From high school to the NCAA…it’s rarely by the book

Updated: March 21, 2012

By Rob Sherrill

This is one of the columns I have the most fun writing every year. The NCAA Division I Championships are the measuring stick for every college wrestler in America. Everybody remembers what happened those three heart-stopping days in March.

Rob Sherrill

It’s also, in a sense, an evaluation of how well I do my job. After all, the rankings I do every issue during the season for WIN are more than just the pecking order for the nation’s best high school wrestlers. They also provide the basis for a lot of speculation — by college coaches and by fans — of who they’re most likely to see on the awards stand at future NCAA tournaments. They’re my take on whom you’ll see becoming the champions and All-Americans of the future.

And that’s why this brief look back is always so interesting. I hope it is for all of you as well.

But, as we’ve seen over the years, nothing is absolute. The No. 1 wrestler in high school, it stands to reasons, is going to be No. 1 in college as well…right?

If the tournament everybody in the rankings is shooting for — the NCAA Championships, held most recently at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis in March — is any indication, not a whole lot.

This year, only four of the 20 NCAA finalists finished their high school careers No. 1 in my rankings in WIN (though that’s up from two last year and three in 2010). Logan Stieber (133) of Ohio State and Edward Ruth (174) of Penn State made this the first year since 2009 that multiple No. 1s became champions. For the third year in a row, though, No. 2 was the place to be, with three of the 10 champions finishing No. 2 — more than any other ranking — and five No. 2’s advanced to the finals, also the most of any final ranking.

Among the rest of the champions, one finished his high school career ranked No. 5, two others No. 6, one No. 9 and one — Cam Simaz (197) of Cornell — was unranked entirely. Looking at the 78 All-Americans who are products of American high school wrestling, 13 — or one in six — finished their high school senior seasons unranked entirely and 20 more closed with rankings in the double digits.

That’s down from the 2010 NCAAs, though, which proved a bonanza for the underdog as 22 unranked wrestlers — more than one in four — earned All-America honors. And nearly half of this year’s All-Americans — 38 of the 78 — finished their high school careers in the top five, so it helps to be in the neighborhood.

The six true freshmen, who earned All-America honors at St. Louis, however, clearly were A-listers. Four of the six finished last year ranked No. 1, while one finished No. 3 and the other No. 4.

Regardless of finish, however, the NCAA All-Americans demonstrate to us every year that their success doesn’t come from rankings. It comes from talent, athletic ability, technique … and perhaps most of all, a passion for the sport. That’s what keeps me coming back every year: the chance to do it just a little better than last year. It’s a dirty, thankless job so I might as well keep doing it.

Here’s a quick NCAA rundown, weight by weight:

125: Two of the eight All-Americans finished their careers ranked No. 1, but they were the runner-up in Nico Megaludis of Penn State and third-place Zach Sanders of Minnesota. They were among 15 No. 1’s to become All-Americans this year, nearly double last year’s total of just eight. Two-time champion Matt McDonough of Iowa was a No. 5, Frank Perrelli (fourth) of Cornell a No. 8 and two-time All-American Ryan Mango (fifth) of Stanford a No. 4. But there were also two double-digit All-Americans, Nic Bedelyon (sixth) of Kent State at No. 13 and Jesse Delgado (seventh) of Illinois at No. 15. And Steve Bonanno (eighth) of Hofstra was unranked, as were one half of the eighth-place finishers. That’s where the hidden gems often can be found.

133: Led by Logan Stieber, this weight came the closest to chalk for the second straight year. The top six were all top-five finishers and all eight were ranked … a feat matched only at 149 pounds. Jordan Oliver (second) of Oklahoma State and Chris Dardanes (fourth) of Minnesota were No. 2s, B.J. Futrell (sixth) of Illinois a No. 3 and Tony Ramos (third) of Iowa and Devin Carter (fifth) of Virginia Tech checked in at No. 5. You had to check further down the list, though, to find seventh-place Zach Stevens of Michigan (No. 14) and eighth-place Steven Keith of Harvard (No. 19).

141: The two former prep No. 1s at this weight — Michael Mangrum of Oregon State and Hunter Stieber of Ohio State — met for fifth place with Mangrum winning. Shows what we know. Two-time champion Kellen Russell of Michigan was a No. 2 and Boris Novachkov (third) of Cal Poly was a No. 3. But runner-up and three-time All-American Montell Marion of Iowa (No. 15) was one of three double-digit All-Americans at this weight. Mike Nevinger (seventh) of Cornell finished No. 12 and Kendric Maple (fourth) of Oklahoma checked in at No. 13. And Darrius Little (eighth) of North Carolina State, a small-school state champion as a senior, never got a sniff in our rankings.

149: Four-time All-American and finally NCAA champion Frank Molinaro of Penn State was a No. 6 to finish his high school career. Once again, there were two No. 1s … and once again, they were in the middle of the pack: Cam Tessari (fourth) of Ohio State and Tyler Nauman (fifth) of Pittsburgh. Nick Lester (eighth) of Oklahoma finished No. 2 and runner-up Dylan Ness of Minnesota No. 4. That left three double-digit All-Americans: Scott Sakaguchi (seventh) of Oregon State finished No. 10 and Donald Vinson (third) of Binghamton and Justin Accordino (sixth) of Hofstra both finished No. 11.

157:  Maybe you’d expect Kyle Dake of Cornell, who capped a third straight dominating season with a third NCAA title at as many weight classes, to be highly ranked his senior year. How about ninth? It was a tough weight class, though, and Dake never was off our radar screen completely. The weight’s two No. 1s — Dylan Alton of Penn State and Jason Welch of Northwestern — met for third place with the Nittany Lion winning. James Green (seventh) of Nebraska was No. 4 and runner-up Derek St. John of Iowa No. 6. Two Pennsylvania natives, James Fleming (fifth) of Clarion, finished No. 18 and two-time All-American Walter Peppelman (eighth) of Harvard outside the Top 20.

165: This was one of just two weight classes without a No. 1 finisher, including the champion, David Taylor of Penn State, who was a No. 2 to finish his career. The next highest was the eighth-place finisher, Conrad Polz of Illinois (No. 4). Peter Yates (fifth) of Virginia Tech was No. 6, and Ben Jordan (seventh) of Wisconsin (No. 10) just cracked the top half of the rankings. Finalist Brandon Hatchett of Lehigh, meanwhile, finished No. 15 and Kyle Blevins (fourth) of Appalachian State and Josh Asper (sixth) of Maryland, despite the latter’s four state titles, were unranked.

174: Ruth was one of three No. 1s at this weight; the most in any class. Joining Ruth were Chris Perry (third) of Oklahoma State and six-time South Dakota champion Logan Storley (sixth) of Minnesota, another of the true freshman All-Americans. Ethen Lofthouse (seventh) of Iowa was No. 3 and Jordan Blanton (fourth) of Illinois checked in at No. 4. Two-time finalist Nick Amuchastegui of Stanford, however, was No. 14. Nick Heflin (fifth) of Ohio State was No. 12 and Ryan DesRoches (eighth) of Cal Poly was unranked.

184: Champion Steve Bosak of Cornell was a No. 6, while runner-up Quentin Wright of Penn State was a No. 2. The only No. 1 at the weight, Ben Bennett of Central Michigan, once again finished back in the pack; he was sixth. Meanwhile, the other five All-Americans finished their high school careers way down the list. Three were in double digits, including two-time All-Americans Kevin Steinhaus (fifth) of Minnesota (No. 12) and Robert Hamlin (fourth) of Lehigh (No. 17). Josh Ihnen (eighth) of Nebraska was No. 13. Meanwhile, Austin Trotman (third) of Appalachian State and Joe LeBlanc (seventh) of Wyoming finished their prep careers unranked.

197: The All-Americans blew the chalk to smithereens at this weight. The only wrestlers to finish their high school careers with single-digit rankings: Sonny Yohn of Minnesota (No. 3) and Alfonso Hernandez of Wyoming (No. 9), met for fifth place with the Gopher winning. Simaz, who followed up two third-place finishes with his title, was one of four unranked All-Americans, and the wrestler he beat in the finals, Chris Honeycutt of Edinboro, checked in at No. 10. Cayle Byers (third) of Oklahoma State finished No. 13 and Matt Wilps (fourth) of Pittsburgh, Micah Burak (seventh) of Pennsylvania and Joe Kennedy (eight) of Lehigh finished unranked.

285: With seven of the eight All-Americans finishing their high school careers No. 4 or better, the big guys went according to form. Champion Tony Nelson of Minnesota was a 215-pounder in high school, finishing No. 2, as was Ryan Flores (sixth) of American, checking in at No. 4. Zach Rey (second) of Lehigh and Michael McMullan (third) of Northwestern were the weight’s two No. 1s. Bobby Telford (fifth) of Iowa was a No. 2, with Jeremy Johnson of Ohio (seventh) and Nick Gwiazdowski (eighth) of Binghamton both No. 3s. That left room for the final unranked All-American, Clayton Jack (fourth) of Oregon State.

So…what does all of this mean?

More than anything, it means that we care a lot more about the rankings than the wrestlers do — and that’s as it should be. A No. 1 ranking doesn’t guarantee you anything but a big bulls-eye. And not being No. 1 obviously translates more to motivation than it does to failure. Just look at this year’s All-Americans.