By BROCK HITE
You won’t have trouble finding someone around Pittsburgh this weekend willing to tell you the NCAA Tournament is the best sporting event of the year. However, you might be surprised by which one they are speaking of.
PPG Paints Arena plays host to the NCAA Wrestling Championships this weekend, and action gets underway Thursday at noon. This is the tournament fans around Pittsburgh will be talking about, and you won’t find a more passionate group. They fully believe it is the pinnacle of athletic competition, and if you tune in to ESPN or get lucky enough to score a set of tickets to the sold out event, you will gain a better understanding of why these fans are so passionate about a sport many believe to be second tier.
PSA: I would keep the “second tier” comments to yourself when around the crowd with funny looking ears.
Here are some storylines to help you follow the Championships that culminate with the finals Saturday night at 7pm.
Spencer Lee (Iowa) is the returning champion, but only the No. 3 seed. He has been defeated twice this season by the top-seed Sebastian Rivera (Northwestern) and pinned once by second-seed Nick Piccininni (Oklahoma State). Not many people are ready to write off Lee, even with the rocky results of the regular season, and they are wise not to do so. Jack Mueller (Virginia) and Vitali Arujau (Cornell) are guys to watch outside the top 4.
Sebastian Rivera (Northwestern)
Nick Piccininni (OK ST)
Spencer Lee (Iowa)
Ronnie Bresser (OR ST)
3. Spencer Lee (Franklin Regional/Iowa)
29. Gage Curry (North Hills/American)
Lee is a championship contender and will be a headline win or lose. Curry will look to play the spoiler as he draws Bresser in the first round.
This weight has been circled by everyone with a wrestling opinion all year long. It has everything: returning finalists, returning All-Americans, super-freshmen, wrestlers changing weights, health concerns. You name the storyline and someone can point you to it at 133. John Smith, six time world champion and head coach at Oklahoma State actually referred to it as the best college weight class he’s ever seen. That should elicit excitement from anyone with a pulse.
Daton Fix (OK ST)
Stevan Micic (Michigan)
Nick Suriano (Rutgers)
Micky Phillippi (Pitt)
4. Micky Phillippi (Derry Area/Pitt)
5. Luke Pletcher (Greater Latrobe/Ohio State)
The Phillippi and Pletcher rivalry is still alive and well; they are scheduled for another round in the Friday morning quarter-finals. Beware of returning All-American Montorie Bridges (Wyoming) canceling or at least postponing that meeting. Both WPIAL wrestlers have to be considered title contenders, with a slight edge to Phillippi as the bigger threat. He owns the only victory of the year over top seeded Fix.
Many are looking forward to two high profile semifinals at 141 pounds. Returning champion Yianni Diakomihalis (Cornell) could face Jaydin Eierman (Missouri) and Nick Lee (Penn State) could have a rubber-match with Joey McKenna (Ohio State). Eierman is the only wrestler to defeat Diakomihalis in college. Lee and McKenna split bouts in the dual and Big Ten semifinal.
Yianni Diakomihalis (Cornell)
Joey McKenna (Ohio State)
Nick Lee (Penn State)
Josh Alber (Northern Iowa)
6. Michael Carr (South Fayette/Illinois)
21. AC Headlee (Waynesburg/North Carolina)
26. Sam Krivus (Hempfield/Virginia)
Mikey Carr is looking to rebound from a sub-par Big Ten Tournament where he finished eighth from the top-seed. If he’s back to form he could break up that bottom semifinal, as he defeated Nick Lee at the Big Ten Championships a year ago.
Anthony Ashnault wants to put his final stamp on the Rutgers program and become their first national champion. Twice this season he has defeated No. 2 seed Micah Jordan (Ohio State). Jordan is trying to break a drought of his own that exists for this generation of Jordan’s. Micah’s brother Bo (2017) and cousin Isaac (2016) both came up short in NCAA finals recently. Micah’s uncle Jim Jordan was a 2x NCAA champion for Ohio State.
Anthony Ashnault (Rutgers)
Micah Jordan (Ohio State)
Mitch Finesilver (Duke)
Brock Mauller (Missouri)
23. Josh Maruca (Franklin Regional/Arizona State)
Maruca finds himself in one of the toughest spots in the bracket. He opens with tenth-seed Pat Lugo (Iowa) and could see a path to the semifinal that runs through seventh-seed Kaden Gfeller (OK ST) and Jordan.
Jason Nolf is a generational talent. He is seeking his third NCAA title, is projected to eclipse 100 bonus point victories, owns the most falls in Penn State history, and has just three defeats in his entire career. Remove the injury default last season and Nolf dropped two bouts to four-time finalist, two-time champion Isaiah Martinez. Don’t look away when Nolf is on the mat. You probably aren’t going to be able to comprehend what is happening with his innovative style, but it is incredibly pleasing to watch.
Jason Nolf (Penn State)
Tyler Berger (Nebraska)
Ryan Deakin (Northwestern)
Alec Pantaleo (Michigan)
1. Jason Nolf (Kittaning/Penn State)
14. Zachary Hartman (Belle Vernon/Bucknell)
You can’t say much more about Nolf. Hartman has had an excellent freshman season at Bucknell and could press for a podium finish this weekend. His opening round bout against Griffin Parriott (Purdue) is very important.
Vincenzo Joseph (Penn State) is the two-time returning national champion at this weight, but not the top-seed. That’s Alex Marinelli (Iowa), who defeated Joseph in the Big Ten finals. Marinelli has a brutal draw that could start with Joseph Smith (OK ST) in the championship round of 32. Joseph doesn’t have an easy path either as he will likely face Isaiah White (Nebraska), who pressed Joseph to the tie breakers at last year’s NCAA Championships in Cleveland, Ohio.
Alex Marinelli (Iowa)
Vincenzo Joseph (Penn State)
Joshua Shields (Arizona State)
Evan Wick (Wisconsin)
2. Vincenzo Joseph (Pittsburgh Central Catholic/Penn State)
3. Joshua Shields (Franklin Regional/Arizona State)
21. Te’Shan Campbell (Penn Hills/Ohio State)
25. Cam Coy (Penn Trafford/Virginia)
Joseph and Shields could be headed for a semifinal showdown Friday night. They met in a dual in December and Joseph won comfortably, but scored big points off of a few situations. White and Logan Massa (Michigan) are the biggest roadblocks to the semifinal between Joseph and Shields becoming reality.
Zahid Valencia (Arizona State) didn’t drop a match last season, winning the crown over 2017 champion Mark Hall (Penn State). Hall turned that result around in a December dual as he controlled the Sun Devil. Valencia dropped down to the No. 3 seed after being pinned by Daniel Lewis (Missouri) in a late season dual. The mystery of this weight revolves around Valencia, and if he can show the form that made him untouchable during the 2018 campaign.
Mark Hall (Penn State)
Daniel Lewis (Missouri)
Zahid Valencia (Arizona State)
Myles Amine (Michigan)
19. Ethan Smith (Greater Latrobe/Ohio State)
Smith could get his crack at Valencia if he can get by Kimball Bastian (Utah Valley) in the opening round.
Myles Martin (Ohio State) is as heavy a favorite as there is in the field. The biggest unknown at any weight is probably Shakur Rasheed (Penn State). Rasheed is an undefeated second-seed, but missed a lot of time due to injury. He rested the injury after making the Big Ten final, so both the top seeds from the Big Ten come to the tournament undefeated.
Myles Martin (Ohio State)
Shakur Rasheed (Penn State)
Zack Zavatsky (Virginia Tech)
Emery Parker (Illinois)
3. Zack Zavatsky (Greater Latrobe/Virginia Tech)
13. Nino Bonaccorsi (Bethel Park/Pitt)
Both Zavatsky and Bonaccorsi should contend for All-American honors. Many felt Bonaccorsi deserved a higher seed with his resumé. He will have a chance to put himself in the driver’s seat early as he should hit fourth-seed Emery Parker in the second round. Zavatsky is the en vogue pick to make the finals from the bottom bracket with Rasheed’s health being unknown.
Bo Nickal has done it all. Three finals appearances in his career and two titles in his collection already. In his first title he stopped Gabe Dean from earning a third, and clinched the team title for Penn State when he pinned Myles Martin in the championship a year ago in Cleveland. Nickal is running neck and neck for the Hodge (wrestling’s Heisman) with his teammate Nolf, and will be scoring big points for the Nittany Lions as they should run away with the team title. Nickal has pinned and won by decision over second-seed Kollin Moore (Ohio State) this season, and it would be shocking if he is pushed at all by the field.
Bo Nickal (Penn State)
Kollin Moore (Ohio State)
Preston Weigel (OK ST)
Patrick Brucki (Princeton)
18. Jake Woodley (North Allegheny/Oklahoma)
23. Kellan Stout (Mt. Lebanon/Pitt)
25. Greg Bulsak (South Park/Clarion)
28. Drew Phipps (Norwin/Bucknell)
Stout and Woodley both sit in the very bottom quarter with Kollin Moore. They both have potential to shake up the bracket. Stout could start right away as he hits fellow Pennsylvanian Tom Sleigh (DuBois/ Virginia Tech). Of note, Stout is the first Mt. Lebanon alumnus to wrestle at the D1 Championships since Olympic gold medalist Kurt Angle represented Clarion.
This bracket had the most talked about seeding in the tournament. The three top seeds have traded wins, and speculation swirled how the seeding would play out. Ultimately the committee went with Derek White (Oklahoma State) over Anthony Cassar (Penn State) and Gable Steveson (Minnesota). That will create a possible Big Ten finals rematch between Cassar and super-freshman Steveson; Cassar put the only blemish on Steveson’s record in that match. Most people believe that if any of three get knocked off before the semifinals, it is likely to be White. He has wrestled several very close matches this year, including a 9-8 win over Demetrius Thomas of Pitt, his potential quarterfinal opponent.
Derek White (OK ST)
Anthony Cassar (Penn State)
Gable Steveson (Minnesota)
Jordan Wood (Lehigh)
None in the field
Penn State looks to win their 8th team title in 9 years. As mentioned, no one can (probably) stop them. Iowa, Ohio State, Oklahoma State, and Michigan will contend, but are realistically fighting for second.