2022 NCAA champs also once hailed as No. 1 preps

Updated: April 15, 2022

Photo: Seven years before Gable Steveson and Cohlton Schultz met in the 2022 NCAA final, the two met in the 2015 Cadet Nationals, where Steveson also prevailed.

By Rob Sherrill

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

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 we’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.

Click here to view a complete NCAA rundown, weight by weight of former prep wrestlers-turned NCAA All-Americans.

And that’s why this brief look back is always so interesting — in a sense, it’s my personal report card. I hope it’s as interesting for all of you.

As we’ve seen over the years, nothing is absolute. The No. 1 wrestler in high school, it stands to reason, 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  in Detroit March 17-19 — is any indication, not necessarily. However, the guys at the top of the table are becoming increasingly more dominant each year.

It was a record year for No. 1s by every measure. Seven of the 10 NCAA champions finished their prep careers ranked No. 1 by WIN: Nick Suriano (125) of Michigan, Roman Bravo-Young (133), Carter Starocci (174) and Aaron Brooks (184) of Penn State, Yianni Diakomihalis (149) of Cornell, Keegan O’Toole (165) of Missouri and Gable Steveson (285) of Minnesota.

It was the sixth straight tournament at least three No. 1s won titles. Ten finalists and 24 All-Americans finished No. 1, also records. At least one No. 1 could be found among the All-Americans at every weight class but 141.

 An eighth champ finished his career ranked No. 3. But Ryan Deakin (157) of Northwestern finished his prep career outside our top 20 entirely — at No. 21 — and Max Dean (197) of Penn State finished slightly higher, at No. 17.

This column by Rob Sherrill appeared in WIN’s 2022 Nationals Commemorative Issue. Click on cover or call 888-305-0606 to subscribe.

The expansion of our individual rankings from 20 to 25 at each weight class in 2014 paved the way for Deakin to make the list. He paid that off handsomely for the Wildcats, earning three All-America finishes as well as this year’s title. A dozen All-Americans finished their careers ranked in the second 10; so did four finalists. No matter where you finish your high school career, it can be done.

And there were more behind Deakin and Dean. Led by North Carolina’s Kizhan Clarke, the runner-up at 141, seven All-Americans finished their prep careers unranked entirely. That ties the record low set last year; nine All-Americans finished unranked in 2019 (there was no tournament in 2020). Clarke, a Florida 3A state champion at Riverview High School as a senior in 2016, was one of three unranked All-Americans at 141, the only weight with more than one such wrestler.

Of the 79 All-Americans who are products of American high school wrestling (Yonger Bastida of Iowa State, fifth at 197, is a native Cuban), nearly one in three — 52 — finished their careers ranked in the top 5 in our rankings. That’s the same number as the 2019 tournament, and one fewer than the 53 who finished in the top five in 2021. The NCAA’s decision to award all wrestlers an additional year of eligibility due to the pandemic pause, along with Olympic redshirts, was felt this season. Nearly one in four All-Americans — 18 of the 79 — came from the classes of 2016 and 2015. All competed longer than the five seasons normally allotted wrestlers to complete their four years of eligibility.

The oldest field in tournament history and the absence of defending champion A.J. Ferrari of Oklahoma State due to injury resulted in experience showing up more often on the podium this year. The fourth-year Class of 2018 produced three champions and 23 All-Americans, the latter tops among the seven recruiting classes that produced an All-American.                       The fifth-year Class of 2017 was next with 19 All-Americans. Suriano, Deakin and Dean gave the Class of 2016 three champions as well, unprecedented for a class more than five years removed from high school. That class also produced 13 All-Americans.

And while the past two NCAA tournaments produced four true freshman All-Americans each, Dean Hamiti of Wisconsin who finished sixth at 165 was the only true freshman to reach the podium in 2022. Expect similar numbers if the average age of the field remains this high.

Keegan O’Toole (165), the Junior Hodge Trophy winner two years ago, was the youngest champion, and Mizzou teammate Rocky Elam (197) matched O’Toole with a second All-America finish in as many years out of high school. The 79 native All-Americans are from 22 states.

Regardless of finish, however, the 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.

So what does all of this mean?

More than anything, it means 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 bullseye. And not being No. 1 obviously translates more to motivation than it does to NCAA losses. Just look at this year’s All-Americans.

(A native of Chicago’s south suburbs, Rob Sherrill has been covering high school wrestling on the national level since 1978 and has served as WIN’s high school columnist since 1997.)