With so many past AAs seeded low, is this the deepest-ever NCAA

Updated: March 15, 2023

Photo: Cornell’s Mike Grey (left), Oklahoma State’s John Smith and Missouri’s Brian Smith were among six coaches and six wrestlers, competing in the 2023 NCAA Division I Championships,  who met with the media on Wednesday afternoon at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla. (Sam Janicki photo)

By Mike Finn

There will once again be 330 wrestlers competing in the 2023 NCAA Division I Championships in Tulsa, Okla., a number that has been consistent for the past 30 years … as 33 wrestlers per each of the 10 weights will compete in the BOK Center, Thursday through Saturday.

Keep up with all the action of the 2023 NCAA Championship by going to WIN-Magazine.com’s “National Championships Central.” WIN will also provide comprehensive coverage in the next issue of WIN that will be printed March 30. Click here or call 888-305-0606 to subscribe.

But there is something unique in this year’s field as 77 All-Americans return but 25 are not seeded in the Top eight of their weight class and not projected to place this year.

That includes 197 pounds where last year’s finalists — champion Max Dean of Penn State and runner-up Jacob Warner of Iowa — are seeded No. 9 and 14, respectively, in this year’s national tournament.

“One reason is that there are many sixth-year wrestlers still competing,” said Oklahoma State coach John Smith, pointing out that the COVID pandemic, which cancelled the 2020 NCAAs, gave many wrestlers an extra year of competition. “Every team here probably has some of those wrestlers.”

“Kids are staying longer,” said Missouri coach Brian Smith, who is in his 25th year at Missouri and has a 10-man team competing in Tulsa. “I also think the talent coming into college wrestling continues to get better and better. When I started coaching, you redshirted most of the true freshmen. And now they are ready to go.”

“The talent is unreal right now,” said Cornell coach Mike Grey. “There is such an emphasis on the age-level World Championships.”

 “I think there is a level of parity,” said Oregon State head coach Chris Pendleton, a former NCAA champ from Oklahoma State. “When I competed, I could name three or four programs continually in the hunt for an NCAA trophy. Now when you look at the brackets, there are at least 15 teams in the running.”

Childhood memories and recommendations

North Carolina’s Austin O’Connor is one of those wrestlers who started his college career six years ago. Over that time, he has earned three All-American honors — including a national championship at 149 pounds in 2021 — and is seeded No. 1 at 157 pounds.

Cornell’s Yianni Diakomihalis, Oklahoma State’s Daton Fix and Michigan’s Mason Parris. (Sam Janicki photo)

As the Tar Heel and many of the 129 seniors/graduates in this year’s field prepare to wrestle their final college folkstyle event, they also can’t help but look back at when they wrestled as kids against many of today’s stars.

For example, Iowa’s Spencer Lee and Cornell’s Yianni Diakomihalis — wrestlers who are trying to become the NCAA’s fifth and sixth all-time four-time champions at 125 and 149 pounds, respectively — faced each other when they were 10 years old in a Pennsylvania kids’ tournament.

And O’Connor, who now weighs over 30 pounds more than Lee, also remembers when he faced the current Hawkeye star in a Junior Duals tournament that took place in Oklahoma, when O’Connor represented an Illinois team against a Pennsylvania squad that included Lee.

“In the first match, he whooped up on me in freestyle, took me down and caught me in a trap arm,” recalled O’Connor. “In Greco, I actually hit a filthy throw. I got a five from the center, but the two side refs wiped it off and he ended up getting the best of me in that match, too. I remember we were like 120 pounds and I wrestled (Oklahoma State’s three-time All-American) Daton Fix, too.”

Now a days, these wrestlers smile at their childhood memories, but realize they can offer advice to today’s young wrestlers who would love to be in the shoes of the 2023 NCAA wrestlers.

“My advice to young kids is to keep having fun and enjoying the process,” said Lee, who is one of many competing in this year’s tournament who also wrestled in the Tulsa Nationals, a longtime kids tournament held in this Oklahoma community. “If you keep that passion high, maybe you’ll also be in this stage someday.”

“The one thing to keep in mind is consistency,” said O’Connor. “I’ve always stayed true to that and it’s helped me in college.”

“I’m just a believer in hard work and maximizing your opportunities,” said Penn State’s Roman Bravo-Young, looking to become a three-time national champ. “Enjoy the ups and downs.”

“There are two sides to it,” said Cornell’s Yianni Diakomihalis. “On one hand, you want to take on all of those challenges, find the best guys and push yourself. But on the other side, you are going to look back at yourself as a 10-year-old wrestler and laugh at it. That’s where you learn and get better, but you are not going to live and die by what you do at the Tulsa Nationals. Make it about growth and development more than how great you are.”

“Wrestling as a kid, sometimes I put a lot of pressure on myself,” said Michigan’s Mason Parris, the 2021 national runner-up and top-ranked heavyweight in 2023.  “The main thing is to go out there and have fun and learn from the life lessons that you get from wrestling, which have molded me into the person that I am.”
“I always tell kids that wrestling is too hard of a sport to put pressure on yourself,” said Oklahoma State’s Daton Fix. “It’s about having fun and falling in love with the sport. If you don’t love the sport, especially when you get to college, it’s not worth it at that point.”

John Smith at home in Oklahoma

No current NCAA Division I coach has been involved in more NCAA tournaments than Oklahoma State’s head man John Smith. Finishing his 31st year in Stillwater, Okla., the former three-time NCAA champion returned to his alma mater in 1992 and lead OSU to five NCAA team titles in 1994, 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006 while coaching 33 NCAA individual champions.

But don’t expect the 57-year-old native of Del City., Okla., to hang up his coaching jacket any time soon.

“I enjoy the sport,” said Smith, whose Cowboys finished second in the recent Big 12 tournament. This came after the 2022 OSU squad finished 15th and he was forced to drop 2021 NCAA champion A.J. Ferrari from the team. “These experiences are motivation, good or bad. The past two years are probably the most challenging years I’ve ever had.”

There are plans to build a new wrestling facility on the OSU campus.

“You never plan to coach this long,” Smith added. “Oklahoma State has been very good to me and my family. It’s important to have support from your institution’s athletic department. It makes a big difference on how long you want to coach.”

Smith also takes pride in seeing many of his Cowboy wrestlers become coaches on the NCAA Division I level. That includes NC State’s Pat Popolizio, a three-time national qualifier for the Cowboys (1998-2001) and Oregon State’s Chris Pendleton, a two-time NCAA champ and three-time All-American (2003-05) for coach Smith.

“It’s fun to watch them, but you don’t like to see them place ahead of you (at the NCAAs),” Smith joked. “There had been some concerned about where they are and good to see those institutions behind them.”

“It was an honor to wrestle for coach Smith and the mentality he created in his wrestlers,” said Popolizio. “You see a winner in him competing till this day. His mentorship to us coaches is different from what he gave us as athletes. You take that philosophy with you as a coach.”

“The first thing that you learn as a Cowboy is that no one is bigger than the program,” Pendleton said. “That has shaped the philosophy of our culture at Oregon State.”

Comparing the NCAAs with the Worlds

Many of the 2023 NCAA participants would love to represent the United States in future World/Olympic championships in freestyle. In fact, many have already done that including Oklahoma State’s Daton Fix and Cornell’s Yianni Diakomihalis, who each have claimed World silver medals during their college careers.

 “(The NCAAs) are much more of a spectacle,” said Diakomihalis. “If you are not the type of guy who stays focused for a long time and drowns out all this other stuff (including speaking to the media), it could turn out to be very difficult. The guys at the World Championships are better and it’s more about the wrestling there. Part of enjoying success at the NCAAs is dealing with all the extracurricular stuff.”

“The NCAAs are more of a grind,” said Fix. “When you go overseas, you will have been training for just a few weeks before going and your body is a little fresher. Here you spend a whole season preparing for this moment.”

Michigan’s Mason Parris has also won a Junior World championship during his days in Ann Arbor, Mich.

“I don’t know anyone at those World tournaments while all these guys here I’ve known for a long time,” Parris said. “The NCAAs are about handling it and treating it like any other wrestling match.”

Missing from the field

Two wrestlers — Appalachian State senior Jon Millner (149) and Lehigh sophomore Connor McGonagle (133) — were forced to withdraw from the 2023 Nationals.

A native of Greensboro, N.C., Millner was a two-time All-American, who went 132-32 during his career. Millner became App State’s first four-time SoCon champion and earned AA honors in 2021 (eighth-place finish) and 2022 (sixth-place finish).

McGonagle, who earned a berth as an at-large selection, is a native of Danville, N.H., who had qualified for the 2021 and 2022 Nationals. He was 12-3 this season and 43-27 in his career.