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Hot Topic: Which NCAA Division I Weight Class Will Be Toughest at Nationals?
It’s that time of the year again – wrestling fans across the country are starting to debate this annual topic: Which weight class will be the toughest to get through at the 2011 NCAA Division I National Championships? WIN Editor Mike Finn takes a look at what may be some of the toughest brackets in their quest to become an All-American and national champion.
By WIN Editor Mike Finn
It’s a question asked every year at this time: which Division I weight will be the toughest at the national tournament?
Before Jan. 16, when Wisconsin’s Andrew Howe suffered a leg injury against Illinois’ Conrad Polz, a good answer would have been the 165-pound weight class this March in Philadelphia, Pa. That’s where Howe would have had to defend his title against the likes of Nebraska’s Jordan Burroughs, the 2009 titlist at 157 pounds who ironically was forced to sit out last year because of a knee injury but has returned at a heavier weight and is rated No. 1 after beating the Badger at the Midlands in December.
If Howe cannot wrestle — an MRI reportedly showed a torn hamstring — statistically the next highest-rated weight class would be 174 pounds where five wrestlers have finished in the top four at the NCAAs in their career.
The following is a breakdown of the ten weight classes, based on career NCAA point totals of probable wrestlers that were included in the Jan. 18 Coaches Panel Rankings.
Burroughs and Howe have earned four of the seven All-American honors by wrestlers at this weight. Oklahoma sophomore Tyler Caldwell reached last year’s semifinals before losing 4-1 to Howe. Cornell’s Justin Kerber, who competed at 184 pounds before dropping down to 165 last March, has moved up in the rankings and could use some team-race momentum in Philadelphia to earn his first All-American honor.
Meanwhile, two former All-Americans are competing at a different weight this year: Central Michigan’s Mike Miller finished second at 174 pounds two years ago and has battled injuries while jumping up to 184 last March and down to 165 this winter; Binghamton’s Justin Lister, who finished fourth at 157 last year, moved to 165 in midseason.
This was supposed to be the year of Cornell’s Mack Lewnes and Virginia’s Chris Henrich, whose only losses in Omaha last March came to Iowa’s eventual national champion Jay Borschel. But Penn State freshman Ed Ruth has been a surprise, based on his victories over the pair of two-time All-Americans at the Southern Scuffle in December. Those losses may have also put Iowa State’s Jon Reader in the driver’s seat. After placing fourth and seventh in his first two years, the Cyclone failed to place last year at 165, but is unbeaten and has been dominant at 174 this winter.
This really could be the toughest weight considering there are 11 All-American honors in this field and that does not including Montell Marion’s second-place finish in last year’s tourney. (The Iowa junior did not start wrestling until the Jan. 30 dual with Penn State.)
The favorites at this weight may be two men who sat out last season: Michigan’s Kellen Russell and Illinois’ James Kennedy. The Wolverine has just one All-American honor (7th in 2009) after being seeded No. 1 and 3 in previous tourneys. Kennedy, who was pinned by Russell in Las Vegas in December, has moved up from 133 — finishing fifth and seventh — but has not wrestled since suffering a knee injury during the Midlands semis.
Adding more excitement is the arrival of Penn State’s true freshman Andrew Alton, who showed how he’s pinned 16 of his first 24 victims when he put Marion on his back for a five-point move in the recent dual. But he also showed he was a freshman by allowing three third-period takedowns to the Hawkeye in the final period.
Others to keep an eye on are Oklahoma’s Zack Bailey and Pitt’s Tyler Nauman, who claimed fourth and fifth last March.
Iowa’s Matt McDonough, last year’s champion, has definitely responded since losing in the Midlands final to Northwestern’s two-time All-American Brandon Precin, who sat out last year after claiming third and seventh in past tournaments. The Hawkeye sophomore pinned the Wildcat senior in their second meeting on Jan. 28. Don’t be surprised if you seen a third meeting, also in Evanston, the site of this year’s Big Ten Tournament.
Actually, McDonough’s toughest competition may come from Arizona State’s Anthony Robles, whose life story — which includes competing with one leg — has been an inspiration for many at the past three NCAAs, where the Sun Devil left the arenas with standing ovations.
Also McDonough has never faced Robles, who has scored 17 technical falls through January; many coming with a tight-waist tilt that opponents cannot stop.
Oklahoma State’s top-ranked Jordan Oliver finished fourth in his first NCAA tournament last year and did not have to face No. 2 Andrew Hochstrasser, who was sidelined this past postseason because of academic questions. But the Cowboy did edge the Bronco in the NWCA All-Star Classic where Hochstrasser, a fourth-place finisher in 2009, came within seconds of beating Oliver.
Among those itching to reach a final … and an All-American honor … is Hofstra’s Lou Ruggirello, who redshirted last season after coming within one win of All-American honors in 2008 and 2009.
Cornell’s top-ranked Cam Simaz, who finished third last season, is just one of three returning All-Americans from last March. The others are Wisconsin’s Trevor Brandvold (sixth place) and Minnesota’s Sonny Yohn (eighth).
Joining the competition in Philadelphia are two who medaled at 184 pounds last spring: Oklahoma State’s Clayton Foster and Kent State’s Dustin Kilgore, who handed Simaz his only loss this season in November.
One surprise finisher could be Indiana junior Matt Powless, who led the 197-pounders with 30 victories and his only losses have been to Simaz.
Only four All-American honors have been earned at this weight, one of which was a fifth-place finish by American’s Steve Fittery. His biggest rival could be Penn State freshman David Taylor who won all but one of his first 28 bouts by a major decision or greater.
2010 national runner-up Kirk Smith of Boise State should be the easy favorite, but injuries prevented him from competing until the National Duals. Edinboro’s Chris Honeycutt, who redshirted last year after coming up short twice at 184 pounds, could be his toughest competition.
Meanwhile, a couple Cowboys — Wyoming’s Joe LeBlanc (fourth last year) and Oklahoma State freshman Chris Perry — could ride the field in Philly.
There are plenty of well-known heavyweights, but only Lehigh’s Zach Rey, who finished third last year, and Central Michigan’s Jarod Trice (eighth) medaled last year or any other past tournament. Many of the big men are from Eastern schools, including American’s Ryan Flores, Pitt’s Ryan Tomei and Rutgers’ Dom Russo.