The 2022 college wrestling national championships are over … but the great...
Western wrestlers blowing up 184-pound weight class
By Mike Finn, WIN Editor
When Arizona State’s Blake Stauffer (above) defeated Oregon State’s Taylor Meeks for the 184-pound championship at the recent Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational, it did more than determine who’s the best wrestler at that weight class in the Pac-12 Conference.
The fact that these two wrestlers — from a part of the country where the number of Division I programs has diminished over the years — reached the CKLV Invite finals … as well as the third-place performance by North Dakota State’s Hayden Zillmer … proved that 184 pounds could be unpredictable this year. Cornell’s Gabe Dean, who was ranked No. 1 before Vegas, left the tourney with a fourth-place finish.
Dean and Old Dominion’s Jack Dechow, who finished third and fourth in last year’s NCAAs, were among just four returning All-Americans at this weight class. The others were Penn’s Lorenzo Thomas (6th) and Brown’s Ophir Bernstein (8th), who like Dean and Dechow all reside on the East Coast.
But when it came to the 33rd annual Las Vegas Invite, Dec. 5-6, the top three wrestlers were Stauffer as well as Meeks and Zillmer (who both defeated Dean). And while the current top-ranked wrestler is Pitt’s Max Thomusseit, this trio of western wrestlers — none of whom were ranked higher than 11th before Vegas — have moved into the Top 10 and made a statement with their success at the CKLV.
“It just shows how wide open this weight class is,” said Stauffer, who moved from 13th to 6th in WIN’s rankings after defeating Meeks, 5-2, in the final. “It’s up to whoever wants to go and take it.”
It appeared that Meeks — the 2013 All-American who dropped down from 197 pounds and moved from 11th to 7th in the Dec. 8 rankings — would be the top man standing after he defeated Dean, 4-3 in sudden victory during the semifinals. But a pair of takedowns by Stauffer gave the Sun Devil bragging rights within the Pac-12, which only features six teams.
“Absolutely, it was important beating a conference rival,” said Stauffer, a junior from Neosho, Mo., who was 44-15 before this season and qualified for the last two NCAAs, but has yet to place among the Top 8. “It’s just a rivalry that we have and when you get to conference match-ups, it’s important.”
Stauffer is also thrilled that Zeke Jones, the former USA Wrestling national freestyle coach, decided to return this season and coach his alma mater.
“It’s huge,” Stauffer said. “The organization, the structure, the knowledge that Zeke brings and then he brought in Jordan Oliver and Chris Pendleton and kept Lee Pritts.
“We are able to pick those guys’ minds every day and work on little things here and there. Those guys have helped me turn the page, so to speak and set the program in the right direction.
Zillmer, who lost to Stauffer, 4-2 in a tiebreaker in the semifinals, but came back to beat Dean, 8-3, in the third-place match, also has yet to place after competing in last year’s NCAAs … but moved from 14th to 9th in WIN’s rankings.
This 6-foot-3 junior from Crosby, Minn., waited until he got to college before he really had a growth spurt … after winning three Minnesota state titles at 103, 112 and 130 pounds.
“It took me a while to develop into my body a little bit,” said Zillmer. “Once I grew, I grew so quick. Now that I have developed and have gotten my strength underneath me from where I was, I feel pretty good.
“I’ve had all those growing pains and stuff like that all through college. My folks and their parents developed late and my dad stands 6-6. He’s a big boy. If I was his size, I’d be wrestling heavyweight.”
As far as the 184-pound weight class, “I feel like everyone is right there,” Zillmer said. “Everyone is banging hard and everyone is getting everyone better.”