What We Learned from the Holiday Tournaments
The holiday season in the college wrestling world is home to two of the best tournaments all season – the Midlands Championships and the Southern Scuffle. While the fields at this season’s Midlands and Scuffle weren’t quite what they have been in years past, there was still a lot of elite wrestling that took place and no shortage of lessons to be learned as a result. I chose a few lessons from each event that stood out to me and dove a little deeper into them below.
Seth Gross is winning on savviness more than ever before
A couple of years ago, Seth Gross was one of the most dominant wrestlers in the country. He went undefeated against wrestlers at his weight en route to an NCAA title and scored bonus against almost everyone along the way. This year, after taking a medical redshirt and transferring to Wisconsin, Gross has not been his same dominant self. He already has a loss to Austin DeSanto and he had to hit a six point move to beat Sebastian Rivera yesterday in the semifinals. In the finals, he built an early lead and held on to win 6-5 against DeSanto and reclaim the top spot at the weight. Gross is still winning at an elite level and he is still easily one of the best wrestlers in America regardless of the weight, but his method of getting his hand raised has shifted from overwhelming dominance to savviness and situational awareness. It is very possible that Gross has some lingering effects from his back injury or that his freestyle weight cut is having negative effects on his body, but he is showing how smart and creative of a wrestler he is by finding a way to win matches against elite guys when he is not at his best. Who knows if he will win another national title in March, but wrestling fans should appreciate how much mental and physical toughness it takes to keep finding ways to win like Gross has done so far.
Pat Lugo’s move to Iowa is paying off
When Pat Lugo transferred from Edinboro to Iowa a couple of years ago, it wasn’t a sure thing that he would be the long term starter or if he would ever contend for an NCAA title. Well, all of those worries or questions were answered pretty swiftly this weekend when Lugo dominated UNC’s Austin O’Connor – who was the unanimous #1 wrestler in America – and won himself a Midlands title. Lugo has been pulling the trigger more than ever and looks like the favorite to stand on top of the podium in Minneapolis, which only boosts Iowa’s already strong case to win a team title. There were concerns when Lugo transferred that his style and mentality wouldn’t mesh well with the Brands brothers and that it wouldn’t be a happy marriage, but all of that seems like a distant memory in light of what we all saw inside the Sears Centre last night.
David McFadden is as underrated as anyone in recent memory
David McFadden is on track to become Virginia Tech’s first ever four time AA and is squarely among the national title contenders this year at 165, but he frequently flies under the radar of public conversation and has done so for quite some time. The New Jersey native is as consistent as they come and has wins over both Alex Marinelli and Evan Wick and always gives himself a chance to win matches late. He can attack legs extremely well and scrambles with the best of them (just look at how be beat Wick at Midlands). Like most of Jeff Buxton’s proteges, McFadden’s positioning is fantastic and his wrestling IQ is very high which allows him to stay in matches and make adjustments that most others wouldn’t be able to make. He may not be flashy or a sexy pick to win a title in March, but McFadden will walk away as arguably the most decorated wrestlers in Hokie history and could easily add an NCAA title to his resume on a Saturday night in Minneapolis this March.
Purdue is quietly jumping levels as a program
For the first time in my memory, Purdue had a pair of champs at Midlands (Dylan Lydy at 174 and Christian Brunner at 197) and a fourth place finisher in the aforementioned Kendall Coleman. In addition, Griffin Parriott was seeded fifth at 149 and fell short of placing but he has proven himself to be capable of beating just about anyone when he is wrestling at his best. Those four young men give Purdue a real shot at putting four wrestlers on the podium in March, something that that hasn’t been done in quite some time by a Boilermakers team. Coleman is the future face of the program and they have some stud recruits coming in next year, so the future looks very bright for Coach Ersland and his staff in West Lafayette. If they can find a way to get all four, or even “just” three, of those guys to reach All American status this year, it would be a huge step forward for a program that looks to be on the rise.
Cash Wilcke reclaimed his spot, likely for good
Cash Wilcke and Nelson Brands have been locked in a pretty even battle for the starting spot at 184 in Iowa’s lineup so far this year, but this weekend may have been the end of the conversation. Granted, it took Wilcke three overtimes to beat Brands in the bloodround, but Wilcke rattled off three more wins to finish third and looked as good as ever in the process. A big part of why I think Wilcke will be the guy moving forward isn’t so much the result, it’s the way that he was winning. He showed the ability to consistently generate leg attacks against high level opponents, which is something that Brands simply has not been able to do at 184. Some of that could be due to Brands being light for the weight, but Iowa will need someone that can go score points when they need it most at the NCAA Tournament and that person looks to be Wilcke.
Penn State won’t miss a beat when Mark Hall and Shakur Rasheed graduate
Normally, when a generational talent like Mark Hall graduates, a program doesn’t replace them as much as they accept reality and move on to a new era. Fortunately for Penn State, they don’t have to worry about taking a step back at 174 because they have Carter Starocci waiting in the wings. The freshman from Erie, PA was an elite talent coming out of high school and is already excelling at the college level. Starocci dominated his way through the Southern Scuffle while wrestling unattached (and wearing Hall’s singlet) and put the country on notice that he will be a title contender right away. His footwork, wide variety of leg attacks, and nonstop motor make him difficult to stay with for a full seven minutes and he will only continue to get better as he spends more time under the tutelage of Cael Sanderson and the PSU staff.
The Nittany Lions have another future hammer waiting in the wings right now in Michael Beard at 197. The Malvern Prep product looked outstanding at the Scuffle on his way to a fourth place finish, a run that included wins over the likes of Nick Reenan and returning All American Dakota Geer. Assuming Shakur Rasheed comes back in the second semester at 197 for PSU, he will be one of the favorites to stand on top of the podium in March and a surefire All American candidate which would make him a two time AA. With the way Beard wrestled at the Scuffle, it’s not a stretch to think that he could end up having a better career front to back than Rasheed, meaning the Nittany Lions won’t miss a beat when two of their lineup anchors wrap up their careers this March.
Noah Adams could be Tim Flynn’s first AA at WVU
Tim Flynn came to Morgantown last year with the goal of restoring the WVU program to its former glory, and Noah Adams is shaping up to be a huge part of that process. The redshirt sophomore from Coal City, West Virginia (find me a better name for a hometown, I’ll wait) has made a huge jump from last year when he went 1-2 at the NCAA Tournament and he could be a title contender this March in Minneapolis. Adams rolled through the Southern Scuffle and was never seriously threatened in winning a weight that included a returning All American and multiple other wrestlers ranked ahead of him coming into the weekend. Adams capped his impressive run with a fall over Stanford’s Nathan Traxler, a win that helped him earn the tournament’s Outstanding Wrestler award. With Adams’s talent and Flynn’s longstanding track record of developing talent, it seems like a safe bet that the 197 pounder will be the first Mountaineer to make the podium since Zeke Moisey in 2015 before his career is done. If he continues to jump levels like this, he could also be their first NCAA Champ since Greg Jones in 2005.
Real Woods is elite
Real Woods came to Palo Alto with a lot of hype and promise, and the Montini Catholic product is already competing at an elite level. Woods made the Scuffle finals for the second time in as many years and came away as the champ this time around after losing to Penn State’s Nick Lee last year. Woods cruised through the bracket, didn’t surrender a takedown in any of his matches, and was never in danger of losing any of his bouts. He was scoring both offensively and defensively on his feet, something that most young guys struggle to do, and was stingy as can be on top. He amassed over five minutes of riding time in the finals against Kaden Gfeller and dominated his previous opponents on the mat as well. With his combination of great positioning, offensive and defensive efficiency, and grueling top game, Woods will give himself a chance to beat anyone that steps on the mat against him. With how good he looked in Chattanooga, don’t be surprised if we see Woods wrestle on the stage in March.
Hidlay/Deprez/Bonaccorsi/Brooks is going be a lot of fun to watch the next three years
When you look at 184 this year, it’s easy to gloss over the entire weight because Zahid Valencia is such a clear favorite and will likely dominate his way to a third NCAA title. However, if you take the time to look past Zahid, you’ll see that there’s a massively talented youth movement taking place at this weight that will be extremely fun to watch for the next two and a half years. Trent Hidlay and Aaron Brooks are the freshmen of the group, but they have each established themselves among the nation’s elite already this season. Hidlay’s only two losses on the year are to Valencia at CKLV and Deprez (who he beat earlier this year) at the Scuffle. Much like his brother, Trent is an elite combination of skill, speed, and power and he is extremely difficult to score on. Brooks is the best athlete of the bunch and has the ability to explode up through leg attacks and finish clean on anyone. Deprez and Bonaccorsi are both sophomores who finished one win shy of All American status as freshmen. Deprez is positionally outstanding and converts his leg attacks to points as well as anyone at the weight. Bonaccorsi is the definition of a volume shooter and is a lot to handle for a full seven minutes. His attacks aren’t always pretty, but he builds position extremely well and can put up points on anyone. Watching these four studs battle it out for supremacy over the next few years is going to be something special, especially when you consider how different their styles are and that they will all be forced to keep jumping levels to keep up with one another.
Andrew Alirez and Jaden Abas could be a great rivalry
Andrew Alirez and Jaden Abas were two of the top recruits in the class of 2019 and both of them are already having success at the college level, so it wasn’t a surprise when they met up in the Scuffle finals. Abas was Alirez’s lone loss in high school and he came away with the win again in Chattanooga, this time by a score of 3-2. These two could see each other a lot over the next few years and any time that they do, it is must see wrestling. Both guys are extremely athletic and fun to watch on their own and when they face off against each other, it’s a certainty that there will be a lot of action and some wild scrambles. Another reason that this rivalry is so exciting and, in my opinion, good for wrestling is that they are both wrestling for programs west of the Mississippi River. Most of the wrestling world’s attention is focused on programs in the northeast, but there are a lot of smaller programs outside of that region that are doing great things and this rivalry will help bring that into focus from time to time.