A less publicized but equally entertaining college championship tournament takes place this weekend in St. Louis, Missouri. For the second consecutive year, ESPN will broadcast every match of the NCAA Wrestling Tournament on ESPNU or ESPN3.com with Championship matches airing live on the flagship Saturday at 8:00pm Eastern, 7:00pm Central.
Logan Stieber, three-time defending National Champion from Ohio State headlines this year’s field. With a win, he would become the fourth wrestler in NCAA history to win four titles; joining Oklahoma State’s Pat Smith (1990-92, 1994), Iowa State’s Cael Sanderson (1999-2002, 159-0 career record) and Cornell’s Kyle Dake (2010-2013). Edinboro’s Mitchell Port, Iowa’s Josh Dziewa, and last year’s National runner-up, long time Stieber rival, Devin Carter from Virginia Tech look to challenge Stieber. But all have fallen to Stieber multiple times in their college careers. Logan Stieber losing this weekend would be far more shocking than Kentucky not taking home the basketball championship.
Five schools – Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, Cornell, and Ohio State – have legitimate shots at taking home the team title this year. Penn State won the previous four team championships, but lost three-time champion Ed Ruth and four-time finalist, two-time national champion David Taylor to graduation. The Nittany Lions have a potential finalist in 197-pounder Morgan McIntosh, but not enough fire power to bring home their fifth consecutive title.
The Big Ten’s hopes for a ninth straight team championship ride on stalwarts Iowa and Minnesota, and up-and-coming Ohio State. Many analysts and fans predicted Minnesota would steamroll to a title this season. The Gophers, unfortunately, fell short of expectations during the regular season and dropped to Cornell in the quarterfinals of the National Duals Tournament last month. Chris Dardanes at 133, his brother Nick at 141, and Dylan Ness at 157 will have to hold their top seeds, and Seniors Logan Storely and Scott Schiller will have to outperform their seeds for Minnesota to have a shot.
Iowa was the last team to win a team title without an individual champion back in 2009. The Hawkeyes may very well repeat that feat this season. Coach Tom Brands brings wrestlers in each of the ten weight classes to St. Louis, but none seeded higher than 3rd. Hawkeyes traditionally wrestle a fun, aggressive style and rack up bonus points with major decisions, technical falls, and pins. Without a single projected finalist, Iowa will need points in every weight class and as many bonus points as they can muster.
Ohio State’s foundation is solid with Logan Stieber, but freshmen will decide their team fate. Kyle Snyder ranks 4th at 197 and Bo Jordan earned a 5th seed after a 17-1 campaign and Big Ten Tournament runner-up trophy. Nathan Tomasello beat Iowa’s 125-pound Thomas Gillman in the Big Ten Finals last weekend to earn a 4th seed. All three freshmen will need semi-final appearances or better for the Buckeyes to capture their first team title. Logan’s brother, Hunter, who battled injuries this season, along with Johnny DiJulius, and senior Josh Demas have All-American potential and could pad the Buckeyes’ team score in a tight tournament.
Cornell won individual titles at five consecutive championship tournaments prior to last season and finished runner-up to Penn State in 2010. The Big Red projected to have three finalists in 125-pounder Nashon Garrett, 157-pounder Brian Realbuto, and 184-pound #1 seed Gabe Dean, but Garrett dropped his second round match to unseeded true Freshman Zeke Moisey. Coach Rob Koll needs Garrett to wrestle back strong and upsets from his second tier of wrestlers. Senior and 149 pound 5th seed Chris Villalonga has a golden opportunity to score points for Cornell in the quarterfinals against 13 seed Charles Cobb from Penn.
Missouri, surprisingly to some, brings more #1 seeds into the field than any other team. Their 125-pound senior Alan Waters enters the tournament undefeated. Waters underperformed at last season’s NCAA tournament, but with Nashon Garrett’s loss, a tough quarterfinal match with Big Ten tournament champ Nathan Tomasello might present his only legitimate challenge. Drake Houdashelt earned a #1 seed over defending National Champion Jason Tsirtsis from Nortwestern, and J’Den Cox looks to repeat as 197-pound champion as a sophomore. Both should make finals, and I like Cox to win it all. Unlike Cornell and Minnesota, though, Missouri’s highly seeded John Eblen and Lavion Mayes could earn All-American honors and put Missouri over the top. It feels strange to say, but I think the Tigers bring home their first ever team championship.
125: Alan Waters (Missouri) over Joey Dance (Virginia Tech)
133: Chris Dardanes (Minnesota) over Cory Clark (Iowa)
141: Logan Stieber (Ohio State) over Mitchell Port (Edinboro)
149: Jason Tsirtsis (Northwestern) over Drake Houdashelt
157: Isaiah Martinez (Illinois) over Brian Realbuto (Cornell)
165: Alex Dieringer (Oklahoma State) over Isaac Jordan (Wisconsin)
174: Robert Kokesh (Nebraska) over Logan Storely (Minnesota)
184: Gabe Dean (Cornell) over Max Thomusseit (Pittsburgh)
197: J’Den Cox (Missiouri) over Kyven Gadson (Iowa State)
285: Nick Gwiazdowski (NC State) over Mike McMullan (Northwestern)