Now that we have our sweet, sweet brackets for the NCAA Wrestling Championships, it's time to take a closer look at the weight classes. We're doing a deep dive into each division, rolling out previews one at a time, so you can pour over and digest everything before the first whistle in St. Louis on March 16.
We've reached the halfway point of our previews now with 157.
Penn State sophomore Jason Nolf wrestles most of his matches like some kind of big cat, toying with his prey before finishing them off for good. He's been held to less than a technical fall a grand total of three times this season and was in danger of losing exactly zero of those three matches. The undefeated Nolf is the NCAA tournament's No. 1 seed at 157 (duh).
No slight intended to any of the tremendous athletes in the weight class, but 157 was not considered the deepest weights at the beginning of the year. That situation has only been exacerbated by what appears to be a curse on the division. Several highly ranked wrestlers were forced to cut their seasons short due to injuries, including a last-minute scratch of No. 10 seed Brian Murphy of Michigan after the original brackets were drawn up and released.
Countering that trend, however, is Cornell senior Dylan Palacio reemerging from first-semester exile and proving he still has what it takes to compete. He won the EIWA Championship in dramatic fashion, with just five dual-meet matches on his record prior to the tournament.
Palacio is a title contender as well as a few others who we'll look at next, followed by dark horses, and a full set of predictions and analysis (2017 NCAA tournament seeds in parentheses).
Title Contenders(1) Jason Nolf, Penn State
(2) Michael Kemerer, Iowa
(3) Joey Lavallee, Missouri
(4) Tyler Berger, Nebraska
(7) Dylan Palacio, Cornell
As tempting as it was to leave Nolf's name up as the only contender on the list, it wouldn't be fair to the other wrestlers who have a legitimate shot at the championship -- as slim as their odds may be.
Iowa freshman Michael Kemerer's only losses on the year came at the hands of Nolf. Nebraska sophomore Tyler Berger's only losses were to Kemerer, Nolf, and the recently scratched Brian Murphy.
Missouri junior Joey Lavallee has just a solitary loss this season to Lehigh's Jordan Kutler. Following 157's snakebitten theme, Kutler was a scratch from the EIWA Championship and thus ineligible for nationals.
Which brings us to the seventh-seeded Palacio, who is undefeated at 157 this year, but that only adds up to five matches. He's also the returning fourth-place finisher at 157 and very nearly qualified for the Rio Olympics while representing Uruguay (yes, that Uruguay). Palacio is the 2017 NCAA tournament's supreme wildcard.
Dark Horses(11) Russell Parsons, Army
(US) Taleb Rahmani, Pittsburgh
(US) Aaron Walker, The Citadel
West Point senior Russell Parsons is ranked No. 8 in the Flo Top 20 but only received the No. 11 seed. He is a podium threat and was just one or two scrambles away from beating Palacio in the EIWA finals.
Pitt freshman Taleb Rahmani came from out of nowhere to win the ACC Championship last week in Raleigh, North Carolina. Panthers co-head coaches Matt Kocher and Drew Headlee appear to have Rahmani and the entire team peaking at just the right time.
Aaron Walker, representing the Citadel, is making his fourth and final trip to the NCAAs. He stumbled in the semis of the 2017 Southern Conference Championship but battled his way back for third. That kind of grit and tenacity will be invaluable in the three-day meatgrinder that is the NCAA tournament.
Upset SpecialBesides our dark horses, keep an eye out for BJ Clagon of Rider. There is perhaps no streakier wrestler in the nation than Clagon. The Broncos junior followed up his fifth-place finish in his freshman year with a round-of-16 exit last year. He enters the tournament unseeded and drew the pigtail match. If Clagon gets by Colt Short of Cal Poly, he'll face Jake Short of Minnesota in the round of 32. Though seeded eighth, Short is the No. 9-ranked wrestler in the Flo Top 20, whereas Clagon holds the No. 13 ranking. If Clagon is wrestling on point and using his speed and leverage to his advantage, Short could end up in the consolation bracket earlier than anticipated.
- Jason Nolf, Penn State
- Michael Kemerer, Iowa
- Dylan Palacio, Cornell
- Joey Lavallee, Missouri
- Tyler Berger, Nebraska
- Joe Smith, Oklahoma State
- Clay Ream, North Dakota State
- Russell Parsons, Army
After winning Big Tens, Nolf expressed disappointment in himself for not bonusing his former high school club teammate, Michael Kemerer, as PSU was in a tight team race with Ohio State, a race they would ultimately and shockingly lose.
I don't think Nolf will allow himself or his coaches to be disappointed in his NCAA performance, and I think he bonuses his way through every match, claiming five souls on his way to his first NCAA title.
Watch Nolf break open a tied match against Minnesota's Jake Short in the Big Ten semifinals:
Kemerer will hardly have a cakewalk, but I expect him to reach the finals and secure a very respectable second-place finish in his first NCAA tournament.
Palacio will get by Central Michigan's tough Colin Heffernan in the round of 16 but lose to Kemerer in the quarters. I may later regret this prediction later, but I think Palacio pulls some magic out of his…hat and wins four consecutive matches in the consolations to claim third over No. 3-seeded Joey Lavallee in a minor upset.
Tyler Berger King (I'm so sorry for that) will make the semifinals, only to fall victim to Nolf's inexhaustible conditioning and then be upended by Palacio's wizardry in the consolation bracket to wind up in the fifth-place match. There he'll wrestle the peerlessly pedigreed Joseph Smith. I'm swayed by Berger's six wins over top 10 opponents compared to zero for Smith, who missed parts of the season due to injury, and will have to settle for sixth place.
In the last placement match, North Dakota State's Clay Ream, who will be upset by Palacio in the wrestlebacks, will have to settle for a podium spot slightly below his seed after he beats Russell Parsons, who will become the first All-American from West Point since Matt Kyler, who placed sixth at 141 in 2008.
There Will Be BloodroundExpect more surprises in the 157 round of 12 matches, as literally dozens of wrestlers are capable of making it this far.
I think No. 9-seeded Arizona State redhshirt freshman Josh Shields goes down here, losing to a red-hot Parsons. Heffernan puts forth a valiant effort but will be taken out by Smith. Oklahoma senior Clark Glass is unable to extend his career any further when he is bested by Palacio, and finally Clagon's hot streak comes to an end when Ream defeats him in the bloodround.
Think you can make better picks? There's a very good chance you can! Here's the (updated) 157 bracket. Let me know what you think, and enjoy the championship, wrestling fans!