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College Wrestling News

What Could’ve Been….

Lewis_Mekhi

photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com

Today should be the best day of the wrestling calendar. The Friday of the NCAA Championships has the quarterfinals in the morning, followed by the bloodround and semifinals in the evening. While the finals can be great, they are sometimes even anticlimactic. In some years, you’re more likely to see something memorable on Friday rather than Saturday. Either way, because of the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Wrestling Championships, 330 DI wrestlers were robbed of a chance to compete for national championships and All-American honors. Us fans, we are unable to enjoy our favorite three days of the year. Whether you’re sitting matside, up in the farthest reaches of the arena, or enjoying it from home, the NCAA Wrestling Championships are the best entertainment in sports. I challenge someone to change my mind, because it’s not possible. As the kids said last year, “Don’t @ me.” 

Now that we have no wrestling to follow in mid-March, we’re forced to rely on virtual NCAA Tournaments (which are fun). In true wrestling spirit, some on social media have gotten annoyed if they or their wrestler was projected to lose in these hypothetical matches. My favorites have been the wrestlers who have played along and made comments like they attribute their fake loss to a “bad weight cut.” 

As I’m sitting here, following along with fake tournaments, I’ve channeled my inner Rascal Flatts and what hurts the most is thinking of “what could have been” for the 2020 NCAA Championships. 

– Iowa winning its first national title since the 2010 season

– Tom Brands winning his fourth national title as a head coach and first without the combined crew he inherited and brought from Virginia Tech.

– Spencer Lee’s quest for four national titles. It’s still odd that an Iowa wrestler hasn’t accomplished the feat with the way the school is all over the NCAA record book.

– Despite being heavy favorites, the Hawkeyes had some much-maligned team members that would possibly have shedded the reputation of “inconsistent.” Max Murin, Abe Assad, and Jacob Warner come to mind. With a one-loss season, you can argue that Pat Lugo already rose above this status.

– Cael Magic? Aside from 2015, the odds were never stacked higher against Cael Sanderson’s Penn State team since their run of titles started in 2011. With five title contenders like Roman Bravo-Young, Nick Lee, Vincenzo Joseph, Mark Hall, and Aaron Brooks, you never know…

– The senior class of 2020 will yield zero four-time All-Americans. While the four-time AA goal is downplayed by some active athletes. It’s a mark that demonstrates consistency, longevity, and the ability to come at a high level from day one. Matt Kolodzik (Princeton), Vincenzo Joseph (Penn State), Mark Hall (Penn State), David McFadden (Virginia Tech), and Kollin Moore (Ohio State) were all seniors that were in-line to join the club this season. In Kolodzik and McFadden’s case, they would have been the first in school history. 

– Every year since 2014, we have seen at least one freshman come away with an NCAA title. Sometimes those freshmen are easy to spot like Isaiah Martinez (Illinois) in 2015 or Spencer Lee in 2018. Last year, Mekhi Lewis (Virginia Tech) shocked the wrestling world and kept the streak going. Who would it have been in 2020? Real Woods (Stanford), Sammy Sasso (Ohio State), David Carr (Iowa State), Shane Griffith (Stanford), Travis Wittlake (Oklahoma State), Trent Hidlay (NC State), Aaron Brooks (Penn State), or Anthony Cassioppi (Iowa). Each of these talented freshmen were seeded in the top-four of their weight class and could have put it together at the right time.

– We’ve mentioned a few Ohio State wrestlers already and the Buckeyes had a team that was made for large tournaments. Though they had a few holes, a pair of number one seeds, Moore and Luke Pletcher, along with Sasso, gave Tom Ryan’s team three legitimate national title threats. OSU has never crowned three national champions in the same year. With extraordinary performances from their big three, strong efforts by Kaleb Romero, Ethan Smith, and Gary Traub, and a few stumbles by Iowa and Penn State, maybe the Buckeye threaten for the top spot?

– Earlier, we mentioned Mekhi Lewis winning a title for Virginia Tech. He was the first national champion in program history for the Hokies. Two matches later, Drew Foster became Northern Iowa’s first champ in 20 years. After such prolonged title droughts, this season, both squads had the opportunity to go back-to-back. Strangely enough, their best title threats both came at 184 lbs. The Panthers had top seed Taylor Lujan and Virginia Tech’s Hunter Bolen was number two. 

– Other teams with legitimate chances at ending long NCAA title-less streaks were:

Princeton. The Tigers had Patrick Glory (2nd), Matt Kolodzik (6th), Quincy Monday (5th), and Patrick Brucki (8th), all looking to become the school’s first national champion since Brad Glass in 1951. 

Virginia. Though it may have been a long-shot with Spencer Lee in the mix. Jack Mueller was trying to become the Cavaliers first-ever national champion. 

Pittsburgh. With the Big Ten crew getting most of the attention at 133 lbs, Micky Phillipi quietly went about his business and grabbed the #4 seed. He could have been the Panthers first national champion since his head coach Keith Gavin did so in 2007. 

Stanford. Matt Gentry was the school’s first and only national champion, to date, in 2004. Highly seeded freshmen like Woods and Griffith make it seem like that club with grow in the near future.

North Carolina. Austin O’Connor started the year ranked number one, as the highest returning placewinner at 149 lbs. He owns career victories over most of the major players at the weight class, so it wouldn’t have been far-fetched to see him become the Tar Heels first champion since TJ Jaworsky in 1995.

Rider. Maybe Ryan Deakin coasts to an NCAA title. But, perhaps he doesn’t. If Deakin would have stumbled, why not Jesse Dellavecchia the fourth seed? A year after Rutgers crowns their first champion, does another Jersey school follow suit?

Binghamton. After Zahid Valencia was suspended, we kept repeating the phrase, “184 lbs is wiiiide open”. There’s no reason why Louie DePrez couldn’t have been atop the podium at the weight class on Saturday night. If so, he would have been the Bearcats first national champion.

West Virginia. As a freshman, Noah Adams had a record that was barely above .500. A year later, he was ready to travel to Minnesota as the undefeated, second seed. While Kollin Moore would have made for a formidable opponent, Adams had the opportunity to be the Mountaineers first national champion since Greg Jones won his third in 2005. 

– After the 2019 tournament, I introduced you to “My favorite wrestlers.” While you have downtime waiting for the 2020-21 season to start, re-read that one…Now that you’re done, we have a handful of wrestlers that could have joined this exclusive fraternity in 2020. Jack Mueller, Nick Piccininni (Oklahoma State), Chas Tucker (Cornell), Luke Pletcher, Pat Lugo, Jesse Dellavecchia, Isaiah White (Nebraska), Bryce Steiert (Northern Iowa), Jordan Kutler (Lehigh), Dylan Lydy (Purdue), Taylor Lujan, Kollin Moore, and Tanner Hall (Arizona State).

– Equally as heartbreaking is thinking of the elite seniors that didn’t get the opportunity to AA for the first time. Taylor Lujan, the top seed at 184, is the first that comes to mind, but unfortunately, there’s more. Dylan Lydy has been knocking on the door for the last two years and looked like he’d leave nothing to doubt, as the fourth seed. Chas Tucker was unbeaten and a two-time EIWA champion that was overlooked in the brutal 133 lb weight class. Some other notables that come to mind are #11 Cam Sykora (North Dakota State), #9 Noah Gonser (Campbell), #9 Tristan Moran (Wisconsin), #9 Collin Purinton (Nebraska), #11 Brock Zacherl (Clarion), #14 Andrew Fogarty (North Dakota State), #8 Andrew Morgan (Campbell), #6 Christian Brunner (Purdue),#7 Demetrius Thomas (Pittsburgh).

– We’ve mentioned Purdue a few times already. Tony Ersland’s time put together the best season by a Boilermaker squad in the last 15 years and didn’t get to see the end result. Purdue has not had an All-American during Ersland’s tenure and overall since Ivan Lopouchanski in 2013. With Lydy (#4), Devin Schroder (#5), Kendall Coleman (#6), and Brunner (#6), the question wasn’t if they’d get one, it was more along the lines of “how many”? 

– Other schools that missed out on the opportunity to produce their first All-American in quite some time include:

Army West Point. The program continues to get better each year and it seems inevitable that one of their six national qualifiers would get hot and be the first Black Knight wrestler to get on the podium since Matt Kyler in 2008.

Clarion. Keith Ferraro is still looking for his first AA in six years at the helm for Clarion. With two top-11 seeds, Zacherl and Greg Bulsak (#10), why not? James Fleming was the school’s last in 2013. 

Harvard. A pair of freshman qualified for the Crimson and brought a renewed sense of energy to the program. Phil Conigliaro (#17) and Yaraslau Slavikouski (#10) may have needed an upset or two, but they would have become Harvard’s first AA since Steven Keith and Walter Peppelman did so in 2012. 

Northern Colorado. Hibernation is over is the social media catchphrase for Troy Nickerson’s team. That statement seems appropriate as five wrestlers, including two true freshmen, made the big dance for the Bears. Those freshmen, Andrew Alirez (#14) and Mosha Schwartz (#15).

– Not having a tournament also robs a legend like Jim Zalesky to go out without any fanfare. After the Pac-12 tournament, Oregon State’s athletic department announced that Zalesky would not return for the 2020-21 season. This has been a relatively new trend in wrestling circles. In 2018, Wisconsin did the same with Barry Davis, while Maryland followed suit last season with Kerry McCoy. In both instances, these legends were able to coach their wrestlers for one final time and both were sent off by All-Americans they recruited and developed. Who knows whether this is the end of the road or not for the coaching career of Zalesky, but it would have been a cool moment for Devan Turner (#12) to pull an upset in the bloodround at 133 lbs and give Zalesky one last rush of adrenaline in the black and orange of Oregon State. 

– The upsets. Let’s face it, one of the best things about this tournament is the unpredictability. Every year there are a couple one seeds that seem invincible that go down. Before all 33 wrestlers were seeded, starting last year, there were a couple unseeded wrestler that would wreck your bracket predictions. I’m not going to post some “possible” upsets, because the best ones are those that we never saw coming. We’ll have to wait until next year to see who becomes remembered fondly for their work in March like Chip Ness (North Carolina), Kyle Conel (Kent State), Zeke Moisey (West Virginia), David Terao (American)

– The moments. More than any other sporting event, going to the NCAA Tournament has burned some of the most indelible memories into my brain over the last 13 years. What I remember most are the moments that are true and honest from an emotional standpoint. Some may be good, while others are painful. But either way, they can’t be replicated. 

In 2018, my first year working on a part-time basis for The Open Mat, I was given tunnel-duty, and I, along with Bryce Villa, were grabbing wrestlers for interviews after the quarters/semi/bloodround. That tournament at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland gave me a behind-the-scenes look at three moments, all different in the own way, that only the NCAA Wrestling Championships could provide. 

Moment #1: The bloodround. I wish that this round was conducted on its own rather than with the semis, but understand there are time restrictions we’re working with. But this group of matches provides spectators with some of the best competition you’ll ever see. Simple enough, win you’re an All-American, lose you’re not. While many dreams were shattered that evening, one in particular stands out. I’ll refrain from naming the specific wrestler, but I was standing matside, probably ten feet away from his coaches corner. This wrestler gave up a pair of takedowns in the final :45 seconds to send the match into sudden victory, then lost in overtime. The scene afterwards will haunt me forever. This wrestler fell into a heap in the tunnel and just keep repeating the phrase, “All I ever wanted to do was be an All-American and I #@%& -ing blew it.” Over and over, with tears flowing and sobs breaking up the refrain. Now I’ve seen hundreds of wrestlers after this particular round, but that one sticks out as particularly painful. As awful as a moment as it was for this wrestler, it was the type of situation that this tournament creates and it was something Hollywood could never accurately reproduce.

Moment #2: After the All-American round on Saturday. I snapped a picture in the tunnel for TOM’s social media of Nathan Tomasello (Ohio State) and Darian Cruz (Lehigh) having a quick conversation. Both were seniors who had just wrestled their final collegiate matches, Tomasello was third and Cruz fifth. Each was also an NCAA champion and was expecting to add to their collection. Since Tomasello was seeded first and Cruz second, I imagine the pair thought they’d be wrestling Saturday night for the title. If this tournament teaches you anything, it’s “things don’t always work out as planned.” These two battle-tested seniors, both legends for their respective programs, did not square off at all. They would have to settle for a quick, friendly, conversation instead of clashing on the raised mat as many fans had hoped.

Moment #3: The NCAA finals. After the 133 lb match, Seth Gross had climbed to the top of the mountain and became South Dakota State’s first national champion and the first for Chris Bono, as a head coach. In the hallways underneath Quicken Loans Arena Gross, Bono, assistant coach Jon Reader and many others were giving out hugs, high-fives, handshakes, and celebratory screams, as you would imagine. After that wave of initial emotion died down and Gross was whisked away for his drug test, who emerged, but Terry Brands. I was able to snap a few pics of Brands embracing Bono and congratulating his rival on Gross’ win. Why is that significant? It seems like ancient history by now, but Gross started his college career in Iowa City and was dismissed by the school after his redshirt season because of a run-in with the law. By all accounts, Gross has been the poster-child for giving a college kid a second chance. He’s matured and grown into a leader at both South Dakota State and Wisconsin and seems to have made his situation in Iowa an isolated incident. In some instances, after a wrestler leaves a program, there’s tension between him and the former coaching staff. The old coaching staff may even be jealous seeing that their former student-athlete is winning a national title in someone else’s colors. To me, it speaks volumes about the maturity of the Brands brothers, as well, as the respect that Gross commands that Terry felt it necessary to congratulate Bono at that moment. Also, just a year earlier, Terry was on the receiving end of a throw by Cory Clark after downing Gross in the national finals. The gesture also resonated with me because, let’s face it, no one is going to accuse Terry or Tom of being mushy, sentimental types. 

The three moments are ingrained in my memory as what the NCAA Tournament brings emotionally; however, you don’t have to go behind the scenes to have the tournament hit you in the feelers. These are also some moments that have stood out to me, sometimes a decade after the fact.

Mekhi Lewis continuing to slay dragon after dragon and becoming Virginia Tech’s first national champion after a late takedown over two-time national champion Vincenzo Joseph (Penn State) seals the deal.

Bo Nickal coming from his back to pin Myles Martin, which gave him his second national title and locked the 2018 tournament up for Penn State.

Kyle Snyder and Nick Gwiazdowski going at it Madison Square Garden in one of the most highly anticipated matches in some time. It was a rare instance where the actual bout surpassed the hype and became an all-time classic. 

Senior Dylan Ness making weight on day three of the 2015 tournament though he was too injured to compete. Ness injury defaulted out and was given a huge standing ovation from the crowd, regardless of school affiliation. Just a year earlier, he brought the Oklahoma City crowd to their feet as he pinned undefeated James Green in the quarterfinals. 

South Dakota rivals/friends Robert Kokesh and Logan Storley squaring off for the umpteenth time in the third-place match of the 2014 tournament. Then the excellent, heartfelt interview by Kokesh directly afterward.

College teammates Tom Brands and Tom Ryan sitting next to each other during the NCAA finals, coaching their respective wrestlers against the other. To anyone that never wrestled, it seemed really weird, but to those in this lifestyle, it seemed about right.

All of the drama surrounding a Bubba Jenkins/David Taylor NCAA final, then Bubba shocking the wrestling world and pinning Taylor, then his ensuing celebration afterward. 

2010 had a few for me. The 125 lb third-place match had a pair of four-time AA’s clashing with Troy Nickerson and Angel Escobedo. Both were beaten and battered, not close to 100%, but laying it on the line one last time while a pair of freshmen were in the finals. That illustrated the beauty, the grit, the heartbreak, and the realism that our sport provides. Two days earlier, Nickerson was upset by unseeded Fred Santaite (Boston) in the second round, and I expected him to default out of the tournament. 

In the semifinals, the roof almost came off in what had been the loudest I’ve heard an NCAA Wrestling Tournament when Jay Borschel battle back to defeat Chris Henrich. Borschel was down early and rallied with takedowns in the third. As the final seconds ticked off the clock, Jay got a riding time point, which put him in the lead and the Iowa faithful erupted. 

On the heartbreaking side for Iowa, Dan Dennis was taken down to his back by Jayson Ness in the final seconds of the 133 lb bout. A takedown for the Gopher would have sent the match into sudden victory, but the back points gave Ness the win. The image of Ness hanging off the railing of the bleachers, slowly crawling up into his dad’s arms are the stuff that dreams are made of. Or nightmares depending on your favorite time. 

While I could probably sit down and think of a 100 more (and there’s probably 100 I overlooked), this is the kind of drama and emotion that we’ll miss out on over the next day and a half. Stay safe and watch some replays of your favorite tournaments or matches. 

The final thing I mention is the wrestling community as a whole. 90% of the people I’ve met in my life that I call friends, I met through wrestling. It doesn’t matter whether it was in high school or two weeks ago at the Big Ten Tournament, I tend to relate to people who love my sport. Being so invested in a sport that gets overlooked by the mainstream media, it’s fun for me going into a restaurant at NCAA-time and seeing a table full of Iowa fans, next to parents of a Bucknell wrestler, alongside two All-Americans that wrestled each other 15 years ago. As someone who loves baseball, I don’t think much of anything when I meet people who like baseball or wear a shirt of their favorite team. But wrestling, on the other hand, it’s different. 

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