The 2014 NWCA All-Star Classic is just over a month away, which means that college wrestling is just around the corner. The All-Star Classic has grown into college wrestling's kickoff event, with a number of high-profile exhibition matches between top competitors at ten different weights. Two years ago, the All-Star Classic gave us the first-ever Kyle Dake v. David Taylor match-up, a showdown of two of the best wrestlers of the last decade. Last year's Classicdidn't give us anything as tantalizing as that matchup, but it did have an NCAA Tournament finals rematch at 285 (Tony Nelson v. Mike McMullan) and a fascinating matchup of 2013 NCAA champions Logan Stieber (133) and Kendric Maple (141).
The involvement of Iowa wrestlers has fluctuated in recent years. Tony Ramos competed at last year's event, although not at his usual 133 lbs -- he bumped up to 141 lbs to take on Virginia Tech's Devin Carter (winning a 5-3 decision in sudden victory overtime). Iowa had no participants at the 2012, 2011, or 2010 versions of the event (although I'll forever wonder what might have happened at the NCAA Tournament in 2011 if Matt McDonough had had a chance to wrestle Anthony Robles for the first time earlier in the season -- like, say, at the All-Star Classic). Dan Dennis represented Iowa at 133 lbs in 2009, taking a 9-8 decision over Maryland's Steve Bell. 2008 saw a host of Iowa competitors: Charlie Falck at 125, Jay Borschel at 174, Phil Keddy at 184, and Brent Metcalf at 149. Metcalf took on NC State's Darrion Caldwell, eerily foreshadowing his match with Caldwell in the 2009 NCAA Tournament finals.
So will Iowa be represented among the schools sending wrestlers to the 2014 NWCA All-Star Classic? That's still TBD, but the odds don't appear to be in the Hawkeyes' favor. The matchups at four weights have already been announced:
125: Nahshon Garrett (JR, Cornell) vs. Joey Dance (SO, Virginia Tech)
Garrett is a two-time NCAA All-American and he went from a 3rd place finish as a freshman in 2013 to a runner-up finish in 2014; in both years, Garrett wound up losing to the eventual NCAA Champion, Illinois' Jesse Delgado. Garrett will have to wait for a chance to avenge those losses, though, because Delgado isn't participating in the Classic. In his place is Virginia Tech sophomore Joey Dance, a promising young talent who rode a strong performance at the NCAA Tournament to a 4th place finish. (Also: please let him use "Tiny Dancer" as his walk-out music.)
133: A.J. Schopp (SR, Edinboro) vs. Mason Beckman (JR, Lehigh)
Four of the top five finishers from the 2014 NCAA Wrestling Tournament at this weight have used up their eligibility (including last year's finalists, Tony Ramos and Wisconsin's Tyler Graff), so it was a given that we weren't going to see any of the top guys from a year ago at this event. But Schopp and Beckman are no slouches -- they're the highest-placing returning finishers from a year ago (Schopp finished 4th, while Beckman finished 6th). In fact, this is an exact rematch of the All-Star Classic match at 133 lbs last year; Beckman handed Schopp a 5-1 decision loss there. It wouldn't exactly be a huge shock if this match ended up previewing the finals of the 2015 NCAA Tournament, either.
285: Nick Gwiazdowski (JR, NC State) vs. Mike McMullan (SR, Northwestern)
I'm not gonna lie: I was really hoping that Big Bad Bobby Telford would get the nod at this weight, but no dice. Instead, we get a heavyweight tilt between the two highest-placing returnees from last year's NCAA Tournament: Gwiazdowski was the 2014 NCAA champ (finally ending Tony Nelson's 2-year reign of terror), while McMullan grinded to a 3rd place finish last year. McMullan is an old pro at this event, having wrestling Nelson at the 2013 All-Star Classic (he lost 2-1 in the tiebreakers).
184: Gabe Dean (SO, Cornell) vs. Jack Dechow (SO, Old Dominion)
The king is dead; long live the king. Ed Ruth's reign of terror at this weight is finally over, so it's time to make way for new blood. At the front of the line of potential Ruth replacements is Cornell's Dean, last year's third-place finisher -- and one of the only men to hand Ruth a loss during his collegiate career. The logical choice of opponent for Dean seemed to be Penn's Thomas, since the All-Star Classic this year is being hosted by Penn at the Palestra. Tabbing Thomas wouldn't have just been a favor to Penn, either -- Thomas finished 6th at the NCAA Tournament last year and is the third-highest returnee at this weight, so he's no slouch. Nor is Dechow, though -- he finished 4th at last year's NCAA Tournament and gave Dean a tough contest in the 3rd-place match (a 5-4 decision for Dean).
There are still six matches left to be announced, but the bad news for Iowa is that the four weights with already announced matchups account for three of Iowa's best shots at sending a wrestler to the event, simply because those weights also featured some of Iowa's best wrestlers (Thomas Gilman at 125, Cory Clark at 133, and Bobby Telford at 285). Alas, none of those three wrestlers got the call. Let's take a look at what the final six matchups could look like:
141: Logan Stieber (SR, Ohio State) vs. Mitchell Port (SR, Edinboro)
Stieber is a three-time NCAA champion, vying to tie Kyle Dake, Cael Sanderson, and Pat Smith as the sport's only four-time winners. An early stumble against Penn State's Zain Retherford aside, Stieber ran roughshod over his competition last year, despite bumping up a weight (to 141 from 133). Curiously, though, Stieber never faced Edinboro's Port during the season or at the NCAA Tournament. Port figures to be one of Stieber's toughest challengers again in 2014-15, so getting an early look at a potential NCAA Tournament semifinal (or final) ought to be very intriguing.
ALTERNATIVE: Logan Stieber (SR, Ohio State) vs. Zain Retherford (SO, Penn State)
Stieber-Port holds plenty of intrigue because they didn't wrestle last year (and aren't slated to wrestle each other this year) and because they're two of the highest-ranking returning wrestlers at this weight. That said, if Port isn't able to go, Retherford would be a more than adequate replacement. Retherford handed Stieber a stunning early season loss a year ago; could history repeat itself again this year?
149: Jason Tsirtsis (SO, Northwestern) vs. Josh Kindig (SR, Oklahoma State)
The All-Star Classic has done rematches from the previous year's NCAA Tournament before; why not do that again at this weight? Tsirtsis and (especially) Kindig were the surprise NCAA finalists at this weight last year, so letting the first 149 lb match of the year be a rematch of last year's final 149 lb match of the year seems like a logical (and satisfying) choice.
ALTERNATIVE: A match involving Tsirtsis, Kindig, or Dave Habat (SR, Edinboro), Drake Houdashelt (SR, Missouri), Devin Carter (SR, Virginia Tech), or Hunter Stieber (JR, Ohio State)
If the NWCA opts not to go with a 2014 finals rematch here, there are a lot of different directions they could go. Four of last year's top-5 finishers at the NCAA Tournament are due to return this year and they're being joined by Carter (2014 NCAA runner-up at 141 lbs) and Stieber (3rd place at 141 in 2013), adding even more depth and firepower to this weight. Considering how many different conferences are represented by these wrestlers (5 -- Big Ten, Big XII, EIWA, Big XII, and ACC), there's also a change to stage a match here that we might not otherwise see at this weight this season (unless the competitors run across each other at a tournament somewhere).
157: Dylan Ness (SR, Minnesota) vs. Jason Green (SR, Nebraska)
Dylan Ness' stunning underdog run to the NCAA finals at 157 last year was highlighted by a shocking pinfall victory over top-seeded James Green in the quarterfinals. Green responded by conducting a shock and awe offensive on every wrestler he saw in the consolation bracket: he won two matches there by major decision (12-2 and 13-1) and another by technical fall (15-0 in just over four minutes). (He also won a fourth match via medical forfeit.) I think it's safe to say that he was pissed off about getting knocked out of the championship bracket and he'd like a rematch with Ness. Nebraska and Minnesota aren't slated to wrestle each other this year (Nebraska doesn't have dual meets against Minnesota, Iowa, Penn State, or Ohio State; good job, Delanybot 9000!), so this might be the only chance to see these two tussle before the Big Ten Tournament. Green's vicious blast double versus Ness' crazy funk seems like it could make for a highly entertaining clash, too. Incidentally, Nebraska's wrestling schedule lists the NWCA All-Star Classic as one of their events, so it seems safe to assume that at least one of their wrestlers will be participating here.
ALTERNATIVE: Dylan Ness (SR, Minnesota) vs. Ian Miller (JR, Kent State)
Speaking of highly entertaining... Ness and Miller are two of the wildest, funkiest, and most aggressive wrestlers at this weight; they wrestled a fairly subdued 6-4 match (won by Ness) at the NCAA Tournament last year, but that was also in the semifinals, where caution and prudence are in high demand -- you don't want to make a costly mistake when you're so close to the finals. But in a preseason exhibition match? There's nothing to stop you from letting things fly there.
165: Alex Dieringer (JR, Oklahoma State) vs. Logan Storley (SR, Minnesota)
There was expected to be a big clear-out at 165 this year after losing five of last year's eight All-Americans, including the top three finishers (most notably, David Taylor), but the void left by last year's graduates has been quickly filled by guys moving in from other weights. Nature abhors a vacuum and wrestling abhors an "easy" weight, apparently. Dieringer was Oklahoma State's preposterously-big 157er last year (and won a national title at that weight); seeing him move up a weight is no shock at all. On the other hand, seeing Minnesota's Storley move down a weight (as has been widely speculated upon) is a bit more of an eyebrow-raiser. But these two add a ton of quality and experience to this weight and seeing them square off here would be fascinating.
ALTERNATIVE: Alex Dieringer (JR, Oklahoma State vs. Nick Sulzer (SR, Virginia)
If Storley isn't actually moving down to 165 (or isn't quite ready to wrestle at that weight yet), a solid back-up plan would be Dieringer taking on Virginia's Sulzer. Sulzer is the highest-placing returnee at this weight (he finished 4th last season) and should again be one of the top guys at this weight.
174: Robert Kokesh (SR, Nebraska) vs. Mike Evans (SR, Iowa)
Going into this year, it looked like this weight was going to come down to the Big Ten's Gang of Four -- Kokesh, Evans, Storley, and Penn State's Matt Brown. They've all finished in the top-6 at 174 for the last two years running and with the two kingpins at this weight moving on (Oklahoma State's Chris Perry and Oklahoma's Andrew Howe), it looked like they'd be moving up to competing for the grand prize, rather than just 3rd place. If Storley's moving to 174, though, I guess the Gang of Four is just a Trio of Terror. Any combination from that grouping would be a good choice for the match here, but I'm going to invoke my homer card and tab Evans to take on Kokesh. It's a match we won't otherwise see in the regular season (whereas Brown and Evans are slated to wrestle at the Iowa-Penn State dual later this year) and it sure would be nice to see Evans get a spot of revenge on Kokesh after his losses to him last season.
ALTERNATIVE: Kokesh v. Matt Brown (SR, Penn State)
But, like I said, it's hard to go wrong with any combination of those three guys (or four, if Storley ends up staying at 174). Kokesh-Brown would be a dandy match, too.
197: J'Den Cox (SO, Missouri) vs. Scott Schiller (SR, Minnesota)
Cox took this weight by storm a year ago, winning a national title as a freshman. He's good. Really, really good. There were some rumors that he'd be moving up to heavyweight this year, but for now it seems like he's staying put at 197. A logical opponent for him would be Minnesota's Schiller, who finished 3rd at the NCAA Tournament a season ago and seems poised to be one of Cox's top rivals this year.
ALTERNATIVE: J'Den Cox (SO, Missouri) v. Kyven Gadson (SR, Iowa State)
Or the Classic could opt to stage a showdown between two representatives of old BXII rivals (Missouri competes in the MAC for wrestling purposes, remember); Gadson also figures to be a top guy at 197 this year. (He finished 4th last year.)