Since thumping Rutgers two weeks ago, Iowa wrestling has been out of action, focused on finals and their next competiion -- the 53rd annual Midlands Championships in Evanston, IL. Midlands is still over a week away (December 29-30), but now we have a better idea of who's going to be there, thanks to the release of the "top contestants" list for each weight. Overall, it's a solid field, featuring four former NCAA champions, a bevy of returning All-Americans at nearly every weight, and top contenders at basically every weight. The final seeds -- and brackets -- haven't been set yet (and won't be until December 28), so we'll hold off on a formal preview until then. But we can still take a look at the names at each weight to get a feel for things.
(All rankings from the most recent InterMat rankings.)
|#6||Ronnie Bresser||Oregon State|
|#14||Josh Rodriguez||North Dakota State|
125 features seven ranked opponents, but outside of Gilman, the cream of the crop at this weight is absent -- Nathan Tomasello (Ohio State), Nico Megaludis (Penn State), and Joey Dance (Virginia Tech) will be elsewhere for this event. Gilman (2015) and Peters (2014) are the only wrestlers here with past All-America credentials. Gilman lost in the finals to Dance a year ago, but it will be a significant disappointment if he isn't the winner this year.
|#5||Earl Hall||Iowa State|
The cream of the crop may be missing at 125, but that's not the case at 133, where there are five top ten wrestlers, including three of the top five, and both of last year's NCAA finalists (Clark and Brewer). In addition to Clark and Brewer, Hall (2014) and Taylor (2015) also bring All-America credentials to this weight. The highlight of this weight would certainly be a potential NCAA finals rematch between Clark and Brewer and a win for Clark there would be huge, both for earning a bit of revenge after his disappointing loss to Brewer in the NCAA finals and also because it could pay big dividends for Clark in seeding come the NCAA Tournament. This is a very loaded and interesting weight.
|#2||Kevin Jack||North Carolina State|
|#5||Chris Mecate||Old Dominion|
|#19||Rick Durso||Franklin & Marshall|
|#20||Steve Bleise||Northern Illinois|
The top three at this weight from a year ago (Logan Stieber, Mitchell Port, and Devin Carter) are all gone, leaving a vacuum that guys like Jack and Ashnault are attempting to fill. Jack made a surprise run through the NCAA Tournament field a year ago (a run that began with an upset win over Iowa's Josh Dziewa in the first round), but his results this year have proved that his run then was no fluke. He's a legit contender at 141, as is Ashanult, another All-American at this weight a year ago. Mecate was also an All-American at 141 a year ago and Racciato, Preston, and Abidin could have dark horse potential at this weight.
From an Iowa perspective, this event may be our first glimpse of Brody Grothus at this weight, which is an exciting possibility. Hopefully we're able to see Grothus go up against some of the top 20 guys at this weight and get a better grasp of what his potential might be at this weight.
|#4||Alex Richardson||Old Dominion|
|#13||Michael DePalma||Kent State|
|#15||Matt Kraus||Arizona State|
Fully half the Top 20 at this weight is scheduled to be at Midlands, including four guys from the Top 10 and all of the Top 4 except #1 Zain Retherford (Penn State). The highlight (although perhaps not from a neutral's entertainment perspective, given their battles last year) figures to be another installment in the Sorensen-Tsirtsis series, although Tsirtsis has seen very limited action this year while dealing with some off-mat issues -- he's just 1-1, surprisingly dropping a 7-1 decision to #9 Matt Cimato (Drexel) and winning a 5-3 decision over unheralded Cody Burcher (Ohio State). If Tsirtsis' form returns to what we've seen from him the past few years, I'd expect to see him in the finals here; if he continues to struggle, it would not be a surprise to see him bounced out of the winner's bracket early. While Big Ten wrestlers (Retherford, Sorensen, Tsirtsis) dominate the top of this weight, ODU's Richardson isn't far behind them and could certainly find his way into the finals here. Sueflohn and Clagon have upset potential, too. There should be some very interesting and worthwhile tests for Sorensen at this weight in this event.
Sorensen is the main Iowa draw at this weight, but it will also be interesting to see if we get a glimpse of what Michael Kemerer can do against quality opponents. Kemerer has been saving a sensational redshirt season, going 14-0 and picking up bonus points in all but two of those wins. Midlands has been the place for true freshmen to turn some heads for Iowa in recent years, too -- Sorensen himself impressed on his way to a top-4 finish two years ago and Cory Clark announced his presence in a big way with a win over defending NCAA champion Jesse Delgado at this event three years ago. A breakout performance by Kemerer here would only ramp up the excitement for his official Iowa debut next year.
|#2||Ian Miller||Kent State|
|#6||Cody Pack||South Dakota State|
|#7||Thomas Gantt||North Carolina State|
There are eleven Top 20 wrestlers here, but over half of them are from the low end of the rankings (#15-20). The best of the best at this weight are present, too, though with defending NCAA champion Isaiah Martinez and his potential NCAA finals opponent, #2 Ian Miller of Kent State. I'd expect to see a preview of that potential match-up in the Midlands finals, although Pack or Gantt may be able to surprise Miller.
For Iowa, this is a chance for Cooper to solidify his ranking in the back half of the Top 20 and prove that he's as good or better than the other guys ranked around that spot. It's also a chance for him to test his mettle against opponents like Martinez, Miller, Pack, and Gantt -- an upset against them could definitely cause some re-evaluation of Cooper's scoring potential at this weight.
|#6||Max Rohskopf||North Carolina State|
|#14||Tanner Weatherman||Iowa State|
165 is another weight with eleven Top 20 wrestlers represented, although the distribution of quality is a bit better here -- five of the top 10 and seven of the top 12 are expected to be in action. On the other hand, Isaac Jordan is the only top challenger at this weight (although everyone seems to be really battling for 2nd place behind Oklahoma State's Alex Dieringer), so the depth at the top is still a bit weak.
There isn't much to say about this weight from an Iowa perspective. Neither Patrick Rhoads nor Burke Paddock have been turning heads at this weight, so expectations here are fairly low. An upset win or two could give us a bit of hope for March, though.
|#7||Bryce Hammond||CSU Bakersfield|
|#15||Lelund Weatherspoon||Iowa State|
Even two months into the season, 174 still feels like of the strangest weights in the country, mainly because so many top contenders from the past few years are gone. There are nine Top 20 guys expected to be at Midlands from this weight, including four of the Top 10. Alex Meyer is the headliner and this event could be a good test of his lofty ranking, even if he won't be able to face any of the other Top 5 guys at this weight. Taking home the top prize here would at least establish Meyer as deserving of a spot near the Top 5.
|#3||Jack Dechow||Old Dominion|
|#9||Blake Stauffer||Arizona State|
|#12||Hayden Zillmer||North Dakota State|
|#17||Pete Renda||North Carolina State|
No Iowa wrestler may have more at stake at this event than Sammy Brooks, who could use a strong showing here to catapult himself up the rankings -- and put himself in line to earn a good seed at the NCAA Tournament a few months from now. Last year a few untimely losses ended up hurting Brooks' seed in March and one of the reasons he failed to earn All-America honors was because he got a brutal draw at the NCAA Tournament that saw him face #1 seed Gabe Dean (Cornell) in the quarterfinals and #3 seed Blake Stauffer in the Round of 12 in the consolation bracket. The Big Ten lacks many highly-ranked opponents at 184, so Midlands represents a rare opportunity for Brooks to wrestle some of those top guys (seven other Top 20 opponents will be at Midlands, including three other Top 10 foes). Ideally, Brooks could beat Stauffer in the semis here and Dechow in the finals, since he'll likely see Dudley later this year (in the Iowa-Nebraska dual and, perhaps, at the Big Ten Tournament). Brooks has wrestled like a Top 5 guy at this weight this season (minus his struggles against Gravina last time out), but he's lacked the resume-boosting wins to move his ranking up to that range. Midlands ought to give him some opportunities to earn those wins.
|#6||Reuben Franklin||CSU Bakersfield|
|#11||Anthony Abro||Eastern Michigan|
|#13||Nathan Rotert||South Dakota State|
|#17||Michael Boykin||North Carolina State|
As we've covered, there are several weights at Midlands that feature several top contenders and could be early previews of the NCAA Tournament. 197 is not one of those weights. There are nine wrestlers from the Top 20, but just two from the Top 10 and Iowa's Nathan Burak will be the only Top 5 guy in attendance. The rest of the top guys at this weight -- Morgan McIntosh (Penn State), J'Den Cox (Missouri), Conner Hartmann (Duke) -- are going to be elsewhere. Like Gilman at 125, this is a weight where we're just going to need to see the Iowa guy take care of business. Anything short of a title for Burak here would be a disappointment.
|#1||Nick Gwiazdowski||North Carolina State|
|#5||Amarveer Dhesi||Oregon State|
|#16||Tanner Hall||Arizona State|
And finally, the big boys. There aren't many heavies who look like they can seriously contend with Gwiaz this year and I'm not sure any of them are at Midlands, so he should probably roll to a title here. But this weight still features nine other wrestlers in the Top 20 and four other wrestlers in the Top 10, so there should be some good competition and give us a better idea of how this weight might shake out beyond the best guys. From an Iowa perspective, this event should be a tremendous opportunity for Sam Stoll to follow up his breakthrough win against Rutgers' Billy Smith and add a few more quality wins to his resume this year. Stoll should see Jensen and Black later this year (and just defeated Smith), so hopefully he can test himself with Dhesi or Larson -- or even Gwiaz. Might as well see how you match up with the best of the best, right?
In all, there should be a lot of good action across the board and a lot of opportunities for Iowa wrestlers to earn titles and/or big wins. We'll do a full preview when the actual seeds and brackets are released next week.