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What will it take for top teams to win 2022 NCAAs?
Photo: Penn State’s Nick Lee (below) and Iowa’s Jaydin Eierman split postseason Big Ten and NCAA title matches at 141 pounds in 2021. Could the match-up affect the team race this March? (John Sachs photo)
By Bryan Van Kley
Can you remember a season in Division I wrestling where teams at the top were so loaded with talent? Add in all the additional fifth-year (or longer) seniors — still looking for one final shot at NCAA glory — and you have the makings for one of the best NCAA Championships of all time.
There are three programs in Penn State, Iowa and Michigan which have the horsepower to win the team championship, March 17-19, in Detroit. I know, every year, coaches from the top three to five teams feel they could win the team race if they wrestle their best. Coaches believe in their guys and they know what they’re capable.
I’m not referring to that kind of confidence. I’m referring to the types of teams where they legitimately could have seven or more All-Americans in ten weights, as well as multiple guys who can or should win NCAA individual titles.
What does the pathway look like for teams to take the gold trophy home from the Motor City this year? I’m predicting it’s going to take a team with seven All-Americans with five in the top four. Once you get a spot in the top four, either by making the finals or winning a consolation semifinal, the points really start racking up. The point totals and final All-American counts of the last two team champions validate my prediction.
Iowa won last year with 129 points fueled by seven All-Americans, three finalists and six guys in the top six. Looking back to 2019 (since there wasn’t a Nationals in 2020 because of the pandemic), Penn State tallied 137 points, had seven All-Americans, five finalists and three champs.
Penn State and coach Cael Sanderson return four champs in Roman Bravo-Young (133), Nick Lee (141), Carter Starocci (174) and Aaron Brooks (184). Obviously, anything can happen at any weight, but let’s assume all four of those guys finish in the top four again in March barring injuries.
Based on my above “NCAA team title recipe” with five placing in the top four spots and seven in the top eight, who might the other three guys be who will win a lot of matches in Detroit for the Lions?
It likely will come from the extreme ends of the weight classes. I think Penn State’s best chance for another top-four finisher will come out of the top two weights: either Cornell transfer Max Dean (ranked No. 3 at 197) or Greg Kerkvliet (No. 4 at 285). Following in the NCAA successful footprints of his older and two-time champ brother Gabe, Max made the finals in 2019. Kerkvliet placed seventh last year in his first trip to the NCAAs.
That’s an extremely strong group of six for Penn State. Add in Central Michigan transfer Drew Hildebrandt, who got fourth last year at 125, and you can be certain fans in Happy Valley will expect the Lions to regain their spot on the top of the Division I wrestling mountain in a couple months.
Defending champ Iowa and third-ranked Michigan can certainly win as well, but they will need to have their teams really peaking at the right time and get some help from others knocking off some of the mainstays of the other two title-contending teams.
Iowa has a solid quartet of four guys they’re very confident have the talent and experience to not only finish in the top four, but make the finals. That group of seniors is Austin DeSanto (No. 3 at 133), Jaydin Eierman (No. 2 at 141), Alex Marinelli (No. 3 at 165) and Michael Kemerer (No. 2 at 174).
Who else can step up for Iowa and provide the additional team points most likely needed to win it? Their next two highest-ranked wrestlers are at 197 and heavyweight, similar to Penn State.
Seniors Jacob Warner and Tony Cassioppi are both ranked fifth at 197 and 285, respectively. If both guys make the consolation final and Iowa gets good tournaments out of a couple other Hawks, Iowa will pile up a lot of points again this year like they did in 2021.
That next group who can place if they wrestle well for Iowa is All-Americans Max Murin (No. 17 at 149), Kaleb Young (No. 15 at 157) and true freshman Drake Ayala (No. 13 at 125). Ayala’s redshirt was pulled in early January after starter Spencer Lee was lost to season-ending knee surgery on both knees. After losing to Minnesota’s Patrick McKee (previously No. 7), Ayala knocked off No. 10 Devin Schroeder of Purdue in a home dual.
Like Iowa, Michigan’s path to the top of the team-race mountain will only happen if seasoned vets, who were able to return this season, wrestle up to potential at the NCAAs. Michigan has three guys ranked in the top four in transfer Nick Suriano (No. 2 at 125), Olympic bronze medalist Myles Amine (No. 3 at 84), and Mason Paris (No. 2 at 285).
Rankings, conference-tournament placements and seeds will dramatically affect how the team race unfolds. But you can be sure that coach Sean Bormet is looking for several other Wolverines to feel the momentum and support from the partisan crowd while wrestling in their backyard in Detroit, and place high.
Michigan will likely need at least four more All-Americans with two more placing top four. Michigan has Dylan Ragusin (No. 7 at 133), Stevan Micic (No. 10 at 141), Cam Amine (No. 10 at 165), Logan Massa (No. 6 at 174) and Patrick Brucki (No. 8 at 197).
Like Iowa, Michigan has guys ranked at all ten weights with senior Kanen Storr (No. 18 at 141) and sophomore Will Lewan (No. 14 at 157) rounding out the lineup at this point in the season.
It will be critical for all three teams to keep guys healthy and to make sure they have nearly their best team on the mat at the NCAAs. And like most years, the eventual championship team will be peaking during those three memorable days in March and racking up a lot of bonus points to separate themselves from the pack.
However it plays out, it sure will be fun! Stay tuned.
(WIN Publisher Bryan Van Kley can be reached at Bryan@WIN-magazine.com.)