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NCAA Wrestling Championships Preview

The Big Ten is well represented in St. Louis, and Rutgers will be looking for some All American accolades. But the road is tough for most of the Knights

Roy DeBoer with permission

It’s that time of year!

I know there may be a few people out there who think the NCAA basketball tournament is the alpha and omega of sports, but beginning tomorrow for the next three days, you can’t beat the intensity and sheer excitement of the NCAA Wrestling Championships.

As Rutgers prepares for its trip to the NCAA Wrestling Championships, they can take comfort in the fact that seven Knights will be heading to St. Louis, a number equal to three other Big Ten schools.

The results from the rest of the Big Ten show why the conference is the best in the nation. With 87 athletes heading to St. Louis, the Big Ten leads all other conferences, filling over 26% of all the spots at the tournament.

Top Seeds

Seven different Big Ten schools combine for six No. 1 seeds and five No. 2 seeds. Only 141 and 174 don’t have a Big Ten wrestler in at least one of the top two spots.

Penn State and Ohio State each have two No. 1 seeds. PSU has Zain Retherford (149) and Jason Nolf (157) while the Buckeyes have Nathan Tomasello (133) and Kyle Snyder (Hwt) in the top spots. Penn State also has Bo Nickal (184) as a two seed.

Illinois’ Isaiah Martinez, the defending champ at 157, moves up a weight and still takes the top spot at 165. Iowa’s Thomas Gilman is No. 1 at 125.

Two-seeds are held by Iowa’s Michael Kemerer (157), Michigan’s Logan Massa (165), Brett Pfarr 0f Minnesota (197), and Heavyweight Conner Medbery of Wisconsin.

So, is being No. 1 a guarantee of a title? Not always, but it certainly makes it a lot easier. If you’re a top seed - or No. 2 - you need to win five bouts to make it to the championship. And you get the benefit of wrestling “lesser” opponents en route. But it isn’t always a slam dunk - to mix our metaphors.

Team Finish

Rutgers finished 15th at last year’s tournament at Madison Square Garden. They will be hard pressed to equal that this year with three fewer competitors and only one seeded wrestler in the top eight of his weight class. The major team battle will be between Penn State and Oklahoma State. The Cowboys bring ten wrestlers to the tournament but will still face a gauntlet of high-powered Nittany Lions. Bottom line: to win you need guys to wrestle “above their seed” and pull the upsets. You also need your lower seeds to come through and earn points in the wrestlebacks.

Rutgers in the first round

It ain’t gonna be easy.

Anthony Ashnault (141 - No. 5), Ken Theobold (149 - No. 15), and John Van Brill (157 - No. 13) are the only seeded wrestlers for the Knights. Ashnault (27-3) will be looking for his third consecutive All American designation (top eight) but will be looking to better his fourth place finish in 2016 on the podium come Saturday. He opens against Central Michigan’s redshirt freshman Mason Smith (23-12, unseeded). Smith took third at the MAC Championships. If Ashnault wins, he faces a Big Ten opponent in the next round, the winner of the Sal Profaci (Michigan)-Luke Pletcher (OSU, 12 seed) bout. He’s beaten both wrestlers this season, including Pletcher twice. Ashnault has not lost since the Midlands in late December when he dropped a 3-2 decision to NC State’s Kevin Jack. Jack is seeded No. 2 at 141.

Theobold (22-9) opens with Virginia’s Sam Krivus (23-12, unseeded). Krivus is a redshirt freshman from western Pennsylvania. The winner of Theobold-Gardner will likely face second-seeded senior Anthony Collica (20-2) of Oklahoma State. Collica is a four-time NCAA qualifier and returning All American.

Van Brill (23-9) moved up in the seedings after another wrestler had a medical withdrawal from the tournament. He’ll face Illinois’ unseeded Kyle Langenderfer (23-8). If the phrase “three times the charm” has any truth to it, Langenderfer is hoping it holds. Van Brill has beaten the Illini twice, once in the dual match (Fall, 4:46) and again in the Big Ten Championships (7-0). Van Brill, of course, is looking for the sweep. The winner will likely face No. 4 seed Tyler Berger (32-4) of Nebraska. In the Big Ten tourney, Berger topped Van Brill, 6-0.

The other four RU wrestlers are unseeded, which means their trek through the brackets will be that much harder. Their opening bouts:

  • 133: Scott DelVecchio (20-13) is unseeded and draws No. 3 Kaid Brock (OKST, 25-2); FloWrestling puts DelVecchio as a darkhorse at the weight.
  • 174: Jordan Pagano (26-9) faces No. 6 Ryan Preisch (22-4) of Lehigh; Pagano upset Preisch in the NWCA Duals last month, 10-4.
  • 184: Nick Gravina (20-9) locks up with No. 3 Sammy Brooks (24-2) of Iowa, who he lost to at Midlands this year.
  • 197: Matt Correnti (16-13) in his first NCAAs goes up against No. 2 Brett Pfarr (MINN, 27-2).

Pagano earns at large bid

In a qualifying tournament, you can’t lose at the “wrong” time. Jordan Pagano did when he lost his first round bout to lower seeded Ryan Christensen and then again in the wrestlebacks to Alex Meyer of Iowa. Despite his weight class having nine NCAA allocations, Pagano had wrestled himself out of a place and likely out of an automatic spot. It meant that Pagano would have to hope for the at-large.

Thank you, NCAA and thank you, Big Ten for being a tough conference. With his 26-10 record, Pagano got one of the five at large bids at 174 pounds. Certainly his major decision upset of No. 4 Ryan Preisch in the NWCA Dual helped.

The Jersey Connections

The redshirt junior from Cherry Hill is 29-2 on the year.

And while we’re talking New Jersey wrestling, look at this.

We think New Jersey wrestling is pretty good. And Pennsylvania is a mat rat haven. But which state has the most wrestlers at the NCAA championships this year? FloWrestling did the breakdown and the winner is....

Pennsylvania with 49 athletes going to St. Louis. Ohio is second with 31, just edging out Illinois and New Jersey, each with 30 wrestlers. All seven Rutgers qualifiers are from the Garden State. Last year, the list was exactly the same: 1. PA (63), 2. OH (31), T3. NJ/IL (27).

On a per capita basis, South Dakota produces the most competitors per million people with 4.66; the state has four wrestlers at the NCAAs and it has a population of 868,799.

How to watch the NCAA Wrestling Championships

If you won’t be in St.Louis, all three days will be broadcast by the Worldwide Leader, including prime time on the big gun, ESPN.