Willis NCAA Wrestling Blog: Has heavyweight ever been this good?
by Mike Willis, USA Wrestling
3/20 - Day 2 of the NCAA Tournament, picked up where Day 1 left off, providing an overload of fantastic matches too good to consume all in one sitting. It’s almost like sensory overload. At the end of the session, after I post my story, I love to go through and scour the brackets, particularly the consolation rounds, to see who knocked off who, which wrestlers gritted out three overtime matches in a row and who is angry and pinning anyone unlucky enough to be in their path.
The semifinals were fantastic. Pinning someone at any level is hard (understatement), but seeing four pins go down in the NCAA semifinals, one of the highest levels our sport which only the most elite and dedicated are fortunate enough to reach, was awesome. Rider’s Jesse Dellavecchia’s pin over top-seeded Ryan Deakin was probably the highlight of the session for me. I felt for Deakin, who is a good dude and currently No. 2 on our Men’s Freestyle National Team at 70 kg, but I was ecstatic for Dellavecchia and his coaches as he became Rider’s first NCAA finalist in history. As if pinning the top seed in the NCAA semifinals wasn’t big enough…
I wish I was able to catch more of the blood round action. The silver lining for the wrestlers that narrowly missed out on All-American status is that everyone competing this year has the ability to come back and wrestle again next year if they choose to do so.
Iowa’s in the driver’s seat heading into the medal rounds, but they don’t have it locked up just yet. I believe mathematically Penn State and Oklahoma State can still catch them if a perfect storm unfolds, but it doesn’t seem likely. As I don’t have a college team of my own to cheer for, I usually pull for underdogs and good story lines, as well as wrestlers from Pennsylvania. I guess Penn State are considered underdogs, but I have a hard time assigning that label to a team that has brought home nine of the last ten championships.
Has there ever been a more dominant pair of book ends than Spencer Lee and Gable Steveson? I haven’t been following the sport long enough to know for certain, but it’s tough to imagine there being a heavyweight/lightweight duo that tore through the tournament like they did.
While Spencer earned more bonus points wins this tournament than Gable, the level of competition is ridiculous at heavyweight. At one point, Steveson, Parris, Kerkvliet and Schultz were all on the mats at the same time. By my count, that’s two Junior World golds, one Junior World silver, one Junior World bronze, four Cadet World golds and one Cadet World silver. That is outrageous, and it doesn’t even include 2014 Cadet World silver medalist Jordan Wood, who didn’t All-American this year, or Tony Cassioppi, a two-time Junior Pan Am champion in both freestyle and Greco-Roman, and an absolute monster in his own right.
While the semifinals will be a tough act to follow, I’m sure tonight’s finals will be even more thrilling.
3/19 - The first day of the NCAA Tournament had just about all you could ask for as a fan. Shout out to North Dakota State’s Owen Pentz for pulling the upset of the tournament and pinning the No. 2 seed at 197 pounds. It seems like every year there’s at least one first-round result that comes totally out of left field, and this one fit the bill perfectly. Here’s hoping Pentz can put together a strong run in the consolation bracket (he took a loss in the round of 16). Oklahoma’s Jake Woodley (197) and Northwestern’s Yahya Thomas (149), the No. 26 and No. 25 seeds respectively, also deserve some praise after knocking off some tough guys to make the quarterfinals. To be fair, in a normal non-abbreviated year, I don’t think either of them are seeded that low.
I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about splitting the sessions in half, but I don’t think I mind it. There’s SO much going on in any given session, and this gives you the opportunity to pay more attention to the brackets and digest everything a little better.
The lack of fans is noticeable. I’ve never heard the P.A. announcer’s voice come through so clearly in the stadium before. Between sessions, there aren’t the hordes of roving fans decked out in their team’s gear bouncing between the stadium and the bars. While I’ve never been able to participate in that aspect of the tournament, it’s something I’ve always enjoyed because it makes it feel like one big extended party.
This is the fourth NCAA Championships I’ve attended and the third-straight (excluding last year) that I’ve covered for USA Wrestling. My dad took me to my first one in Philadelphia in 2011 during my sophomore year of high school, which was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had. It’s probably part of the reason I’m working in wrestling today. I remember moving down from the nosebleeds and sneaking into the Cornell section when Kyle Dake wrestled Frank Molinaro in the 149-pound finals. It was definitely one of my Dad’s better ideas.
It’s obviously hard to beat the NCAA finals, but the quarters, semis and blood round all go down today, and I think there’s a case for saying that Day 2 is the most entertaining day of wrestling. I’m certainly looking forward to watch the action unfold.
3/17 - It feels a little bit like Christmas Eve. I think it does every year before the NCAA Championships, but this year in particular, the tournament feels like something to celebrate. During last week’s pre-tournament Zoom press conference, you heard the word “grateful” used a lot by both coaches and wrestlers. It’s fitting. While the circumstances aren't ideal, everyone is happy for the opportunity to compete.
I know I’m certainly grateful to be here in St. Louis doing coverage. To say I was bummed last year when the tournament was cancelled would be a gross understatement. However, I know my feelings, and those of wrestling fans across the country, paled in comparison to those of the wrestlers deprived of the opportunity to chase their dreams.
It’s gut-wrenching to think about the 2020 senior class who unceremoniously had their collegiate careers cut short. I’m sure the wrestlers taking the mat tomorrow will think about that too. They won’t be taking anything for granted.
Not having the Ivy League represented is going to be weird and sad. So is having a less-than-packed stadium. However, just about everything over the past 12 months has been weird and sad. As a whole, the 2021 NCAA Championships are the antithesis of that. It’s an event filled with joy and hope. A testament to the hard work and ingenuity shown by the NCAA, the conferences, the administrators, the coaches and their athletes.
The RTC cards during the quarantine have been excellent and lauded by fans and wrestlers alike, but the NCAA Championships are a whole different animal. Pair that with the fact that the Olympic Team Trials are two weeks away, and wrestling people have a whole lot to be excited about and grateful for.
Wrestling is back folks, and I think we’re going to be in for a heck of a tournament.