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Let them Wrestle: DII National Champs vs DI

Carlos Jacquez photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com; Spencer Lee photo courtesy of Cam Kramer

We all sit around going “What If” to any number of scenarios when it comes to wrestling. What if the Hawkeyes of the early 1990s took on Penn State of the last three years? What if Dan Gable fought a bear? What if Adam Coon had to fight an alien armada by himself? What if the champions from the other divisions were allowed to compete at the NCAA Division I Men’s Wrestling national tournament? 

This last one has been answered in the past. They were allowed up until 1990 and that is why you have Division II athletes among the ranks of All-Americans and champions. With the freshman being grandfathered in, the last athlete to compete in both national tournaments did so in 1994. Most Division II fans know why this happened, his name was Carlton Haselrig. Do you think Division I coaches and athletes liked seeing a wrestler come into their national tournament and dominate for three straight years? He was the end of an era, but what a way to go out. Gone are the days of Division II and III champions getting their shot, but after my first trip to the Division II national tournament, I find myself wondering, what if. If you are wondering as well, read along as I look at the field for each weight class in Pittsburgh and try to decide what would have happened. I am not about to reseed the entire weight class, but I will set them in the bracket somewhere based on their national championship and any Division I competition faced during the season.

I even asked their coaches how they think they would have performed and I love the coach speak I received in each reply. You could tell all of them wanted to say “they would have destroyed the field and then asked the sisters out to dinner” but restrained themselves. I may not be as reasonable looking through my Division II fandom glasses. These student-athletes all impressed me in different ways in Cleveland and I believe their ceilings are very high.

125

Carlos Jacquez (Jr) Lindenwood University

Carlos Jacquez capped off an undefeated season in Division II with a 5-3 finals victory against the very tough Josh Portillo (Nebraska-Kearney). His 30-0 record included 14 bonus point wins and two wins over Division I athletes. Carlos is one of the best wrestlers in Division II at keeping himself in position to score from anywhere. He also has a strong leg attack defense and has shown that he can get away from the best top wrestlers in his weight class in his division. These are all reasons why I think he would have done very well in Pittsburgh. The problem is the top 10 guys at that weight are all very, very good. If we slide Carlos into the pigtail bout, I think he wins and finds himself meeting Sebastian Rivera (Northwestern). He is a bad match for anyone, just look at his wins over eventual champion Spencer Lee (Iowa) last year. That would send Carlos to the backside to do work. If he were instead seeded, I could see him landing in the 15-20 range even with that perfect record. He just did not face enough DI competition to accurately gauge if he should be higher. If he landed 16/17, he has the skills to win a match against Drew Mattin (Michigan) or Devin Schroder (Purdue). That still has him meeting Rivera in the next round though. The matchup I would want to watch on the backside then would be Carlos taking on Rayvon Foley (Michigan State). The winner would head to the round of 12 matches with the chance to be an All-American. Foley had a great run and as well as Carlos wrestled in Cleveland, Foley may have wrestled even better in Pittsburgh. I think that is where the Division II champion’s run would have ended. Carlos has drawn Division I attention from programs who are finally recognizing his talent, but with New Jersey High School Hall of Famer Jimmy Rollins as his head coach, I think he will be even better coming back for his senior season. Rollins is high on his athlete as well and had this to say when I asked if he saw his wrestler as an All-American challenger. 

“I am very confident in how he competes every time out. There is a tremendously deep field in DI and many of them present unique challenges as match ups. I believe he could be a guy challenging for podium spots, but we concentrate on the guy across from us whoever that may be”.

I hope we see more of Carlos Jacquez against Division I wrestler this season, but unless he sees them at the Maryville or Lindenwood Open, this might just remain a “what if.”

133

Tyler Warner (So)

There was not a weight at the national tournament that was as loaded as the 133 class in 2018-19. Tyler Warner was a sophomore who was defeated only once in 2018-19. While not a point scoring machine, he was one of the most complete wrestlers at any weight this last season. Warner is difficult to score on, is one of the best riding technicians in Division II, and has that killer instinct that allows him to find a way to win. He showed it in what looked to be a sure loss against Jordan Gurrola (San Francisco State). He was able to find a way to win against Gurrola who appeared poised to upset the top seed in the second round. Warner battled back, fighting off multiple takedown attempts in the overtime periods to win 4-3 in TB2. After that match, he stayed his steady self and worked his way to the championship. He is one of the best mat wrestlers in the country and has a win in his back pocket over 2018-19 141 All-American Kyle Shoop (Lock Haven) as a freshman up a weight class. His head coach while at Wheeling Jesuit, Danny Irwin, agrees. The architect of the 2018-19 national tournament team runners-up had this to say about his former wrestler’s chances in Pittsburgh. 

“Tyler would be right in the mix for a National Title! He is a great mat wrestler which would allow him to compete with anyone because he doesn’t get held down and puts up ride time points every time out. Fans may think this is wishful thinking because of how tough 133 was. His results his entire life speaks to the fact that he is capable of beating anyone and very rarely has been outscored. The best is yet to come for him as he continues to develop his attack rate from the neutral position.” 

I may not yet be as high on Tyler as coach Irwin, but I think we have yet to see the best he has to offer. Irwin is right, as Tyler develops his attacks on his feet and begins to realize that he does not need to rely solely on his mat skills, he is going to scary good. I am struggling to decide where he would land in this bracket though. Only one person seeded outside the top eight managed to reach All-American status in this bracket and that was the freshman phenom Roman Bravo-Young (Penn State). It was not like he came out of nowhere, he was the tenth seed in the tournament. I believe we could see Tyler in the bracket as a 15th seed, but that would be a tough spot. Frankly, any place outside of the top 12 would be a rough spot in the bracket. I would love to see him in a match against a wrestler like Austin Gomez (Iowa State) or Montorie Bridges (Wyoming) and find out how his mat wrestling would hold up against a wrestler who would push the pace on their feet. It could be a lot of fun. I could see Tyler Warner working his way to the round of 12, but looking at the wrestlers who dropped to the blood round from the championship side I have a hard time picking someone he would have beaten there to be an All-American. Now, ask me in a year and I will probably have a different opinion of his chances at the Division I national tournament.

141

Jose Rodriguez (So) Notre Dame College

I am not sure who was a bigger surprise champion, Andrew Dunn (Kutztown) at heavyweight or the run that fellow sophomore Jose Rodriguez went on at 141 to win his title. Despite not losing a match after mid-November, Jose went into the national tournament an underdog. He needed to win his pigtail match and then defeat two different wrestlers ranked ahead of him entering the competition. He started the national championship on a hot streak and left it on absolute fire. The 2016-17 Division I national qualifier for the Buckeyes has stepped out onto the mat at Division I national tournament and knows precisely what that entails. During the regular season this year, he beat six Division I wrestlers including a 16-8 MD over 2018 EWL champion and national qualifier Evan Cheek (Cleveland State). Jose outscored his opponents 66-16 at the national tournament and for the season scored bonus points in almost 70% of his matches. How he entered the tournament seeded anything lower than third speaks volume to how tough this weight class was at 141. I expect him to be even better this coming season, but I would have loved to see him weigh in and compete in Pittsburgh after the national tournament he had. Jose was a wrestler in complete control of all aspects of his wrestling and would have been a difficult matchup for anyone outside the top four at this weight nationally. Sonny Marchette takes over a Notre Dame College wrestling program that enters the season as our top-ranked squad. He has the best 141 wrestler in Division II to anchor the Falcons in his inaugural season at the head. Everything is coming up Sonny! Three wrestlers that Jose beat are ranked in the top five and they will all get their chance to avenge their postseason loss to the champ, but they had better be ready to wrestle seven minutes in every position. In Pittsburgh, I could see him as a 10-12 seed setting himself up to be just a match away from All-American status. There is not a wrestler who competed in the round of 12 that I cannot see him finding a way to defeat. There are a lot of teams in Division I who missed out on two-time Ohio state champion from Massillon-Perry after his freshman year departure from Ohio State University. It just goes to show that the top wrestlers do not always stay in Division I and that is a great reason to allow them to compete at its biggest stage. Notre Dame College has a history of landing outstanding wrestlers who absolutely can compete at Division I and Jose Rodriguez is no exception.

149

Chris Eddins (Jr) University of Pitt-Johnstown

If there is anyone who can attest to the fact that Division II champions deserve to compete at the Division I national tournament it is University of Pitt-Johnstown head coach Pat Pecora. He was on the mat for Carlton Haselrig’s six NCAA championships. He coached him to three in a row at the Division II and then Division I national tournaments. No one will ever match his 122 straight match win streak or six national championships. He was a seven-time All-American when you add in his third-place finish as a freshman. That is why when back-to-back champion Chris Eddins’ head coach answered my question about how he felt his incredible junior would do at the national tournament, we as wrestling fans should take his answer as the gospel.

 “I believe Chris Eddins, as well as other Division II National Champions, would have done well at the NCAA Division I Wrestling Tournament, but we will never know and that is a shame. Without the opportunity, no one will ever know who could have been the next Carlton Haselrig.”

Let them wrestle! I know that Chris Eddins can wrestle, I watched it first hand in Cleveland. Chris has improved by leaps and bounds since an early sophomore season tech fall defeat at the hands of Brock Zacherl (Clarion). In fact, he has only lost once in the almost two years since that match. He capped off an undefeated junior season by defeating Trey Grine (Tiffin) 7-2. Grine had only lost once previously and made his way to the finals via a major decision and two falls. Chris Eddins controlled the explosive Dragon and showed that he was still the king. The 149 weight class at the national tournament was an absolutely wild ride. It would have been all kinds of fun to throw Chris into the mix. I believe that he would have made his way into the round of 12 and I am not certain there is a wrestler there he would not have had a shot at beating. Chris did not just win matches on his way to an undefeated season, he scored bonus in them at a 70% clip. That is incredible when you realize that the athletes he was competing against knew exactly what his game plan was. Attack, score, and then go ahead and score again.

In his 20 matches before the national tournament, Chris was held to just a decision only three times. Coach Pecora snagged a diamond in the rough when he scooped up the PIAA state champion. I am going to assume that Eddins would have entered the tournament as an 8th or 9th seed. That would put him on a collision path with Jarret Degen (Iowa State) or Justin Oliver (North Carolina State) in the second round and I think he could defeat either of them. A quarterfinal loss to eventual champion Anthony Ashnault (Rutgers) would land him in a round of 12 matches needing just one win to be an All-American. When I look at all the wrestlers in that round, while I know he would be an underdog in some of the matches, I think his skill set has progressed to the point were he a DI wrestler he would have been ranked in the top 16 during the season. That means he is a wrestler who is just one win away from being an All-American. At the national tournament, crazy things happen, and Chris Eddins has enough crazy in my mind to be an All-American. After the round of 12 things get tough again for him though. The consolation quarterfinals would pit him against some excellent wrestlers in their own right and so I see him ending up on the podium in the 7th or 8th range. Do not discount what having a coach in your corner who has been there before can mean to a wrestler.  For me, Pat Pecora is his secret weapon.

157

Matt Malcom (So) University of Nebraska-Kearney

Head coach Dalton Jensen found himself with four finalists Saturday night in Cleveland and Matt Malcom was the wrestler who capped his season off with a national title. The sophomore defeated a very tough weight class to finish first. During the season Matt competed at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas tournament where he went 3-2 and was a round away from placing. Against Division II wrestlers, he lost just one match. Against Division I wrestlers, Matt had a record of 6-4 including a 3-2 loss to Kennedy Monday (UNC). If there is something that defined his season, it was his ability to score points. He managed to score bonus in more than 60% of his wins. When I asked Dalton Jensen about this, he had this to say about his returning national champion. 

“There is no doubt in my mind Matt can compete with the best guys in the country.  His ability to score points is what makes him so special. I believe he outscored his opponents at the NCAA tournament 50-7.  After the season, Matt beat D1 All American, Josh Shields of Arizona State at the US Open in Vegas.” 

He ended his season a roll, winning 20 straight matches including a 16-0 tech fall over my preseason third-ranked wrestler Nate Smalling (McKendree) in the national semifinals. Between Super Regional and the national tournament, Matt won five of his last seven matches by bonus points. Coach Jensen is correct that Matt’s attacking style would pay dividends at the national championship, but looking at the bracket, he might have ended up a victim of just how deep this bracket was. Matt would possibly slate into the 24 to 30 range in the bracket which means his road to the podium would be uphill right away. There were only two matches in this bracket in the first round that went the lower seeded wrestlers way and I think that Matt would have to do most of his work in the consolations to make it into the top eight. Again, this weight is just so crazy that while I see Matt winning a match or even two at the tournament, my best case scenario for him is round of 12. More likely, a respectable 2-2 tournament record and some respect from his Division I opponents.

165

Shane Ruhnke (Sr) Millersville University

Shane Ruhnke ended his match in the finals prematurely in the weirdest possible way. He broke his opponent from UNC Pembroke Rodney Sheppard and ended the bout early on a disqualification for stalling. His tournament stats looked like this: Fall, Fall, Fall, DQ. That is impressive at any level and was indicative of his season as a whole. His 27 wins included 14 falls! His four losses include three to Division I All-Americans including an 8-5 loss to Chance Marsteller (Lock Haven) and Franklin and Marshall alum Rick Durso. The only Division II loss was to Logan Grass (Mercyhurst) in late November and Shane went on to pin and defeat Logan by decision their next two meetings. Shane pinned Evan DeLong (Clarion) in their only meeting and DeLong was in Pittsburgh. Ebed Jarrell (Drexel) was the 12th seed at the national tournament, but they did not meet at the Franklin & Marshall because he medically forfeited out of the open. There would have been any number of Division I lineups that could have benefitted from Shane being a part of their lineup this season. Millersville head coach Kerry Regner answered my question about Shane battling through the loaded 165 weight class in Pittsburgh with this:

 “165 lbs was an extremely deep weight this year at DI. I think it’s difficult to predict the possible success of an individual or to assume someone could or couldn’t compete. We are extremely proud of Shane’s success and believe he is and can be a world class athlete. He dominated his way through the year with wrestling DI, DII, and DIII competition.” 

I am not certain that anyone at any division that was as dominating as Shane at the end of the season, now imagine him taking that momentum into Pittsburgh. It is not crazy to view him as an 11 seed or higher. I can see him taking the same path as UNI All-American Bryce Steiert did in Pittsburgh. A match with Logan Massa (Michigan) would be a stiff test, but the clash of styles would have been fun to watch. As the 10th seed, I see him taking out Isaiah White (Nebraska) and then just needing to earn a win over TeShan Campbell (Ohio State) to be an All-American. Shane Ruhnke is a wrestler I want to see at the national tournament because he would not have been wrestling scared.

174

Connor Craig (So)

I am almost sure that we have not seen the best wrestling out of Connor Craig yet, which is scary because he just finished his sophomore campaign 32-1 going undefeated against Division II opponents. The Cincinnati, Ohio native was only a one-time Ohio state place winner and just a two-time state qualifier. Now he has a trophy on his mantle that says national champion. He continues to improve and his ceiling is so high I think that by the time his senior year rolls around we may be talking about him as one of the best wrestlers in the country at any weight in any division. It is tough to measure him against Division I competition right now though. He has just two matches against wrestlers from the higher division and has yet to win a match. Current West Liberty head coach Danny Irwin was in his corner at Wheeling Jesuit last season has seen first hand his growth, he thinks highly of his champion from last year.

 “Much like Warner, I wouldn’t bet against Craig at 174 no matter who is there! He is so competitive at everything that he does and is just hitting the tip of the iceberg on what he is capable of. He is always threatening to put up back points from every position and is extremely tough to take down due to his counter offense. He can win so many ways and is a nightmare matchup due to his length. If he wasn’t on the podium, I would be disappointed and I know he would share the same sentiment. Every match out last year he looked better and better as he leaves nothing with his preparation to chance.” 

While I can agree on the upside, I am not confident he is quite there yet. The 174 weight class had some very good wrestlers not make the podium this year. That type of chaos may have worked to Craig’s advantage, but given his limited Division I history and the Division I qualifiers I have to wonder if he would crack the top 25 seeds. He is a long and lean wrestler who would give some of these wrestlers problems, especially on top. We can get into why Division I athletes seem to struggle so much from bottom another time, but for now, I am going to have Connor land in the range of a 24 seed. A first-round loss would send him to a consolation bracket full of wrestlers ill-prepared for his skillset. The fun match on his road towards the round of 12 would be against Jacobe Smith (Oklahoma State). I think they would have had a heck of a battle with the winner one step closer to being an All-American. If his path continued along, a round of 12 match with Jordan Kutler (Lehigh) would probably be his undoing. Connor is a gifted athlete who is going to continue to improve, I just hope he lands somewhere that helps him reach his potential.

184

Michael Pixley (Sr) McKendree University

Micheal Pixley began his college career as a Division I wrestling signee. Illinois did not work out for the highly sought-after recruit and neither did a year at Lindsey Wilson. A national championship as a sophomore and then a third-place finish as a junior wrestling for Grand View in the NAIA showed that he was not on his way to being a bust. After another transfer, this time to Division II McKendree, Michael capped off his swan song with a national championship. He did so from the fourth-seed and did it with style. His semifinal match with Jeff Reimel (Kutztown) nearly ended in a fight after he frustrated the top-seed wrestler so badly that things were stopped before the mat took on the shape of a pro wrestling ring. Pixley finished his business in the finals winning 4-1 against Tony Vezzetti (Notre Dame) and will ride off into the sunset with two national titles. I know for a fact that Michael Pixley can wrestle at the Division I level, but in what might seem a little harsh, I wonder if he knows it. If he had found a better fit to start his career, we might have seen him in Pittsburgh as a national qualifier for a program. This year the 184 weight class was absolute anarchy with the two finalists coming from the fifth and sixth seeds. Drew Foster (Northern Iowa) never won a state championship in Iowa but will graduate as a Division I national champion. I wish we could have seen these two wrestle in their careers. When Michael Pixley was at Grandview, they attended the same tournaments but were never in the same brackets. Michael has the resume to be a top 12 seed at the Division I level, which means he would have a great shot at being an All-American.  There was just so much craziness with the fourth seed Emery Parker (Illinois) losing that the backside of this tournament became a murders row for some wrestlers. It would have been poetic to see a match between the two though. Parker took the path we thought Pixley would for the Illini and a battle between the two seniors would be like Michael’s story coming full circle. Could he be an All-American? I know that he could be, but it would all depend on where he landed and the matches along the way.

197

Nicholas Mason (So) Tiffin University

Nicholas Mason was probably not on the map of even the most hardcore Division II wrestling fan before this season. He was a Michigan state wrestling placewinner for Utica High School in Shelby, Michigan. Qualifying for the national tournament for the first time his sophomore year, Mason capped off a 27-4 season by handing returning All-American Vince Dietz (St Cloud State) the only loss of his senior campaign in the finals. If he were from my home state of South Dakota, he would be referred to as “country strong.” When you couple that strength with an incredible motor, you can understand why he was able to wear done Dietz and finish a takedown to win his national championship. I love guys who are a high motor, high-intensity wrestlers and that is an excellent description of Nicholas Mason. His record of 6-9 against Division I opponents will have my detractors calling “foul” on my prediction of his success if allowed to compete at the DI national tournament in Pittsburgh, but to them, I say, “pshaw.”

Nicholas was on hot streak entering Cleveland and he did not cool off one bit. His last loss was to the always dangerous Job Ayala (Wisconsin-Parkside) who put him on his back and finished the match in mid-January. After that Nicholas won 12 straight matches including seven by fall. That is how you build from a defeat. He was peaking at the right time and we all understand the importance of peaking. Frankly, it is all Division I coaches talk about throughout the season. His win over Vince Dietz showed me that he has the skill set to defeat top wrestlers and I expect that he would be able to do it at the Division I tournament too. The winning takedown he scored may have been the only takedown that Dietz allowed all season, and Nicholas straight powered through for it. He pushed and pulled and pressured for two and a half periods and then when he senses the slightest crack in Dietz’s resolve, he took advantage of it and ended it with authority. I am not sure where the wrestler his coach Joe Simcoe calls “Curly” would land in the bracket, I just know he is not a guy I want to meet.

Can you imagine taking a tough quarterfinals loss where you battled into overtime only to lose on a riding time point and then having to step out onto a mat against a guy who is going to spend the next seven minutes doing everything thing he can to break you physically? There is a reason we see guys who make the quarterfinals fall short of All-American status year after year. They can take an emotional loss and then run headfirst into a wrestler who has been fighting for his life on the backside and just gotten stronger. Look at how Josh Hokit (Fresno State) continued to build all tournament long, eventually finishing fifth as the 16th seed. He beat the 11th, 6th, and 5th seeds all on the backside of the bracket with just absolute guts and athleticism. I would not question Nicholas’ toughness to his face and I would be afraid to do it behind his back because almost certainly someone would rat me out. There is no doubt in my mind that he would be competing for a spot on the podium at nationals. The 197 weight class just presents too many opportunities for wrestlers to play the underdog. While he would absolutely struggle with the likes of Bo Nickal (Penn State), Kollin Moore (Ohio State), Preston Weigel (Oklahoma State) I think he would be able to stand toe to toe with the likes of Pat Brucki (Princeton), Jacob Warner (Iowa) and Willie Miklus (Iowa State). I know I would not want to be in a 1-1 match against him in the third period because there is no way he would be slowing down.

Hwt

Andrew Dunn (So) Kutztown University

I have to keep saying it because he graciously reminded me of it after his finals win, but even I did not see the absolute upside of Andrew Dunn at the national tournament. When I looked at the wrestlers in his bracket, it was hard to see anyone besides Kameron Teacher (Notre Dame) or Terrance Fanning (Wheeling Jesuit) winning this tournament. Then they both lost in the semifinals and we had Andrew Dunn versus Jarrod Hinrich (Nebraska-Kearney). Andrew Dunn will enter his junior year as the returning national champion and the top-ranked heavyweight in Division II. Andrew is a little different than your average sophomore though, he spent a year at Southeast Regional Training Center and then two years at Virginia Tech. Dunn is going to be the only junior in the country next year who already has his “old man” strength. He came into college highly recruited after three Beast of the East championships and an undefeated senior campaign. Andrew was a national qualifier for Virginia Tech in 2016-17 and sports a 1-2 career record at the Division I national tournament. That would have improved if he had been allowed to wrestle in Pittsburgh. He was 18-0 against Division II competition and his overall record of 27-2 included losses to only Thomas Haines (Lock Haven) and Youssif Hemida (Maryland). Hemida was an All-American last season and Thomas Haines is a three-time national qualifier. We know he has the talent to defeat Division I competition because he has done it before and been a qualifier in his own right. His coach Rob Fisher was not surprised by his national championship and knows he would be just fine at the national tournament.

“Yes, Andrew shocked the rest of the D2 community.  But he really didn’t shock us one bit. This kid is a true student of the sport of wrestling.  He is a tremendously technically sound wrestler; especially for a heavyweight. The D1 heavyweight weight class was amazingly wide open.  I think Andrew would have had a real and legitimate chance of becoming an All-American. He matches up very well with many of the All-Americans. As we all know.  Anything can happen at HWT! It would have been awesome to see Andrew on the big stage. We are looking forward to two more years of challenging for championships!”

I am not going to disagree with his head coach. There is a better than good chance that Andrew Dunn would have been an All-American in the Division I tournament last season. He matches up so well with nearly all the wrestlers in the round of 12 that I am not certain anyone can discount his chances. He has been to the tournament and has experienced firsthand what it would take to win matches at that level. Imagine a rematch against Sam Stoll (Iowa) with fans witnessing these two big bodies just battling it out in a push-pull fight. I, for one, would have loved to see it.

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