photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com
The short, but sweet, 2021 NCAA DI Wrestling season came to an end on Saturday night as ten wrestlers carved their names into the record book and cemented their legacy as national champions. Before the finals got underway, the Iowa Hawkeyes had already wrapped up their first team championship since the 2009-10 season. It is the fourth under the direction of Tom Brands in his 15th year at the helm in Iowa City.
The Hawkeyes leader, Spencer Lee, closed out the night by capturing his third NCAA championship with a 7-0 shutout over the third-seed, Brandon Courtney of Arizona State. The match was his only of the 2021 season in which he was contained to a regular decision. We’ll find out shortly whether Lee’s 12-0 record with three techs and five falls was enough for back-to-back Hodge Trophy’s. In his post-match interview, Lee revealed that he tore his ACL eight days ago. That wasn’t evident to anyone watching the Hawkeye during the three-day tournament, as he needed just over a minute and a half to tech his first opponent, before majoring his next three. The injury does raise concerns about him competing in the Olympic Trials in less than two weeks.
While Lee was victorious, his Iowa two teammates were not after to get their hands raised in Saturday’s finals. Both Jaydin Eierman and Michael Kemerer fell to Penn State foes that they defeated in the finals of the Big Ten Championships. In the second match of the evening, the four-time All-American Eierman took on fellow four-timer, Nick Lee, in the 141 lb finals. Though there was plenty of action and offensive attempts in regulation, the two needed sudden victory after being knotted at two points apiece. As Eierman was pushing the pace near the edge of the circle, Lee hit an inside trip that buckled the Hawkeye and served as a winning takedown. Kemerer and redshirt freshman Carter Starocci had little in the way of scoring opportunities through seven minutes of competition and also needed extra time. There Starocci struck with a double leg that sunk the title hopes of the four-time All-American senior.
Though they were in an unfamiliar runner-up position, Cael Sanderson’s Penn State team stole the show in the finals by going four-for-four. The other two winners for the Nittany Lions were Roman Bravo-Young at 133 lbs and Aaron Brooks at 184 lbs. Bravo-Young led off the evening with a win over the undefeated top-seed Daton Fix of Oklahoma State. Fix extended himself in sudden victory and provided an opening for a Bravo-Young reshot, which he capitalized on for a winning takedown. Brooks and NC State’s Trent Hidlay were unable to generate much offense, but Brooks’ reversal ended up key. Late in the third period, Hidlay was called for stalling, which provided a 3-2 lead for Brooks. That forced Hidlay to turn up the pace and he was close to a takedown on the edge of the mat. Despite a review, none was called, and stalling or fleeing the mat was not signaled either. Brooks has a 29-1 record with a pair of Big Ten titles and now a national championship through two years of competition.
The story of the evening in the non-team race portion of the event was 165 lber Shane Griffith, who was named the tournament’s Outstanding Wrestling. While competing for Stanford, Griffith and his teammates did not adorn any Cardinal apparel and wrestled in all-black singlets. The reason for the measure is that the university intends on cutting wrestling, along with 10 other sports, after the 2021 school year. Despite fundraising efforts exceeding 12 million dollars, the school continues to maintain this stance. Griffith was a massive fan-favorite and generally controlled the entire match against third-seeded Jake Wentzel of Pittsburgh during a 6-2 win. The Cardinal 165 lber is only the second national champion in the history of the Stanford program and has earned All-American honors both years with the team. He did this despite falling in the Pac-12 championship match and getting saddled with the eighth seed.
While Griffith became the first Stanford champion since 2004, an even more prolonged drought ended after the 149 lb final. North Carolina’s Austin O’Connor claimed the title with a 3-2 decision over Sammy Sasso. O’Connor is the first national champion for the Tar Heels under coach Coleman Scott and the program’s first since TJ Jaworsky in 1995.
A match later, David Carr joined his legendary father, Nate, as national champions at Iowa State. Carr was able to shut down the dangerous Jesse Dellavecchia of Rider in the 157 lb championship. Dellavecchia pinned top-seeded Ryan Deakin of Northwestern in the semifinals to become the first Rider wrestler ever in the national finals. Carr was seeded third and needed to get by NC State’s undefeated, four-time All-American Hayden Hidlay just to make the finals. He would claim the first national title for the Cyclones under head coach Kevin Dresser and the first since Kyven Gadson’s in 2015.
The talk of the tournament on social media was the emergence of breakout superstar AJ Ferrari. The 197 lber became the first true freshman to win a national title for Oklahoma State since Pat Smith did so in 1990. While Ferrari’s shirtless post-match interviews documenting his weightlifting exploits generated plenty of discussion, his maturity and savviness on the mat proved to be a difference-maker. Ferrari could score when he needed to on his feet and tallied a boatload of riding time throughout the tournament. In the finals, he stifled the aggressive Nino Bonaccorsi of Pittsburgh and kept him in-check during a 4-2 win.
The only person standing in the way of back-to-back Hodge Trophy’s for Spence Lee is Minnesota’s big man, Gable Steveson. Gable added his name to the list of legendary big men for the Golden Gophers when he downed second-seeded Mason Parris of Michigan, 8-4. While Parris appeared to separate himself from the rest of the 285 lb division, Steveson was on a level of his own. His finals triumph was one of only two regular decisions on the season for the junior. During the national tournament, Steveson had those decisions mixed with a major, a tech, and a fall.
NCAA Finals Results
125 – Spencer Lee (Iowa) dec Brandon Courtney (Arizona State) 7-0
133 – Roman Bravo-Young (Penn State) dec Daton Fix (Oklahoma State) 4-2SV
141 – Nick Lee (Penn State) dec Jaydin Eierman (Iowa) 4-2SV
149 – Austin O’Connor (North Carolina) dec Sammy Sasso (Ohio State) 3-2
157 – David Carr (Iowa State) dec Jesse Dellavecchia (Rider) 4-0
165 – Shane Griffith (Stanford) dec Jake Wentzel (Pittsburgh) 6-2
174 – Carter Starocci (Penn State) dec Michael Kemerer (Iowa) 3-1SV
184 – Aaron Brooks (Penn State) dec Trent Hidlay (NC State) 3-2
197 – AJ Ferrari (Oklahoma State) dec Nino Bonaccorsi (Pittsburgh) 4-2
285 – Gable Steveson (Minnesota) dec Mason Parris (Michigan) 8-4
NCAA Team Results
1st – Iowa 129 points
2nd – Penn State 113.5
3rd – Oklahoma State 99.5
4th – Arizona State 74
5th – Michigan 69
6th – NC State 68
7th – Minnesota 64
7th – Missouri 64
9th – Ohio State 46.5
10th – Northwestern 45