What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, except for CKLV results – those will come back with you. As always, the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational was a wild weekend full of incredible wrestling, crazy upsets, and lessons to be learned for the remainder of the season. I’ll dive into some of the lessons that stood out to me at CKLV and what they mean for all parties involved as we move toward the heart of this NCAA season.
Northwestern could have All Americans at 125 and 133
Coming into this season, pretty much everyone in the wrestling world fully expected Northwestern to have an All American at 125…but we all thought it would be Sebastian Rivera. With Rivera having moved up to 133 seemingly for good, the 125 job was won by Michael DeAugustino and he has made the most of his opportunity thus far. The Florida native knocked off UNI’s Jay Schwarm in the round of 16 and followed that up with a win over Michigan’s Jack Medley in the quarterfinals. He fell to Jack Mueller in the semifinals but responded with a pair of wins to finish third and above a few wrestlers ranked in the top 12 nationally. After DeAugustino’s performance this weekend, it is a very real possibility for Northwestern to have All Americans at both of the first two weights this season. It’s still early and outlier performances do happen, but DeAugustino looked like an AA contender in Vegas.
Ridge Lovett is an All American threat
Ridge Lovett come to Nebraska with a lot of promise, having wrestled in the Fargo finals more times than almost anyone in the history of the event. He stepped right into the lineup as a true freshman and looked like a seasoned veteran on his way to a third place finish in Las Vegas. Lovett’s lone loss came to Wyoming All American Montorie Bridges in the semifinals, but even in that match he showed the ability to compete with one of the nation’s best. Finishing third at an event like CKLV, especially as a first semester true freshman, puts you squarely in thick of the All American conversation. I have to believe that Lovett will continue to make jumps with more time in the Nebraska room and the kid has proven to be a winner at every level so far. I don’t predict that his collegiate career will be any different.
Luke Pletcher is clearly the guy to beat at 141
This one may seem like an obvious statement, but hear me out. Pletcher came into the weekend as the top seed and top ranked wrestler in America, but he was far from a unanimous or unquestionable favorite in a weight that also included the likes of CJ Red, Mitch McKee, and Dom Demas. All Pletcher did was cruise through the weight and score double digit points in every bout. He was never in danger in any of his matches and he dominated Red and McKee who are two of the most dangerous guys in the sport. Pletcher looked absolutely outstanding in every facet but his neutral offense was especially impressive. He has opened up and attacked opponents far more this season and it is paying dividends. His offensive output has been really impressive and if he continues to perform at this level, he will be standing on top of the podium in March.
Brayton Lee can win the NCAA Tournament this year
149 is as wide open of a weight as we have seen in recent memory and this weekend proved that youth is not a deterrent to winning. Both Sammy Sasso and Brayton Lee came into this year with a massive amount of well-earned hype, but it felt like only Sasso was being consistently discussed as a title threat. Well, Brayton certainly changed that narrative this weekend with an exemplary showing en route to a CKLV title. Lee’s high motor and suffocating handfight are difficult for anyone to handle, but he has been known to give up points early in matches which led to the few losses that he has suffered over the years. That changed this weekend. The only takedown that Lee surrendered was at the very end of his finals win over Sasso when he was essentially in prevent defense. Brayton convincingly won a bracket that included six of the top ten wrestlers in America and his finals win over longtime rival Sasso was the exclamation point on a statement to the nation that he is very much good enough to win an NCAA title this season.
Ryan Deakin jumped levels again this summer
It has been a well-known fact that Ryan Deakin is an elite wrestler for quite some time now. The Northwestern junior is a returning All American and won a US Open title in April, so it is safe to say that Deakin has proven his mettle more than once. But what he pulled off in Vegas, dominating David Carr and Hayden Hidlay in consecutive matches, was something that nobody outside of Deakin’s camp could have expected. Deakin’s re-attacks were borderline perfect all weekend and they came up especially big in his semifinal rout of David Carr. In the finals against Hidlay, Deakin did a masterful job of staying out of the Wolfpack junior’s underhook and he scored on a double leg from space in the first period and a beautiful single leg in the second. Deakin’s work on top played a huge role in both the semis and finals and is a big part of why giving up a takedown to him counts for more than just two points. Hidlay is a seasoned veteran that has wrestled on the NCAA Finals stage before, so you can never count him out of any event, but this weight class now runs through Ryan Deakin.
Thomas Bullard is an All American threat at 165
The Bullard twins have been fixtures in the NC State lineup for a few years now and both of them have pulled off some pretty big wins at times, but neither has been able to consistently compete at an All American level. That may have changed from the look of Thomas’s performance this weekend in Vegas. He picked up bonus points against a pair of top 12 opponents in his final two bouts, a major over Andrew Fogarty of NDSU and a fall over Ethan Smith of Ohio State. Bullard’s scrambling skills were on full display throughout the weekend and his punishing leg ride paid dividends, especially when he put in a power half and turned Smith for the fall in the third place bout. Those two factors will make him a tough out for anyone and any takedown that Bullard is able to score counts for more because of how good he is on top. If he can continue to find ways to generate points on his feet, Bullard will be wrestling on Saturday in Minneapolis.
Anthony Valencia continues to be an enigma
It would be difficult to find a more talented, yet confusing wrestler than Anthony Valencia. The lighter of the Valencia brothers has never been short on talent or highlight reel moves, but he has yet to put it all together to establish himself as a top tier guy in the NCAA. Valencia finished fifth and was on the wrong side of back to back major decisions against Bryce Steiert and Devin Skatzka. Even in a few of the matches that he found a way to win, Valencia continued to give up large chunks of points to wrestlers that you wouldn’t expect to be scoring on him. He has yet to really break through against an elite opponent and this weekend only served to further the uncertainty about what to expect from the Sun Devil senior. It still wouldn’t surprise me to see him catch fire and end up making a deep run at the NCAA Tournament, but every match is a new adventure and we still don’t know which version of Anthony Valencia will show up.
Trent Hidlay is the clear #2 guy in the country at 184
Even before his showing in Vegas, Trent had established himself as a legitimate top tier guy at this weight for years to come with wins over Ben Darmstadt and Lou Deprez, but his dismantling of UNI’s Taylor Lujan in the semis really cemented him as the clear “best of the rest” behind Zahid Valencia. Hidlay’s underhook to kneeblock is as good of a go-to attack as there is and what makes it even better is that there’s almost no room for his opponent to funk or scramble their way out of it. He is exceptionally strong on bottom for a first semester redshirt freshman and while he doesn’t often score on top, he really doesn’t need to because he is so dominant on his feet. Very few people over the years have shut Lujan down the way that Trent did, which speaks directly to how fundamentally sound he is. Will anybody at this weight be able to knock off Zahid this year? I seriously doubt it, but I expect to see Trent standing across from him in the NCAA Finals in what could be the first of a few appearances on the stage.
Thomas Lane’s top game is elite
Thomas Lane was one of the surprise quarterfinalists at last season’s NCAA Tournament and he got there due in large part to his elite skillset on top. He didn’t get much press through the first month or so of the season, however, because he fell one match short of All American status last year and west coast schools don’t always get the coverage that they deserve. Lane seized the opportunity to show that he is as good as anyone in the country on top this weekend, not to mention proving that he’s one of the nation’s best at 197 in general. His leg ride and far side cradle are a deadly combination that always gives him a puncher’s chance, especially because Lane isn’t afraid to choose top. His neutral scrambling is one of his biggest assets, especially considering the fact that most 197’s aren’t used to scrambling. Granted, he did get teched by Kollin Moore in the semis, but he rebounded to finish third in a weight full of top ten guys which will only help to improve his stock. Whether or not Lane ends up on the podium come March will largely depend on his ability to at least break even on his feet, but his top game is elite and will always give him a chance.
Mason Parris belongs in the elite tier of heavyweights
In his true freshman season last year, Mason Parris showed a ton of promise and had some huge wins, but ultimately fell short of the podium and had some consistency issues. Those issues have disappeared so far this season, illustrated by his three wins over Matt Stencel and a dominant performance this weekend at CKLV. In the finals, Parris was in control of ASU’s two-time All American Tanner Hall from whistle to whistle and put both his athleticism and technique on full display. This is still unquestionably Anthony Cassar’s weight to lose come March, especially with Gable Steveson not in the lineup, but Parris is proving that he belongs in the elite tier and is continuing to improve at a pretty rapid rate. It will be exciting to see how his and Tony Cassioppi’s careers play out in comparison to one another, especially after their history in high school. Those two could end up having one of the best rivalries in recent memory, especially if they both keep improving at this pace.
Northern Colorado has more than just Andrew Alirez
Troy Nickerson is quietly leading one of the best builds in college wrestling right now out in Greeley, Colorado. The Bears have come a long way since Nickerson got the job in 2014 and this year’s freshman class bears the burden of great expectations. True freshman and Greeley native Andrew Alirez is the face of the program, and rightfully so. He came out of high school as one of the most promising recruits in the class of 2019 and already owning multiple wins over NCAA All Americans. The class and roster goes much deeper than just Alirez, though. Fellow true freshmen Mosha Schwartz and Theorius Robison have both showed signs of great promise already, with Schwartz finishing fifth in Vegas and Robison knocking off Wyoming All American Montorie Bridges earlier this season. Add in seniors Jacob Seely – who placed at CKLV for the second time – and Austin Matthews, and the Bears have a great mix of elite young talent and senior leadership. The 2020 recruiting class is shaping up to be another good one for Coach Nickerson along with his assistants Michael Moreno and Garett Kiley, so expect to see big things happening in the Rockies sooner rather than later.
Nebraska can win a high team trophy at NCAA’s
I know that Nebraska came into this weekend ranked as high as second in the country as a unit, but there were still some questions surrounding some of their younger guys and which version of Chad Red would show up. Well, consider those questions answered. The Corn Huskers showed up and showed out in Vegas, putting nine wrestlers on the podium led by Isaiah White’s title at 165. They also won the team title with 118 points, outscoring Ohio State by 8.5 points and Arizona State by 15. What’s truly scary about this performance is that it was far from a perfect scenario for the Huskers. All Americans Chad Red and Taylor Venz both finished fifth, Collin Purinton finished eighth at 141 in a bracket that he could have won, Mikey Labriola finished third with his lone loss being in OT, and Eric Schultz finished fifth at 197. The shining star, aside from White, was previously discussed true freshman Ridge Lovett finishing third. This team showed that it has the firepower and depth to compete with just about anyone in the country, especially if the younger guys continue to perform and they can win some of those tight matches that they lost in Vegas.