Vegas, baby! The Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational has long been a staple of the college wrestling season and, in recent years, has become the premier event of the regular season. A plethora of highly-ranked wrestlers will make the trip to Sin City this weekend looking to cement themselves squarely in the national title conversation as the season moves forward. Every year, there are some massive upsets, breakout performances, and incredible matches that take place at CKLV and this year’s edition looks as promising as ever. There are more storylines than I could list heading into the weekend and each bracket is loaded with talent and potential match-ups that any wrestling fan should be excited about. I picked one potential match-up in each weight that I am most interested to see and broke down why I find it interesting and what to look for if the match does take place.
125 – Jakob Camacho (NC State) vs Alex Mackall (ISU)
Camacho came out of high school two years ago with a ton of hype surround him, and for good reason. The Danbury, CT native brought home titles of all kinds in his high school years, including a Super 32 belt in 2017 and a FloNationals title in 2018. His redshirt season last year was highlighted by a third place finish at the Southern Scuffle that seemed to set the table for a long and successful career as the Wolfpack’s lead off man. Fast forward to the fall, where Camacho has looked good but not great during the first month of the season. He suffered an unexpected loss to Old Dominion’s Killian Cardinale in their dual and has not gotten a chance to wrestle anyone ranked ahead of him until this weekend.
While returning NCAA Runner-Up Jack Mueller is undoubtedly the class of this weight, Iowa State junior Alex Mackall is ranked in the top ten and will be a good measuring stick for Camacho. Mackall was an NCAA Qualifier for the Cyclones last year after redshirting in 2018 following his transfer from Rutgers. Mackall is solid in every position and has steadily climbed the national ladder to put himself squarely in contention for a spot on the podium at NCAA’s. Is Camacho ready to compete with the upper tiers of this weight, or does he still need some time to close the gap between him and the AA contenders? A win over Mackall would go a long way toward answering that question in a lot of people’s minds.
133 – Anthony Madrigal (OU) vs Taylor LaMont (UVU)
Both of these young men came into this year with a lot to prove – Madrigal because of a ho hum true freshman year and LaMont because he spent the entirety of last year rehabbing an injury and building into 133. Madrigal came out of Oak Park and River Forest HS in Chicago with a lot of promise and he is showing why so far this season. He has wins over five ranked opponents thus far and his only losses have been to quality opponents, which would point to him moving past the consistency issues that he struggled with last year.
LaMont, who has made multiple age-level Greco World Teams, decided to come out of his Olympic Redshirt and compete for Utah Valley this year, and he has split his first two bouts of the year with the loss coming to Wisconsin’s Seth Gross. It will be interesting to see how LaMont looks in his first big competition at 133. Based on what I’ve seen in a limited sample size so far this year, the size doesn’t look like it will be a problem for him but Madrigal’s speed could be another question entirely. Two guys with a lot of talent and something to prove meeting up in the biggest regular season tournament of the year is a recipe for some fireworks.
141 – Dom Demas (OU) vs Mitch McKee (Minnesota)
In an absolutely loaded bracket with superstars all over the place, these two returning All Americans stand out above the rest in terms of entertainment value and creativity on the mat. Demas is incredibly explosive and equally as slick. He has some of the best hips in all of college wrestling, is a threat to score big points at all times, and can inside trip his opponent from a different ZIP code.
While Demas may get a little more hype being the higher-ranked guy, McKee is highlight reel material in his own rite. The Minnesota senior will finish his career as one of the best pinners in program history and that exact talent always gives him a puncher’s chance to win a match. McKee is not reliant on pinning people, either. He has a variety of ways to score and is never afraid to pull the trigger on an opportunity to score. Neither of these guys is afraid to go big or to scramble and they’re both elite scramblers, so expect to see some serious fireworks here. It would not be surprising to see either wrestler get pinned at any point in this bout, especially with some sort of highlight reel move. Two of the nation’s best and most exciting wrestlers clashing in a high-profile event is a recipe for some spectator-friendly wrestling.
149 – Jarrett Degen (ISU) vs Sammy Sasso (tOSU)
Jarrett Degen may be one of the most under-discussed returning All Americans in all of college wrestling. The Iowa State junior has a style all his own and might be the tallest wrestler in the NCAA compared to his weight class, which adds another layer to what makes him such a unique problem to solve. Degen thrives when opponents attack his legs and he does a great job of scoring from a variety of shucks and slide-by’s when he engages in a tie. On top, Degen is a threat to score in multiple ways including legs, wrist tilts, and a claw series.
Sammy Sasso entered this season with about as much hype as a redshirt freshman possibly can. The Pennsylvania native can score big points in all three positions and is a serious threat to pin anyone if he can get his hands locked on a cradle. Sasso is especially lethal when opponents attack his legs and he can get into his J Jaggers-esque defense that leads to the aforementioned cradle. How he matches up with Degen, and which one of them is willing to risk it and shoot a leg attack, will be fascinating to see if it takes place this weekend. Both guys have unique feels and are best when opponents attack their legs which could lead to this being more of a chess match than what we’re used to seeing, but neither guy is afraid to scramble or get creative if necessary. Can Sasso get his first win of the season over a returning All American? We’ll find out soon enough!
157 – Hayden Hidlay (NC State) vs David Carr (ISU)
This might be my favorite match-up of the entire event. Hayden Hidlay is the unanimous top dog (or wolf) at this weight nationwide and has looked the part through the first month of the season. The Mifflin County, PA product is as good positionally as any wrestler you’ll find and his underhook series is a work of art. He can attack both legs, is stingy defensively, and consistently scores out of short offense situations. On the mat, Hidlay is not a prolific top wrestler but he is borderline impossible to ride and he keeps a high pace for all seven minutes or more. In short, Hayden is one of the most complete wrestlers in the country, regardless of weight. He’s also a phenomenal follow on Twitter (@HidlayMania) if you don’t already follow him.
David Carr has really hit the ground running in his redshirt freshman year, and how could anyone be surprised? Fresh off a gold medal performance at Junior Worlds this summer, the son of ISU and American wrestling legend Nate Carr announced his presence early with a victory over Iowa’s Kaleb Young, who was ranked second in the country at the time. Carr is a rare blend of technique, wrestling IQ, speed, and power. His neutral offense mainly comes from space, but he attacks both legs with a high percentage of shots to finishes. I think there’s a good chance that this match will come down to whether or not Carr is able to create space and make Hidlay react to his fakes and motion. If he can do that, he has a good chance of coming away with a win. If Hidlay is able to force Carr to wrestle him in a phonebooth, I think Hayden’s underhooks and handfighting will be a little too much for David to handle. There’s a lot to look forward to in this potential NCAA final preview.
165 – Josh Shields (ASU) vs David McFadden (VT)
These two young men come into this season with a combined five All American finishes and a plethora of other accomplishments to their names. Josh Shields has quietly put together an outstanding career out in the Arizona desert, finishing sixth and seventh in his last two trips to the NCAA Tournament. Shields is very difficult for opponents to score on and he uses a misdirection single as his primary source of offense. When opponents do get to his legs, Shields is not afraid to scramble and he often comes out on top of those situations. His Pennsylvania roots shine when he is on top, where he often rides opponents for extended periods of time if he isn’t scoring nearfall.
It would be hard to find a more underappreciated three-time All-American than Virginia Tech’s David McFadden. The New Jersey native made the move back down to 165 this year after spending last year up at 174 and is looking to climb the podium to its top step in March. McFadden’s offense is pretty fundamental in that he handfights and uses snaps to get to his single leg and he finishes well when he gets there. He is good on the counter attack and dangerous on top with his length. McFadden has pinned elite guys like Evan Wick and Alex Marinelli over the years, so Shields will need to be careful when he’s in on a shot or on bottom.
174 – Bryce Steiert (UNI) vs Anthony Valencia (ASU)
We have a classic case of an immovable object meeting an unstoppable force in this match-up, with Steiert being the immovable object and Valencia (his double leg, specifically) being the unstoppable force. Steiert is not flashy and does not light up the scoreboard, but what he does do quite often is get his hand raised. He handfights well, stays in almost perfect position, and capitalizes on any mistakes that his opponents make. This exact formula is what propelled him to an All American finish last season and is also what makes him a difficult match-up for anyone in the country.
Anthony Valencia is one of the most explosive and powerful wrestling in the NCAA when he is really clicking. When he has his fakes going, his double leg can make people look like they just got hit by a freight train going full speed. In the past, Anthony had a tendency to make some uncharacteristic mistakes that would cost him matches but he seems to have moved past that this season. Whether or not he will move past Steiert mainly comes down to one question – can he use his body fakes and motion in the open to create an opening for his double? If he can get Steiert to reach or his head to come up just a touch too far, he will have the shooting window he needs. If Steiert can close space and wrestle from ties, look for the Panther Train to roll.
184 – Taylor Lujan (UNI) vs Trent Hidlay (NC State)
This match-up is another complete contrast in styles, with Taylor Lujan bringing an unconventional and creative approach to the table while Trent Hidlay brings one based on position, power, and heavy hands. Lujan has long been one of the most entertaining wrestlers in America with his scramble-heavy style and willingness to go big whenever given the chance. He is a big move threat in every position and can pin just about anyone if the opportunity presents itself. He may not have broken through to be an All American yet, but he is as dangerous as they come.
It’s hard to imagine a better way to start your college career than by knocking off two of the top three wrestlers in America in the first month of the season, and that’s exactly what Trent Hidlay has done. Much like his older brother Hayden, Trent is outstanding positionally and attacks primarily from an underhook. His hands are extremely heavy and that creates opportunities for him to punch an underhook right into his patented knee pick. This match comes down to how well Trent can stay out of scramble situations. If he can stay clean on his shots and if/when he is on bottom, Lujan could be in for a long seven minutes.
197 – Tanner Orndorff (UVU) vs Kordell Norfleet (ASU)
This choice may surprise some people, but this match-up is fascinating to me. Tanner Orndorff is coming off a huge win over South Dakota State’s Tanner Sloan and looks to be on the upswing. The three-time NCAA Qualifier is still looking for his first All-American finish and a win over a guy like Sloan followed by a strong CKLV performance would be the perfect springboard for that to happen.
Kordell Norfleet is up at 197 after spending his first couple of years at 184 and qualifying for the NCAA Tournament in both. Norfleet is a guy with a really high ceiling between his physical talent and wrestling roots in Chicago, and a win over a surging Orndorff would help him start to vault into the upper tiers of this weight. To pull off the win, Norfleet will need to attack early and often and use his power to blow through Orndorff before he has a chance to get his hips involved defensively.
285 – Mason Parris (Michigan) vs Tate Orndorff (UVU)
Mason Parris really looks to have turned a corner from last season to now. He has soundly beaten Central Michigan’s Matt Stencel, who ended his season in March, three times already. Parris brought home gold from the Junior World Championships this summer and has stayed hot in the early portion of the season. His leg attacks and patented dump are difficult for most heavyweights to deal with and he is a great athlete which, when combined with his high-level technique, makes him one of the best guys in the country.
Tate Orndorff is another guy that has had an outstanding first month of the season. The younger, but bigger, Orndorff brother knocked off a pair of All Americans in Lehigh’s Jordan Wood and Arizona State’s Tanner Hall at the Journeymen Collegiate Classic and has continued to roll since. Orndorff finished second at this event a year ago and it would stand to reason that he expects to improve on that finish this time around. Will he stay hot and knock off another one of America’s best heavyweights, or will Mason Parris continue to cement himself among the elite heavyweights in college wrestling? Time will tell!