The 2017-18 NCAA wrestling season is officially underway, which means it's time to start rolling out our weight class previews.
The biggest name to graduate from 125 is Iowa's three-time All-American and perennial title contender Thomas Gilman. Two-time AAs Joey Dance and Connor Youtsey also bade farewell to their college careers. Two titleholders will be back, with former champion Nathan Tomasello dropping down from 133 (and hopefully fully healed by March) and defending champ Darian Cruz returning, making for one of the deepest lightweight fields in years.
For our previews, we'll run down the top contenders, then make some way-too-early All-American and bloodround predictions and include an explanation.
Check out our 125 preview from last year.
Title ContendersNathan Tomasello, Ohio State
Darian Cruz, Lehigh
Nick Suriano, Rutgers
Watch Cruz win the first NCAA title for Lehigh since Zack Rey in 2011 in the video below:
We're still assuming Daton Fix redshirts so none of the Cowboys' returning All-American lightweights have to spend a season on the bench, but if for some reason Fix does wrestle in the 125-pound NCAA bracket, the freestyle junior world champ would without a doubt be a title contender.
Spencer Lee is another UWW junior world champ we're assuming is going to be donning a redshirt this season, as is the modus operandi for Tom Brands and the Iowa Hawkeyes. If we happen see Lee unleashed on the 125 field, a run at the title would similarly not be unexpected for the true freshman from Franklin Regional High School.
Few true freshmen received as much hype in recent memory as Nick Suriano when he arrived at Penn State, and in every regard he delivered except for a fluke injury in the last dual meet of the year that robbed him and college wrestling's collective fandom of seeing what he could do in the postseason. His 7-0 dual meet victory over Cruz ensured the end of last season will go down as a classic "what-if?" of wrestling lore.
Meanwhile, Cruz will be looking to prove that his championship run in St. Louis was no fluke. He avenged his Southern Scuffle loss to Ethan Lizak in the NCAA tournament and will look to do the same against Suriano, who transferred this offseason to Rutgers, in 2018.
Tomasello will also be looking to get back on the podium, where he finished as a redshirt freshman. He entered his last two NCAA tournaments undefeated but finished third in both cases, something he will look to remedy in his final attempt.
Spey's Spredictions1: Nick Suriano, Rutgers
2: Nathan Tomasello, Ohio State
3: Darian Cruz, Lehigh
4: Nick Piccinnini, Oklahoma State
5: Ryan Millhof, Arizona State
6: Ethan Lizak, Minnesota
7: Sean Russell, Edinboro
8: Ronnie Bresser, Oregon State
R12: Zeke Moisey, West Virginia
R12: Sebastian Rivera, Northwestern
R12: Sean Fausz, North Carolina State
R12: Travis Piotrowski, Illinois
Since I've already predicted that NaTo will finish second in a different article, I should at least feign consistency and stick to my guns for this preview.
Which means someone else has to be in the top spot, and I've pegged Suriano as that guy. I think the intangibles of being back in New Jersey will help, but I also think Suriano is going to be one of the best athletes in Cleveland period. He can brawl with anyone, which will be a necessity when he locks horns with the notoriously tough Tomasello. I think Suriano will have just enough in the tank to edge NaTo and become first NCAA champion in Rutgers wrestling program history.
Below is a video of Rutgers national qualifiers Nick Gravina and Jordan Pagano sparring in practice, but keep your eye out for Suriano in the background, working out by himself after he finished his live match:
I hate picking Cruz third, and I would be happy to be proven wrong here. Cruz has always had top-shelf speed and has been steadily adding strength since his true freshman year when he placed seventh. Cruz is stingy on defense, and if he can control the pace, get to his low leg attacks, and maybe sneak in one of his signature tilts he could very well beat everyone in his path to a repeat championship.
Now in his third year in Stillwater, OK, Nick Piccininni is right on the cusp of contending for a title, as is Arizona State's redshirt junior Ryan Millhof. Both are former All-Americans, and I expect them both to climb the podium once again.
Lizak was a surprise finalist last year, and while "Backpack" Lizak's top game is as feared and deadly as advertised, it is also a well-scouted skill set. Any All-American-caliber competitor should be able to strategically neutralize, or at least minimize, its effectiveness.
Russell and Bresser are two savvy veterans who have been to multiple NCAA tournaments. Russell is coming off a seventh-place finish in St. Louis, and Bresser also has big wins on his resume. The bottom half of the 125 bracket should be bloodbath, but I think Russell and Bresser are savage enough to break through to the top eight.
The final four non-placers represent a mix of experience. Zeke Moisey is a 2015 finalist who has been hampered by injuries ever since. Sean Fausz is hoping to qualify for his third straight tournament. He finished in the bloodround last year. Travis Piotrowski made his first tournament as a freshman. He went 1-2 in the Scottrade Center but has shown plenty of promise in his first varsity campaign. Finally, Northwestern's Sebastian Rivera has one of the best redshirt campaigns of any wrestler at any weight and could find his way into the top eight if he continues to improve. This early in the season, however, I stop short of predicting an All-American finish.