early February. He was dominant over Murin in the Big Ten Championships and outlasted Michael Blockhus (Northern Iowa) for a spot in the finals. Andonian was a national qualifier last year, but has opened eyes nationally with his go-for-broke style that includes a handful of throws and trips. Both of his 2021 losses have come to O’Connor, though he did put the Tar Heel on his back during the ACC finals.
The returning first-team All-American, Murin, is a dangerous 12th seed. Murin was seeded second at the Big Ten Championships; however, he was stunned by Lovett in his first bout and proceeded to go 0-2 and had to rely on an at-large berth. He could be looking at a rematch with Lovett in the second round. A 9-0 mark in 2021 was only good enough for the 16th seed for PJ Ogunsanya (Army West Point). While a second-round match with Sasso is not ideal, Ogunsanya is someone who can do damage in the consolations. Three of his nine wins came over opponents that have previously qualified for the NCAA Championships. On the bottom half of the bracket is #18 Jarrett Degen (Iowa State). Degen earned a place on the podium in 2019 and was named a first-team AA last year. Jarrett has been slowed by injuries in 2021 and has suffered a couple of uncharacteristic losses. If he can hold it together next week, he’ll be tough to beat.
The race for the top-eight
The highest-ranked wrestler from the SoCon Conference, at any weight, is #7 Jonathan Millner (Appalachian State). Millner had a breakout campaign in 2019-20, winning 31 of 35 matches, and earning himself the 18th seed at nationals. In 2021, Millner has won 13 of 14 matches and moved up bonus point percentage up to 57%, which was an increase of almost 15% from 2020. The Mountaineer could be in for a second-round match with the hot, #10 Mike Van Brill (Rutgers). Mike lost his opening bout at the Big Ten Tournament, then proceeded to down four returning national qualifiers, including the tournament’s second and third seeds, to claim third place. That run could help propel him to All-American status in St. Louis. One of the opponents Van Brill upset in the Big Ten consis was #11 Kanen Storr. Storr has been near the top of the rankings for the bulk of his career, but has yet to get onto the podium.
Others with strong chances at finishing as All-Americans are the Pac-12 finalists, #8 Jaden Abas (Stanford) and #9 Legend Lamer (Cal Poly). Abas turned the tables on Lamer, who was victorious, 4-3, during their dual meet. That was the only blemish on Lamer’s record this season. Abas had sky-high expectations this year as he was 23-4 last year and won the Southern Scuffle, while redshirting.
Team Race Implications
Unless something unforeseen happens, we don’t expect either of the top-two seeds to have their teams in the trophy hunt. After them, there is a handful of contending teams with All-American threats. Missouri, Oklahoma State, Iowa, Virginia Tech, and Nebraska all have wrestlers capable of a high finish. Two of the potential quarterfinals could be telling. The winner of Lovett/Murin in the second round could face Lewallen for a spot in the semis and guaranteed sixth-place points. The same can be said for Mauller/Andonian on the bottom half of the bracket.
Round of 12: Jonathan Millner (Appalachian State), Legend Lamer (Cal Poly), Mike Van Brill (Rutgers), Yahya Thomas (Northwestern)
Semifinals: Sammy Sasso (Ohio State) vs. Boo Lewallen (Oklahoma State), Brock Mauller (Missouri) vs. Austin O’Connor (North Carolina)
1st – Austin O’Connor (North Carolina)
2nd – Sammy Sasso (Ohio State)
3rd – Brock Mauller (Missouri)
4th – Bryce Andonian (Virginia Tech)
5th – Boo Lewallen (Oklahoma State)
6th – Mitch Moore (Oklahoma)
7th – Ridge Lovett (Nebraska)
8th – Max Murin (Iowa)