2023-24 Nebraska Wrestling

Top-Ranked Lovett Eyeing Nebraska Wrestling's First NCAA Title Since 2011

Top-Ranked Lovett Eyeing Nebraska Wrestling's First NCAA Title Since 2011

Ridge Lovett is 19-0 and ranked #1 this season for Nebraska wrestling in his pursuit to become the Huskers' first NCAA champ since Jordan Burroughs in 2011.

Feb 1, 2024 by Dylan Guenther
Top-Ranked Lovett Eyeing Nebraska Wrestling's First NCAA Title Since 2011

After taking a redshirt last season to work on some of his deficiencies, Ridge Lovett came back this season better than ever and is off to a 19-0 start to the year.

The top-ranked wrestler in the country at 149 pounds, Lovett’s career has gone down an unconventional path. As a freshman, Lovett was set to redshirt but that shirt was pulled when Nebraska’s starter at 133 pounds was injured in the first tournament of the season. Lovett then endured a brutal weight cut because the team needed him.

Along the way, Lovett was put through a gauntlet of top-tier opponents. In one stretch of duals, Lovett faced four of the best in the country in consecutive matches. First came a 6-2 loss to Oregon State’s Devan Turner, then a 13-5 major decision loss to 2018 NCAA Champion Seth Gross. After that, Lovett fell to Austin DeSanto of Iowa 7-4 but rode him out for the entire third period. Not getting any easier, Lovett lost to Roman Bravo-Young via 11-3 major decision. Down just 4-3 with the match winding down, Lovett shot in late but gave up the takedown and four near-fall instead when he was caught in a cradle just before time expired.

Those four opponents ended their college careers with a combined 10 All-American finishes, five NCAA finals appearances and three national titles. Talk about being thrown into the fire.

“It just let me know that I’m at this level. When I went out and wrestled Seth Gross, I was scared, but after the match, I was like ‘I could have scored in a lot of those positions.’ I just wasn’t really pushing myself to go do it, then I started doing that more in the next two matches with RBY and with DeSanto,” Lovett said. “The DeSanto match, with the third-period ride-out where I was almost getting to turning holds and almost getting on bars and cradles. With RBY, I was in on a takedown to send it to overtime. I was right there, so that just kind of let me know that I was ready for this level.”

Lovett finished his freshman year with a 17-8 record when the NCAA tournament was canceled due to COVID-19. Then came the shortened 2021 season when Lovett moved up two weight classes to 149. He eventually beat out teammate Brock Hardy for the starting spot there, finishing the year 9-3 while making it to the Big Ten final, where he fell to Sammy Sasso 5-2. At NCAAs, Lovett went 1-2 as the 5-seed and didn’t like the taste it left in his mouth.

Going into the 2021-22 season, Lovett started the year 10-0 before falling to the eventual four-time NCAA Champion Yianni Diakomihalis in sudden-victory in the CKLV final. He collected wins against guys like Paniro Johnson, Michael Blockhus, Yahya Thomas and Beau Bartlett throughout the dual season before finishing fourth at Big Tens. At NCAAs, he pinned Tariq Wilson in the quarters and beat Bryce Andonian 5-4 in the semis before again falling to Diakomihalis in the NCAA final.

At the time, Lovett wasn’t yet a full-sized 149-pounder and didn’t really have to cut much weight.

“When I went up to 49, I wasn’t like a real 49-pounder,” Lovett said. “I was small. Even the next year when I made it to the finals, I was eating steak every night at nationals. I wasn’t really cutting weight.”

Then came a decision to use his available redshirt last season in an effort to get bigger and improve his neutral offense. Already a hammer on top with slick defense and scrambling abilities, Lovett sometimes struggled getting to his opponents’ legs. 

“He really used his redshirt year to get bigger and stronger and develop,” said assistant coach Tervel Dlagnev, who doubles as the head coach of the Nebraska Wrestling Training Center. “He competed a lot and gained confidence. He honed in on some of his weaknesses. He spent a lot of time trying to get some go-to takedowns.”

Lovett worked a lot with Dlagnev, a 2012 Olympic bronze medalist, on his freestyle game in an attempt to improve his offense.

“Most of his redshirt year was wrestling freestyle. In freestyle, neutral is king. I think neutral is king in all styles, but even more so in freestyle,” Dlagnev said. “Starting in the hand fight and creating a hand fight routine that leads into a setup routine that can get him to consistent legs. Sometimes he just goes out and sees where the wrestling takes us, like let’s just create some chaos and see where it goes. I think he’s much more intentional in creating a specific position to try to get to his offense that he’s been working. He’s been dialed into his setup routine, it’s been more specific and I think it’s helped him.”

With his added size combined with those new skills from the neutral position, Lovett has dominated the majority of his opponents this season. He’s earned bonus points in 13 of his 19 wins and collected 40 takedowns while giving up just three all season, earning wins over six currently ranked wrestlers.

“I feel that I’ve really been able to push myself and kind of go out there and get bonus points and push myself to wrestle my best no matter who I’m wrestling,” Lovett said. “I don’t go out there and feel small compared to these kids, and with cutting weight, it helps me to stay on my diet better.”

Speaking of bonus points, Lovett has pinned his last three opponents, including two pins coming by way of figure four leg locks around the head against Purdue and Northwestern, something he’s learned by studying the greats before him as a student of the game – guys like Alex Marinelli, Jason Nolf, Ed Ruth and David Taylor.

“Just watching videos of guys and trying to do the things that they did and seeing if I can make it work for myself,” Lovett said. “Just trying to bring out different things, watching film and working with coaches. Just trying new things and keep evolving my wrestling. I’m a huge wrestling fan – I watch a lot of wrestling.”

Lovett will end his dual season against some of the best in the country at 149 as he’ll likely see #10 Kannon Webster of Illinois, #6 Austin Gomez of Michigan, #17 Tyler Kasak of Penn State and #3 Kyle Parco of Arizona State in his last four duals.

“What I see is the four guys that have to wrestle Ridge have four tough matches rather than we think we have four tough matches,” head coach Mark Manning said about Lovett’s stretch run. “I think whoever is wrestling Ridge has four tough matches. We don’t worry about that. Every match is tough if you don’t take care of business.”

Admittedly, Lovett doesn’t really like to look ahead and game plan for opponents. He likes to just wrestle his own style rather than cater things to what his opponent may or may not do well. However, one of his upcoming matches is against a familiar foe in Gomez who beat him twice two seasons ago – a 4-2 loss in a dual while Gomez was at Wisconsin and then a 20-second pin at Big Tens later that year. It was one of only two matches in Lovett’s career that he’s been stuck to the mat.

“I feel like I’m a different wrestler now – I’ve gotten better on my feet and that’s going to be the biggest difference because I haven’t been on top yet (against Gomez). I just need to go out and get a takedown and put this dude on his back for real,” Lovett said. “I believe I’m the best, so I don’t really think about who I’m going to have to wrestle. If I go out there and wrestle and push myself and wrestle to the best of my ability, everything will take care of itself.”

According to Dlagnev, one of the things that separates Lovett from other wrestlers is his ability to flip the switch when it’s time to get to work in practice or toe the line in a match.

“I think he came in equipped with an extreme amount of focus and intentionality to his practices, then an extreme competitiveness and intensity in his competition,” Dlagnev said. “He’s silly off the mat and he’s everyone’s buddy. I think it’s good for guys to see the switch where when it’s time to work, it’s time to work. He has a really good control over that switch better than a lot of people I’ve known.”

Despite aspirations of going undefeated and winning a Big Ten title, Lovett has his eyes firmly set on the top prize – Nebraska’s first NCAA title since Jordan Burroughs won his second in 2011.

“Obviously, finishing undefeated would be cool and winning a Big Ten title, but national title is really the goal,” he said.

What to do at Heavyweight?

As he works mostly with Nebraska upper weights, Dlagnev has seen major strides from his duo of heavyweights Harley Andrews and Nash Hutmacher.

Heavyweight is really the only weight that Nebraska hasn’t established who its postseason starter is going to be after Hutmacher joined the team in December and has inserted his name into the mix to start alongside redshirt freshman Andrews. Hutmacher is 3-1 on the year, while Andrews is 10-9. Both have been improving at a rapid pace and the Huskers will have a tough decision on their hands.

According to Dlagnev, Andrews is just getting used to the competition level in college after dominating in high school in Oklahoma. Two weeks ago, Andrews beat #31 Bennett Tabor of Minnesota 10-7 to seal the dual win for the Huskers.

“He was the hero at Minnesota – he beat a kid who was pretty significantly on paper the favorite over him and wrestled well. Harley is really talented,” Dlagnev said. “He’s got good moves and he’s got some speed and a great build. It’s just getting tested because I think genetically he was so far ahead of a lot of high school heavyweights that 99 percent of his matches weren’t tests, so I think that having everyone being an athlete at heavyweight is something he has to get used to.”

As for Hutmacher, his only loss was a 4-1 decision to Iowa’s Bradley Hill in his second career college match. He’s won two matches since, including a wild 19-14 decision over Wisconsin’s Gannon Rosenfeld this past weekend.

“Nash is awesome to work with – such a great attitude and a great human. I’ve been very impressed. I had my hopes very low just because I know how hard wrestling is. No matter how good you were or how good of an athlete, it’s just different,” Dlagnev said. “There’s no substitute for minutes, so what he’s been able to do off a three, four-year hiatus in six weeks, to be putting himself in a situation where he can wrestle a whole seven minutes competitively in and of itself is very impressive to me.”

So, who will start? That’s yet to be determined, according to Dlagnev.

“One of them is going to have to separate himself. We’re just going to keep giving them chances and if nobody drastically separates themselves, it’s probably going to have to come down to a wrestle-off,” he said. “Obviously that’s going to be a coach Manning decision at the end of the day. We’re tinkering around with sending them both to one of these late-season opens. Our focus is good communication and being fair. Obviously, someone’s going to be disappointed, but we want it to be fair.”