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 174 lbers!
ACC: Daniel Bullard (NC State)
Big 12: Demetrius Romero (Utah Valley)
Big Ten: Michael Kemerer (Iowa)
EIWA: Ben Pasiuk (Army West Point)
MAC: Andrew McNally (Kent State)
Pac-12: Bernie Truax (Cal Poly)
SoCon: Austin Murphy (Campbell)
Other Automatic Qualifiers:
ACC: Clay Lautt (North Carolina), Dakota Howard (Virginia Tech)
Big 12: Jackson Hemauer (Northern Colorado), Hayden Hastings (Wyoming), Dustin Plott (Oklahoma State)
Big Ten: Carter Starocci (Penn State), Mikey Labriola (Nebraska), Logan Massa (Michigan), Kaleb Romero (Ohio State), Donnell Washington (Indiana), Jake Allar (Minnesota), Drew Hughes (Michigan State)
EIWA: Michael O’Malley (Drexel), Tim Fitzpatrick (American), Jacob Logan (Lehigh), Jacob Nolan (Binghamton)
MAC: Peyton Mocco (Missouri), Jacob Oliver (Edinboro)
Pac-12: Trey Munoz (Arizona State)
ACC: Vic Marcelli (Virginia)
Big 12: Anthony Mantanona (Oklahoma), Lance Runyon (Northern Iowa), Cody Surratt (Air Force)
Big Ten: Jackson Turley (Rutgers)
MAC: Mason Kauffman (Northern Illinois)
SoCon: Thomas Flitz (Appalachian State)
Performance by Seed; Last 10 Years (13-16 seed started in 2014–2020 excluded)
1: 10 AA’s, 8 finalists, 5 champions
2: 9 AA’s, 5 finalists, 2 champions
3: 9 AA’s, 3 finalists, 1 champion
4: 7 AA’s
5: 6 AA’s, 1 finalist, 1 champion
6: 7 AA’s
7: 8 AA’s, 1 finalist
8: 4 AA’s, 1 finalist
9: 3 AA’s
10: 3 AA’s
11: 2 AA’s, 1 finalist, 1 champion
12: 2 AA’s
13: 2 AA’s
14: 0 AA’s
15: 0 AA’s
16: 0 AA’s
US: 8 AA’s
Michael Kemerer (Iowa) 2020 1st Team, 2018 4th Place, 2017 3rd Place
Mikey Labriola (Nebraska) 2020 2nd Team, 2019 6th Place
Logan Massa (Michigan) 2017 3rd Place
Kaleb Romero (Ohio State) 2020 1st Team
Anthony Mantanona (Oklahoma) 2020 2nd Team
Who Can Win?
The incredible seasons from Spencer Lee and Gable Steveson have somewhat overshadowed the quiet dominance of Michael Kemerer (Iowa) at 174 lbs. Kemerer prevailed without much difficulty in a loaded Big Ten weight class that featured a trio of returning All-Americans and one of the nation’s top freshmen. That marked the first Big Ten crown for Kemerer, who had made the finals on two previous occasions. Last year, he suffered his only setback of the year in the conference championship match against Mark Hall. In seven bouts this year, Kemerer has racked up two falls and two major decisions to go along with his four wins over national qualifiers. The third, fifth, and seventh seeds all have losses this season against the Hawkeye senior.
NCAA Pick ’em contests will be littered with fans who have selected Kemerer as their choice and some may think he’s the only one who could win at 174. He’ll certainly be the odds-on favorite, but should he slip, a few others can take home the big prize. There was plenty of controversy surrounding the choice for the second seed, Demetrius Romero (Utah Valley). While Romero has a robust, 16-0 record, he didn’t face a schedule comparable to his Big Ten counterparts. Romero did log wins over #12 Bernie Truax (Cal Poly) and #14 Hayden Hastings (Wyoming), then cruised to his second conference title. In 2019, Romero was seeded ninth at NCAA’s and advanced to the Round of 12 before his elimination. Perhaps his biggest roadblock, on the way to the finals, will come from #3 Carter Starocci (Penn State). An undefeated redshirt season and some excellent wins in freestyle gave Starocci a ton of hype heading into this season. After dropping his first match to #9 Donnell Washington (Indiana), Starocci rebounded and knocked off All-American’s #5 Logan Massa (Michigan) and #7 Kaleb Romero (Ohio State) in regular-season duals. At the Big Ten meet, Starocci added a second win over the Buckeye and got by #4 Mikey Labriola (Nebraska) in sudden victory. Labriola has been near the top of the 174 lb ranks for most of his collegiate career and could survive this rugged bracket. The Husker junior wrestled Kemerer to a 3-1 match last season and his lone loss of 2021 came to Starocci in sudden victory.
Usually, a 27th seed with a .500 record is considered first-round fodder for the sixth-seed, but don’t be so quick to overlook Cody Howard (Virginia Tech). Howard is in his second year as a starter for the Hokies, but his first year at 174 lbs. Down from 197, Howard has developed a reputation for having an excellent gas tank and a knack for the clutch. He stormed back from big deficits to force sudden victory in two of his ACC tournament bouts and was victorious both times. Early in January, Howard faced #6 Andrew McNally (Kent State) and the Golden Flash took the bout 13-8. Could Howard flip this result in March?
One of the most exciting wrestlers in the entire bracket is the 23rd seed Anthony Mantanona (Oklahoma). Anthony is almost sure to put points on the board and has been known to engage in a shootout or two. His two falls at the Big 12 Championships were instrumental in the Sooners tying for the conference crown. He’ll surely make for a tough out for #10 Peyton Mocco (Missouri) in the opening round.
The race for the top-eight
During the preseason, we thought that Massa may be one of the favorites for the 174 lb title. Even with a few losses headed into the tournament, a national title isn’t out of the question for Massa, either. He is a solid bet to crack the top-eight as he has been seeded in the top-seven all four years at nationals and has a third-place finish to his credit. Having the fifth seed means that Massa will have to get by Labriola in the quarters, an opponent that majored him at the Big Tens. The #6/#11 quadrant is intriguing as the sixth seed is McNally and the 11 is Austin Murphy (Campbell). One of these two should be in the quarterfinals and, at minimum, is wrestling for a place on the podium. The two have a combined 2021 record of 22-1. Beneath them is 2020 All-American Kaleb Romero (Ohio State). Kaleb could be on track for an All-Romero quarterfinal between him and Demetrius. This Romero’s stingy defense keeps him in all matches and he generally doesn’t take “bad losses.” He’s only a minor adjustment or two away from the big stage Saturday night.
Even though he started the year at 165 lbs, Mocco has been excellent for the Tigers, up a weight. His only loss of the season came in the MAC finals during a one-point loss to McNally. The top bracket features ACC champion #8 Daniel Bullard (NC State) and #9 Donnell Washington (Indiana). This is a stark contrast in styles as Bullard relies heavily on counters and scrambling, while Washington isn’t scared to tie up and look for the big move. With a sixth-place finish at the Big Ten, Washington proved he was more than just the guy who upset Starocci. Also on the top bracket is #12 Truax. Bernie’s only loss of the year came in his first match to second-seeded Demetrius Romero. Truax has used the momentum of a UWW Junior National title during his sophomore season in San Luis Obispo and racked up bonus points in all eight of his wins.
Team Race Implications
Like 165, Iowa fans thinking of a rout have already penciled in a title for Kemerer. Anything short of a finals appearance could be troubling for the Hawkeye’s team hopes. For Penn State to pull off a shocker, they’ll probably need a title from Starocci or a finalist appearance and lots of help elsewhere. Many observers, this one included, pegged Michigan as the number two team in the land for the bulk of the season. For the Wolverines to threaten, they’ll need a few upsets and a high finish from Massa. Both NC State and Missouri have borderline All-Americans at 174. Both schools would get a boost from getting their guys on the podium.
Round of 12: Peyton Mocco (Missouri), Hayden Hastings (Wyoming), Bernie Truax (Cal Poly), Austin Murphy (Campbell)
Semifinals: Michael Kemerer (Iowa) vs. Mikey Labriola (Nebraska); Carter Starocci (Penn State) vs. Kaleb Romero (Ohio State)
1st – Michael Kemerer (Iowa)
2nd – Carter Starocci (Penn State)
3rd – Mikey Labriola (Nebraska)
4th – Kaleb Romero (Ohio State)
5th – Logan Massa (Michigan)
6th – Demetrius Romero (Utah Valley)
7th – Donnell Washington (Indiana)
8th – Clay Lautt (North Carolina)