Center and right photos by Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com
NCAA wrestling returned this week and there was competition across the country. The feast included intriguing duals and fascinating open tournaments, giving us a first look at the new rules, true freshman, and who made big strides over the summer. November is a wonderful time to be a fan of the greatest sport in the land and this weekend presented a smorgasbord of wrestling to binge upon. When the dust cleared, these eight wrestlers distinguished themselves from the rest with outstanding performances. Without further ado, we present the top performances from week one.
9) Gustafson Comes Out Hot
Gustafson won an ACC title as a true freshman but hasn’t been back to the NCAA tournament since. Last year he looked like he was getting back to that level, going 21-8, but fell just short. If his opening weekend is any indication, his senior season should end in Cleveland. When he rolled past Gabe Townsell (Stanford), a 2017 NCAA qualifier at 125, 12-1 in a dual on Saturday, it was fair to wonder if Townsell might just be too small, but Gustafson continued making a statement at the Hokie Open on Sunday. Dennis took the title, getting past Cam Kelly (Ohio), a 2016 NCAA qualifier that was in the top 20 at times last season, 9-7 in the final.
8) Young Panther Heavyweight Makes a Statement
Many of the heavyweights from programs around Iowa competed at the Harold Nichols Cyclone Open on Saturday. In the end, Carter Isley (Northern Iowa) stood alone on top of the podium. The redshirt freshman made his way to the finals with three consecutive falls including pinning 2016 NAIA national champion Dean Broghammer (Grand View) and Gannon Gremmel (Iowa State), another redshirt freshman looking to have a big career. Isley finished his tour of Iowa by taking down another Cyclone heavyweight, Marcus Harrington. 3-2 in the finals.
7) Virginia 125 Wins Clarion Open Again
When All-American Jack Mueller moved up to 133 pounds for Virginia, it made room for Louie Hayes at 125. There might be less of a drop off in production at the lightest weight for the Hoos than many would have thought. Hayes entered the Clarion Open as the number five seed with talented redshirt freshman Taylor LaMont (Utah Valley), former national finalist Zeke Moisey (West Virginia), in addition to a pair of 2017 national qualifiers, Jake Gromacki (Pitt) and Elijah Oliver (Indiana), in the field. Hayes ran the gauntlet, surviving competitive matches against Oliver, LaMont, and Gromacki after a pair of lopsided matches to open his season. In the end, Hayes stood where Mueller did last season as the 125-pound Clarion Open champion.
6) Gopher Killer
Another redshirt freshman Chad Red (Nebraska) was impressive to open his first official NCAA season. Red played catch and release in an opening 11-5 win, then faced three consecutive wrestlers from Minnesota on his way to a Daktronics Open title. First, Red dispatched true freshman Brent Jones, pinning the Gopher in 3:22. Junior Gannon Volk was next, but Red dealt with him too, scoring a pair of takedowns in a 6-1 victory. The finals match was supposed to be much more difficult as Red squared off with sixth-ranked Tommy Thorn. It was. Red and Thorn battled into overtime tied at three before Chad found a clean attack that threatened to end the match. Thorn went to some funk to save him but got caught on his back, triggering the new danger zone rule for one of the few times all weekend. The takedown was good and Red won the title, 5-3.
5) Senior Making Big Strides
After beginning his college career at 184 and spending the bulk of his time at 197, Brett Dempsey moved up to heavyweight last year for American. He was solid as the starter in 2016-17, but it may have taken him a year to grow into the weight. Dempsey, a redshirt senior, faced a pair of ranked opponents on Sunday and notched two of the biggest wins he has had to date. First, the Kalamazoo, Michigan native got past 19th ranked Gage Hutchison (Eastern Michigan), 6-4. Then, Dempsey took out 13th ranked Jere Heino as American beat Campbell, 22-10. Beating a pair of 2017 NCAA qualifiers is quite a statement for a wrestler who has hovered around .500 for his career.
4) The Incumbent Holds His Ground
Five wrestlers from Arizona State entered the Michigan State Open on Sunday and the starting job certainly seemed to be up for grabs despite last year’s starter Josh Shields returning after earning the ninth seed at nationals last spring. Shields won the wrestle-off mini-tournament, but this was the first live competition against other schools. The sophomore from Murrysville, Pennsylvania continued to prove this is his spot. As the other contenders fell away, Shields just kept winning, finishing the tournament 4-0 with closing wins over 15th ranked Andrew Crone (Wisconsin) and number 11 Colin Heffernan (Central Michigan). Some wrestlers don’t respond well to their starting positions being in jeopardy. So far, Shields is thriving on the competition.
3) Nothing Worthwhile is Easy
Many times an early season tournament for a returning All-American is more of a dress rehearsal, a chance to make weight, steamroll some lesser opponents, then maybe get a tough match in late in the day. Myles Amine (Michigan) did not have that sort of easy road on Sunday, but he made it look simple enough. The 2017 NCAA fourth-place finisher opened with Jacob Covaciu (Wisconsin), a redshirt freshman who went 21-2 last season. That one ended 12-3 in favor of Amine. Next up was Oklahoma’s Yoanse Mejias, a two-time NJCAA national champion who made it to St. Louis at 165 last season. Amine scored another major decision, 10-2. Finally, 10th ranked Drew Hughes (Michigan State), a hammer on top, awaited in the finals. Amine dispatched him, too, 20-6. With a Michigan State Open title to open the season, the sophomore looks ready to compete with anyone in the country.
2) True Freshman Looks Ready for Prime Time
Mikey Labriola (Nebraska) was an elite recruit coming out of Bethlehem Catholic in Pennsylvania. The first competition of his true freshman season did nothing to dampen the expectations for his college career. Labriola got his first taste of NCAA opposition at the Daktronics Open and he must have been salivating for more. After a pair of tech-falls in which he ran up 49 total points, he earned a workmanlike, 7-4, win over Chris Pfarr (Minnesota) to book his spot in the finals. It would have been understandable if that was the end of his run since 14th ranked David Kocer (South Dakota State), a two-time NCAA qualifier, would be waiting in the finals. Instead, Labriola stormed out to a 6-2 lead with three first period takedowns before coasting to a 7-3 victory and the tournament title. The Cornhuskers may redshirt Labriola, but when he gets the call, he looks like he’ll be more than ready.