Photos by Mark Lundy, LutteLens.com
In recent years, the Midlands has owned December 29th and 30th, closing out the year as the high profile college wrestling event. This year, they shared the stage with the South Beach Duals. The new event did not feature the depth or prestige of the historic tournament hosted by Northwestern, but it did provide some wildly entertaining wrestling to complement all the fun near Chicago. As we head into the new year, here are the top nine performances from the final week of 2017!
9) Nothing but Ws
It wasn’t always pretty, but Mason Smith (Central Michigan) scrapped his way to a Midlands title. The long 141 pounder used a stingy defense and timely offense to outscore his foes 39-6 over six matches, yielding more than one point to an opponent just once, in his dramatic semifinal win over 11th ranked Ty Smith (Bucknell). His title bout wouldn’t be nearly as close as Smith gave 15th ranked Cole Weaver (Indiana) nothing, shutting out the Hoosier, 6-0, to claim victory. The strong weekend pushed the sophomore’s record to a steller 23-3. The win total is just one short of his season total from 2016-17.
8) Magic neck brace?
It still looks a little strange when Grant Leeth (Missouri) takes the mat wearing his neck brace. However, watching him earn big wins for the Tigers is fast becoming commonplace. At the South Beach Duals, the junior ground out four more wins to run his record to 13-2 on the season. In the process, he did something almost no one else has been able to do in 2017-18, beat fourth-ranked Troy Heilmann (North Carolina). The vastly improved Heilmann was 15-1 heading to Florida with a litany of good wins. However, Leeth dismissed the Tar Heel just as he does the vast majority of his opponents, putting up a takedown in each of the last two periods to secure a 6-3 decision. His performance helped Missouri go undefeated on the road trip.
7) Quick work, mostly
En route to the finals at the Midlands, second-ranked Michael Kemerer (Iowa) made it look easy. He didn’t allow an opponent past the first period until the quarter-finals, pinned his opponent there, Jake Danishek (Indiana) in the second, then crushed 13th ranked Justin Staudenmayer (Brown), 19-4, in the semis. The road got much more difficult in the title tilt against fourth-ranked Josh Shields (Arizona State) who has been outstanding this season, but even then, Kemerer was up to the task. In the final bout of the tournament, the Hawkeye scored an early takedown and never looked to be in danger, riding Shields for much of the second period, then cruising to a 5-2 win. Kemerer’s four falls in 9:54 also earned him the most falls in the last amount of time award.
6) Unexpected vengeance
Emery Parker (Illinois) was supposed to get to the semi-finals, as the three seed, which he did, surviving a stiff test from Anthony Mancini (Franklin & Marshall) in the opening round, then looking a little more in control during his next two victories. In the semis, he met second-seeded Nick Gravina (Rutgers). This one was tied at one in the third when Gravina was injured, granting Parker choice of position. He took advantage to get his second escape of the bout and win, 2-1. Having had to battle just to reach the final, Parker would then have to face a man he probably assumed he was done with in folkstyle. Two-time Indiana All-American Nate Jackson was a senior last season and beat Parker three times, including close matches at both the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments. This time, the Illini junior got his revenge, wrestling his best bout of the tournament to win it by a surprisingly comfortable score of 8-2.
5) How’s the rehab going?
The Iowa Hawkeyes do not face the most stringent early season schedule so Sam Stoll’s rehabilitated knee had yet to be tested by a ranked foe as he headed to the Midlands. After his first two opponents were disqualified for stalling and he cruised to a 17-5 major decision in the quarters, Stoll finally got his first shot at a ranked opponent and looked great, beating 14th ranked Conan Jennings (Northwestern), 8-2. In the finals against 2017 All-American Tanner Hall (Arizona State), currently ranked third, the junior acquitted himself well, going toe-to-toe with the Sun Devil before a controversial penalty point pushed him over the top for a 2-1 win. Stoll winning and staying healthy has to be a pleasant sight for Hawkeye fans who had a lot to be happy about last weekend.
4) The time is now
Freshman Ben Darmstadt (Cornell) has been biding his time, waiting for an opportunity to take over the starting spot at 197 for the Big Red. Junior Ben Honis got the call in Vegas, but Darmstadt’s performance made it clear he’d get a shot. At the South Beach Duals, Ben started all four matches and staked his claim as not only a starter, but an All-American contender. On day one, he continued putting up bonus points, he entered the weekend having just one regular decision victory, with a 13-4 major decision and a pin of Bobby Steveson (Minnesota) to help Cornell come from behind against the Gophers. On Saturday, he handled 2016 NCAA qualifier Kyle Conel (Kent State), 13-6, then upset second-ranked Willie Miklus (Missouri), 9-0, in a dominant performance. Darmstadt rode the two-time All-American for more than six minutes, never letting Miklus get away.
3) Not just keeping the spot warm
The arrival of talented true freshmen always gets the fans excited. However, sometimes even those with a bright future have their work cut out for them just to earn a spot in the lineup. Such is the case for Jacob Warner at Iowa who is still looking up at the ever-improving Cash Wilcke. The sophomore who did not get in to the national tournament last season until Jake Smith (West Virginia) withdrew due to injury, then reached the round of 12, began the year with many wondering if he’d be able to keep his starting job. He narrowly lost to Warner in the wrestle-offs, then went undefeated through a relatively soft early schedule. He passed his biggest test of the season, scrapping his way to a Midlands title, beating Warner again and then knocking off 11th ranked Frank Mattiace (Penn) in the final. Wilcke is now 12-0 in 2017-18. Suddenly, the discussion isn’t how long he can hold the spot, but how high can he climb?
2) Accomplishing a program first in style
The top-ranked wrestler in the country at 133 pounds put on a show at the Midlands, crushing the field to the tune of two pins and four tech-falls. Seth Gross (South Dakota State) had only gone the distance in two bouts this year heading to Chicago and he didn’t need a full seven in any match this weekend en route to the podium’s top-step. To cap off his dominant performance, he rolled to a 10-0 lead, then pinned Bryan Lantry (Buffalo), who had an impressive performance of his own, in just 2:47 in the finals. Gross became the first ever Midlands champion from South Dakota State and was named Outstanding Wrestler.