My Three Biggest Takeaways From An Insane NCAA Wrestling Championship Weekend
March Mat-ness never disappoints.
I need a cigarette after that weekend of wrestling, holy cow. Anytime you get the nations best collegiate wrestlers in an arena for three days, there's a strong chance that all hell will break loose; and boy did it. We saw seven past champs bring home national titles, teams that haven't had a finalist in over a decade get two to the big match, and a retirement that shocked me to my core.
Gable Steveson is the Most Talented Wrestler of the Past Decade
Following Gables 6-2 win in the finals over Arizona States Cohlton Schultz, the fans watched him hit his signature backflip and flex and then in a shocking yet not so surprising move, unlaced his wrestling shoes and left them at the center of the mat. In the wrestling community this is a sign of retirement from the sport.
Watching this with my friends in real time made my jaw drop, but really thinking about it, it made sense. He's set up with a contract from the WWE and Vince McMahon is drooling to get him in the ring so Gables retirement makes sense. It still leaves me heartbroken though as I know he'd return and win another National title next year.
When you look at the collegiate career that Gable carved out for himself, it's pretty amazing. He totes an 85-2 total record with his only 2 losses coming at the hands of Penn States Anthony Cassar in 2019. Steveson is a 3 time BIG Ten Champion and a one time runner up while also being a 2 time National Champ and a one time bronze medalist. Gable has a 96.88% win percentage and a 72.03% bonus win percentage.
If you look past his collegiate career, he's 34-6 on the freestyle circuit winning gold twice at Cadet Worlds in 2015 and 2016, gold at the 2017 Junior Worlds, gold at the 2021 Pan Am Games, and gold at the 2020 Olympics. At just 21, he has to be the most decorated wrestler ever for his age.
Aside from Gables accolades, his pure talent is better than anyone that has ever touched the mat in college in a decade. He's 265 pounds and moves like a 157 pound wrestler. His brute strength and technical style makes him near untouchable because other heavyweights of the past can't do what he does. He's a bear on top and has an arsenal of moves from neutral with ankle and knee picks, arm drags, and singles. Give me any past heavyweight that has won like Kyle Snyder or Nick Gwiazdowski against Gable and I'm taking Gable.
It's sad to see him leave a sport I have so much love for, but I'm happy that he's moving onto a huge corporation to represent the wrestling community.
No Matter What Happens in the Regular Season, Penn State Turns it up At Tournament Time
Iowa held the number one team ranking for a good chunk of the season and Michigan won the BIG Ten tournament, but nothing matters until you hit nationals. Penn State proved that statement. Year after year teams look to dethrone the Nittany Lions and in 2021, Iowa was successful. And then in 2015 Ohio State took down Cael Sanderson's team, but from 2011 to 2022, Penn State has won every National Title but two.
That's a run that is in the same realm as the late 70's early 80's Iowa Hawkeyes and the early 2000's Oklahoma State Cowboys, but to me it's the most impressive.
At BIG Tens this year, Penn State lost the team race to Michigan by 4.5 points and had 4 wrestlers atop the podium. At Nationals they won the team race by 35.5 points and had 5 champions and another wrestler make All American status. Wrestling is all about when you peak and every year the Nittany Lions peak at the right time.
This years best examples for Penn State were heavyweight Greg Kerkvliet and 184 Aaron Brooks. Kerkvliet took third at BIG Tens suffering a 2-1 sudden victory loss to Iowas Tony Cassioppi in the semifinals. Kerkvliet ended up taking third at the tournament. Fast forward to Nationals and Kerkvliet wrestled his absolute best and lost to eventual National champ Gable Steveson 8-3 in the semis and injury defaulted to 4th place. As for Cassioppi, he peaked too early and took 7th.
Aaron Brooks made the 184 finals at BIG Tens and lost 6-4 in sudden death to Myles Amine from Michigan. Then, Brooks squared off with Amine in the National finals and absolutely dominated Amine. He won 5-3 and accumulated just south of four minutes in riding time. It's all about when you peak, and for the past decade Penn State peaks at the right time.
The Depth and Competition at 165 Was Unreal this Season
I mentioned prior how every weight class had solid depth, but in my opinion, 165 topped the cake as the one with the most wrestlers that I thought would compete for All American.
The top eight that we saw make AA status was loaded and even some of the guys that missed it are elite level wrestlers; you can't say that about the other weight classes. Going into the weekend, my pick to win was Cal Poly senior Evan Wick. He unfortunately fell in the semifinals to Shane Griffith of Stanford who Wick bested three times prior this season. Wick ended up taking 3rd in the tournament. Now when you talk about Griffith, he was seeded 5th, but was the returning National champ at 165.
On the opposite side of the bracket in the semis, we saw a very good Cam Amine who took second at BIG Tens fall to Missouri freshman Keegan O'Toole who won his first National title. Amine lost to Wick in the 3rd/4th match to make AA status.
The match between Griffith and O'Toole in the finals was a great one. We witnessed two wrestlers with similar styles from their feet clash and it didn't fail to entertain the fans. I was pulling for Griffith because I would have loved to see him go back to back, but Keegan O'Toole winning 6-5 was epic.
Another stud at this weight was the very experienced and pretty fugly Alex Marinelli from Iowa. Marinelli won BIG Tens against Cam Amine and then at Nationals lost to Amine 6-3 in the quarterfinals. He wrestled back to take fifth beating Wisconsins Dean Hamiti. In the 7th/8th match, Carson Kharchla from Ohio State squeaked by Peyton Hall of West Virginia.
While eight talented and technical wrestlers made All American status, there are two guys that I thought would be on the podium that weren't. Jake Wentzel from Pitt was bounced in the consolation round of eight #2 by Hamiti, 8-0. This was a guy I was very confident would make AT LEAST top eight after he was 2nd the year prior, but losses to Hamiti and Kharchla trounced his chances.
The other was the red headed step child of the Valencia family, Anthony Valencia. He took 8th in 2021 and I thought he'd place 6th to 8th, but he was eliminated after losing to Wentzel in the consolation round of eight #1 13-2. Two disappointing performances, but this just proves how tough this weight class was the entire year and it only ramped up for the tournament.
Next year, I'm predicting that I'll be writing something similar as a lot of these beasts are going to be running it back. The best weight class in college will stay king in 2023.