photo courtesy of Richard Immel
One of the biggest storylines of the first month of the collegiate season has been the dominance of true freshman Gable Steveson (Minnesota) at the 285 lb weight class. Initially, Gable was the story because, in the preseason, news trickled out of Minnesota that Steveson would be redshirting. Even though he is a heavyweight, it didn’t seem likely that the Golden Gopher staff would be able to contain a three-time age group world champion in redshirt for the whole year. Wisely, Steveson was sent to the Daktronics Open, then the Bison Open while wrestling unattached. At the Bison Open, Gable met his first significant test as a collegiate wrestler in All-American Tanner Hall (Arizona State). Steveson emerged victorious over the much older Hall with a 3-1 win in sudden victory. The next time Minnesota was in action, they hosted Oklahoma State, which turned out to be the unveiling of Steveson officially in the Gopher lineup. Gable picked up another win over a top-flight 285 lber when he downed Derek White by the score of 8-2. That match eliminated any chance of a redshirt for the 2018-19 season and showed that Steveson would be unleashed as a true freshman. Just two weeks ago, Gable ran through the field at the Cliff Keen Invitational, allowing only one opponent to keep him to a regular decision.
With Gable’s youth and talent, we should just hand him the next four NCAA titles right? Maybe that’s how it will ultimately play out, but if you were paying attention to the rest of the field in Las Vegas, it was littered with excellent freshmen. In fact, the top three placers at the tournament were all in their first year of college competition. As I was scanning results and even checking out high school results, it hit me that over the next few years we could be in for something unprecedented with regards to true NCAA title threats at the 285 lb weight class.
At the beginning of the season when you are scanning through the weight classes, 197 lbs and 285 lbs never seem to be deep with talent because the contenders tend to be upperclassmen. This year was no different as Sam Stoll’s (Iowa) fifth-place finish at the 2018 NCAA Championships made him the highest returning placewinner at the weight class. Also returning were Nick Nevills (Penn State) and Youssif Hemida (Maryland). With Coon and Snyder atop the weight class, none of these three were really seen as a title threat in the past. Just last week news broke that Amar Dhesi (Oregon State) would be returning to the OSU lineup. Dhesi was third last year and will most likely take over the top spot in the rankings once he actually takes the mat for the Beavers. The return of the Canadian world team member Dhesi sparked questions about whether he could be the guy that stops the title run of the freshman, Steveson.
When you look at the history of the 285 lb weight class and even going back to the late 1990s when it was still 275 lbs, the weight class is pretty consistent. You typically see an upper echelon of two or three true title contenders, guys who have either already won a title or wrestled in the finals, and then a bunch of seniors rotates in as the classes before them graduate. In the early 2000s there was Tommy Rowlands (Ohio State) and Steve Mocco (Iowa), then Mocco (Oklahoma State)/Cole Konrad (Minnesota), with an occasional Garrett Lowney (Minnesota) or Greg Wagner (Michigan) thrown in. For a few years after Konrad’s graduation the weight class was up for grabs, then came Zach Rey (Lehigh), Tony Nelson (Minnesota), Nick Gwaizdowski (NC State), Adam Coon (Michigan), and Kyle Snyder (Ohio State).
With Snyder and Coon gone it looked like we could be on the verge of having a repeat of the “up-for-grabs era” of 2008-10 at the weight class. However, upon further review, this could be the beginning of the renaissance of the 285 lb division. It isn’t just one wrestler either, it’s a large group of wrestlers that will most likely be at the top of the NCAA rankings for the next four-plus years. This new era isn’t isolated to the five freshmen currently in the national rankings, there’s plenty more in the pipeline, in various stages of development, as well.
Gable Steveson (Minnesota)
Of course, as detailed above Steveson will be an NCAA title favorite for his entire collegiate career. The only problem could be if he gets to be “too good” for college. It’s very possible that Gable will be able to take a redshirt next season in preparation for the 2020 Olympic Games. Steveson has won two Cadet world titles and a Junior crown in 2017, so could success on the Senior level be far off? This year before he ever stepped on a college mat, Gable finished second in the challenge tournament at the Senior World Team Trials. In that tournament, he picked up a win over two-time All-American Dom Bradley whos also a two-time US Open Champion at the Senior level. Of course with two-time world medalist Nick Gwiazdowski, Adam Coon, and Tony Nelson still on the freestyle scene, chances of making the 2020 Olympic team are still slim. However, if he did or even if he is close to making the team, could that encourage Gable to focus solely on freestyle?
Before we hand out NCAA titles, there will still be a solid group of veterans that Gable will need to go through to win his first in 2018-19. Dhesi, Stoll, and now Anthony Cassar (Penn State) have emerged as the biggest threats to Steveson this year.
Currently Ranked Freshmen
Trent Hillger (Wisconsin)
For some reason, despite a 23-6 season while redshirting in 2017-18, Hillger slipped under the radar, a bit. Admittedly an 0-2 performance at the Midlands probably didn’t help the matter, however, after that tournament, Trent won his final three opens of the year and finished his redshirt campaign on a 12-match winning streak. Coming out of high school Hillger was a three-time Michigan state champion and was ranked fourth at 285 lbs. In his first season competing for the Badgers, Hillger opened his college career with a 3-0 win over NCAA qualifier Jake Gunning (Buffalo). Through early December he has yet to lose an official match and owns victories over a pair of freshmen on this list (Orndorff, Singletary). Like Steveson, Hillger has displayed a bit of showman. After his come from behind victory over Orndorff, Trent did a Thor’s hammer celebration that may have led to the nickname Thor.
Tate Orndorff (Utah Valley)
If you were really paying close attention this spring, you might have been able to see that Tate Orndorff was ready to make an impact in 2018-19. Tate made the US Open Greco-Roman finals, falling to the eventual world silver medalist Adam Coon. Later on at the World Team Trials, Orndorff made the finals of the challenge mini-tournament but fell to Coon again. Unlike anyone else on this list, Tate is a 2015 high school graduate who went on to spend the next two years on an LDS mission. In high school, Orndorff was a two-time Washington state champion and placed multiple times in Fargo. Last year, Tate redshirted for the Wolverines and put together a respectable 15-6 record while defeating two NCAA qualifiers (AJ Nevills – Fresno State and Malik McDonald – NC State).
In his first year competing officially for Utah Valley, Tate immediately let his presence be known with an upset of top-ten ranked Thomas Haines (Lock Haven) during UVU’s first weekend of action. After losing to Hillger, Tate’s next competition was the CKLV Invitational where he made the finals, losing to Steveson. Currently, Orndorff sits at number eight in the national rankings and sports a 12-3 record.
Zach Elam (Missouri)
Like Steveson, Zach Elam is a true freshman and graduate of the Class of 2018, where he was ranked 44th amongst all seniors. This summer Zach got his first taste of international competition when he filled in for an injured Daniel Kerkvliet and took full advantage of his opportunity, making it all the way to the UWW Junior world finals in freestyle before settling for the silver medal. Just a year before that, Elam captured his first Junior National freestyle title in Fargo.
In his first three matches for Mizzou, all duals, Elam showed that he was ready for DI wrestling, but we weren’t sure just how ready he was. In Vegas, Zach lost a one-point match in the Round of 32 and then fought back winning eight straight matches to take third place. That trek back through the consolations, directly after losing his first collegiate bout, tells me all I need to know about the toughness and resolve of this young Tiger. Of course, since Zach was a high school 220 lber less than a year ago, he will be well served by adding some bulk to his large frame during the coming months and years.
Chase Singletary (Ohio State)
Another wrestler on this list that is continuing to grow into the weight class is Chase Singletary. In 2013-14, as a high school freshman, Singletary was a 160 lber. He would eventually fill out into a 220 lber, but still could be looking to put on more mass. Chase redshirted last season and amassed a sparkling 21-3 record which featured championships at the Princeton Open and the Purple Raider Open. Expectations were high for Singletary heading into this year; however, they became tempered a bit after a wrestle-off loss to teammate Gary Traub. Chase responded well to the loss though by winning the Michigan State Open followed by the Ohio Intercollegiate Open, placing higher that Traub at the latter.
Even though he carried a 10-0 record into Las Vegas, Chase did not have any signature wins and therefore was relegated to being unseeded. The lack of big wins didn’t last for long as Singletary knocked off the second-seeded Conan Jennings (Northwestern) in the second round and followed that with a second upset, this he pinned the seventh seed Matt Stencel (Central Michigan). In the semi’s Chase finally was defeated by Orndorff and then was pinned by Elam. In the match with Elam, it appeared that Chase injured his knee badly and he would medically forfeit the fifth-place bout. Remarkably, there was no serious damage, and Singletary would wrestle in the Buckeye next meet, less than a week later. Chase has checked in at the 15th spot in the latest national rankings.
The Redshirting Crew
Anthony Cassioppi (Iowa)
In the most recent “Top Ten College Performances of the Week” Anthony Cassioppi checked in a number seven after his third open tournament championship of the year. He has now won the UNI Open, the Lindenwood Open, and the Grand View Open. In 11 matches Cassioppi has racked up 10 falls and a major decision. While his competition is admittedly not the same others on this list, 10 pins in 11 matches is a crazy rate.
During each of Anthony’s last two years of high school, he captured the Triple Crown (Folkstyle, Freestyle, and Greco National Titles). He also went 100-0 those final two years of official high school competition and did not surrender a single takedown. Over the past year, the only blemish on Cassioppi’s record is a 12-2 loss to Steveson in the Junior World Team Trials finals in freestyle. Suffice to say that if Stoll did not have a year of eligibility in 2018-19, Anthony would be ready to go out and win matches immediately for Iowa.
Mason Parris (Michigan)
Along with Elam, Mason Parris is another high school 220 lber from the Class of 2018. Parris has the type of athleticism that is rarely found in the 285 lb weight class, which had also made him a Big Ten recruit on the football field. Mason’s explosiveness makes him a candidate to end up in a highlight video anytime he steps onto a mat. Though the Wolverines are inexperienced at 285 lbs, it appears as if they will resist the urge to start Parris in 2018-19. It must be tempting as Mason won the Michigan State Open, the first weekend of the season. The MSU Open title featured a 14 second (!!!) fall over 16th ranked Matt Stencel (Central Michigan). In his only other competition of the season, Mason suffered a 15-9 loss to Singletary at the Ohio Intercollegiate Open. At that point in time, Singletary had not broken out at Vegas so the loss may have looked worse than it actually was.
Seth Nevills (Penn State)
Seth is the latest in the line of Nevills 285 lbers. Technically, Seth is taking a grayshirt this season, so he would have a redshirt available next year for the Nittany Lions or sometime down the road if needed. There have been rumblings that Cassar may try for a sixth-year of eligibility in 2019-20, so there is a possibility that Seth could take that redshirt next year. Nevills has seen action this year at the Clarion Open where he lost to Demetrius Thomas (Pittsburgh) 9-7 in the first round. Thomas is currently ranked 11th in the nation, so that is far from a bad loss. He then fell to Jake Evans (Waynesburg) who did win a DIII national title in 2017-18. Again, on the surface, Evans name may not ring a bell to casual fans, but it isn’t a terrible loss for a freshman (grayshirt) at his first tournament of the year.
Nevills’ high school career was among the best in the long, storied history of California wrestling. Seth became only the third wrestler in state history to win four state titles. A loss to an out of state opponent (who is featured later in this list) during his senior season was the only defeat in high school competition for Nevills.
Colin Lawler (NC State)
This name may not be as familiar as Cassioppi, Parris, and Nevills, but let’s just call it a hunch. So far, while wrestling unattached Lawler has accumulated a 12-1 record, with his only loss coming during his first competition. Last weekend Collin won his first open tournament with was highlighted by a 3-2 win over Matt Voss (George Mason) an NCAA qualifier that was ranked in the top ten, at the time of the match. During that competition, he also shut out Niko Camacho (American) the opponent that is responsible for the only loss of Elam’s season thus far. At the high school level in 2017-18, Collin became the first wrestler from the Houston, TX area to win a National Prep championship. He did so by pinning his way through the tournament.
Not all heavyweights come out of the gate and become All-Americans as freshmen. The majority of them develop over time, and it all comes together as juniors or seniors. I could see this being the case with Lawler. Given the room that he is in with Gwiazdowski and 2018 NCAA Champion Michael Macchiavello still training with the Wolfpack Wrestling Club, it’s not hard to imagine a young heavyweight having success.
The Class of 2019
Daniel Greg Kerkvliet (Ohio State)
The top recruit in the Class of 2019 Daniel Kerkvliet is currently a 220 lber that will most likely grow into a college heavyweight. He’s tall and long-limbed, so it’s not hard to imagine him packing on 20-25 pounds once in a DI weight room, while still maintaining the quickness that separates him from his peers.
Kerkvliet is a three-time Minnesota state champion that actually bumped up to heavyweight for a super-match last season with Steveson. Although Gable would come out on top 3-2, it was Steveson’s closest match of the year. Daniel went to the Cadet World Championships in July and came up just short in his attempt to win a second consecutive Cadet world title. He would end up with the silver medal. Kerkvliet also made the Junior world team with a dominating performance over Elam; however, a knee injury prevented him from wrestling in the event, and Elam replaced him and took second.
The big question for the Buckeyes is how to fit Kerkvliet and Singletary in the lineup. If Kerkvliet would enroll and redshirt next year, he would still overlap Chase by two seasons. That is a great problem to have, though these things typically have a way of working themselves out on their own.
Cohlton Schultz (Arizona State)
Right on Kerkvliet’s heels in the recruiting rankings is three-time Colorado state champion, Cohlton Schultz. Last week at the Walsh Ironman, toughest in-season high school tournament of the year, Schultz won a title for the second consecutive season. At that event, Schultz pinned his way to the finals, with none of those first four opponents making it out of the first period. For the championship, Colton shut down fifth-ranked John Birchmeier 6-0. Last season at the Doc Buchanan Invitational, he handed Seth Nevills the only loss of his high school career.
During the offseason, the bulk of Schultz attention has been focused on Greco. This summer he was a member of the Junior World team, where he picked up a bronze medal, as well as the U23 world team. A year ago he won a Cadet World Championship, the first by an American wrestler in Greco since Joshua Etu in 1997. Of course with his success in Greco, it begs the question will Cohlton wrestle folkstyle for four years with the Sun Devils? Adam Coon’s recent success reinforced that it is possible for a heavyweight to transition smoothly from the college ranks to the international scene with Greco. Schultz is not like a lot of wrestlers on this list who will be attempting to grow into the weight class. He is more of your typical 285 lber.
The HS Juniors
We’re really digging deep now mentioning current high school juniors, but the two we’ll discuss should be able to compete right away at the DI level if needed. In another era, either of these two could be seen as a ‘once-in-a-generation type talent”.
Nash Hutmacher (Chamberlain, SD–Uncommitted)
Already a two-time South Dakota state champion, the biggest fight from the DI coaches that are recruiting Nash may come from the DI football coaches also seeking his services. Even for a high school junior, Hutmacher is physically imposing and looks like he would fit in a DI room. Google will lead you to some of the impressive feats that Hutmacher has been able to pull off in the weight room.
This isn’t just a workout warrior though, Nash has it all on the mat, as well. This summer while competing against wrestlers one and two years older than he, Hutmacher finished as the runner-up in Fargo in Junior Freestyle to Cassioppi. On his way to the finals, Nash teched two opponents who are now senior ranked in the top eight nationally. Over the past two years, he has been undefeated while competing in freestyle at the Junior National Duals.
Braxton Amos (Parkersburg South, WV–Uncommitted)
Before the start of the high school season, some observers thought that Braxton Amos would move down to 195 lbs after competing at 220 pounds last year. Amos started the season off by dominating the field at the Walsh Ironman and collecting his second title at the tournament. Though he might be able to make 195 and then 197 lbs in college, I see him ultimately ending up as a 285 lber. Braxton has a good mix of physicality and technical acumen which we serve him well at the next level.
Not only does Amos have two Ironman titles on his resume already, but he also has two Super 32 belts and two double titles in Fargo. The only blip on the radar within the last year for Braxton was in Akron at the Cadet World Team Trials where he lost to Jacob Cardenas in the first round, then later avenged the loss in the consolations.
Current College Sophomores
These guys are sophomores that have already made a mark at the DI level. We expect them to move up the ranks over the next year, as the weight class clears out from graduation, and they will be a factor in fights for a spot on the podium over the next three years. We won’t go as in depth with these three gentlemen, as you are probably more familiar with them than the rest.
Jordan Wood (Lehigh)
Wood won an EIWA title as a freshman and advanced to the NCAA Round of 12 last year before his elimination. For his work in the regular season, Jordan was awarded the 10th seed at nationals.
AJ Nevills (Fresno State)
The older brother of Seth, AJ Nevills was a Big 12 finalist for Fresno State in the first year of the revived wrestling program. He did not win a match in his first trip to the NCAA Championships, though he did meet the number four and 13 seeds.
Matt Stencel (Central Michigan)
Stencel qualified for the 2018 NCAA Championships with his win at the MAC Championships. Though he had the 16th seed, Matt was eliminated without having won a match.