College Wrestling is exceedingly dope.
Its structures and scoring layers allow for competitions to delicately and brutally showcase individual and team performances that can weave a variety of narrative tapestries. In one of its coolest structures, the Dual Meet, team wrestling is a backdrop to the ten individual mano a mano battles that take place separately, out on the mat. Dominance, a concept explicitly requested by the nature of the sport and richly rewarded in its scoring machinery, also takes on a variety of hues.
Its style—Folkstyle—provides a further cornucopia of beautiful brutality. Every wrestler gets a chance to display a diversity of skill sets, in any of its three key positions: on their feet; on the mat on top; and on the mat on bottom.
Its laundry (the color and names on its gear), often used as a pejorative by fans of other styles, is actually a feature, not a bug. It allows proud partisan fanbases to rally around their alma maters or favorite school and helps grow this relatively small Olympic sport by giving those partisan fans a reason to tune in to the wonder and beauty and variety of wrestling.
In the 2022 season’s first major War of the Stars, Penn State traveled to Michigan to battle a new powerhouse absolutely itching to show the nation its readiness to be the new top dog, and all of these of amazing attributes were illuminated in a gorgeous display in front of 6,185 fans of both teams.
125 #1 Nick Suriano DEC #7 Drew Hildebrandt, 2-1; MICH, 3-0
Suriano, the 2019 National Champion at 133, looked great in his first three matches in a Michigan singlet and put up multiple takedowns and many match points in three Bonus wins.
Against his former coaches and the newest Nittany Lion, he was unable to break through Hildebrandt’s neutral defense. On the mat, however, he expressed his superiority. On bottom, he quickly escaped from Hildebrandt’s formidable top skills (after only 8 seconds), and when he was on top, he controlled the Lion long enough to secure the riding time point, before allowing an escape.
For Suriano, although the score differential was a mere one point, it was a dominant performance. For Hildebrandt, it was a slight win for the team. He kept the bout to a Decision and Suriano’s team points to three, and even threatened a near-reversal in the third period.
133 #1 Roman Bravo-Young DEC #8 Dylan Ragusin, 8-1; 3-3 TIE
Ragusin put up his trademark gritty fight, and did manage a small team win by keeping the score differential to 7 points. He used the edge well a few times to thwart RBY scores, and, perhaps most grittily, managed a third-period escape (after giving up 4 Near Fall points) to avoid the Major Decision.
RBY very nearly undid that escape with a vintage lightning quick go behind just as the clock expired, but it didn’t quite make it.
Here’s the lone takedown of the bout, from the first period. You can see Ragusin arguing that RBY had stepped out, but upon official’s review (not via Michigan coaches throwing the challenge brick), it was ruled that Ragusin’s foot had remained in the hypothetical cylinder that extends vertically from the two-dimensional circle on the mat.
141 #1 Nick Lee TF Drew Mattin, 21-6 (6:41); PSU, 8-3
Nick Lee returned from illness and wrestled for the first time since January 7 against Maryland. While he didn’t look fresh necessarily, his trademark gas tank was still, unbelievably, apparent and enabled him to Tech Fall an overmatched Mattin, a stand-in for #4 Stevan Micic, who could not go.
Lee earned 3 takedowns in the first period; a reversal, a takedown and 4 near fall points in the second; and 3 takedowns and a stall point to end the bout in the third.
Here is one of Lee’s 7 takedowns:
The win was also a Bonus Point milestone for Lee.
That moves him into a tie with the great Ed Ruth for fourth place in Career Tech Falls in the Nittany Lion record book.
149 #19 Beau Bartlett INJ DEF Cole Mattin, :13 PSU, 14-3
This sucked in every which way. Bartlett threw a powerhouse underhook pancake, but on his way to his back, Mattin’s toe gripped the mat and halted his knee’s progress in following his upper body. He screamed out in agony, Bartlett looked briefly confused, then let off the pin attempt energy until the ref stopped the bout a second later. The six team points would have been lovely if earned from a pin; as such, throw em away.
Best of luck healing up to young Mattin!
Prayers up for my guy Cole Mattin! When I got hurt at the CKLV, he took care of me and wheeled me around… This dude is one of the most courageous competitors I know. Couldn’t ask for a better teammate and partner! Hoping for good news and a quick recovery #GoBlue #Family 〽️ pic.twitter.com/hRciMLzSKq— Kanen Storr (@kstorr_65kg) January 22, 2022
157 #Will Lewan DEC Tyrell Barraclough, 5-2; PSU, 14-6
Michigan fans have been hoping for Lewan to ‘open it up’ more, and he answered their calls with two takedowns against Barraclough for Michigan’s second, and final, win.
Barraclough held center mat pretty well and, generally, looked about as good as we have seen him this year. After escaping from bottom in the third period, the score was 1-3, but Lewan sealed the deal with a single leg TD near the edge late.
165 #16 Brady Berge DEC #10 Cameron Amine, 3-1; PSU 17-6
Cameron Amine returned for the first time since the CKLV Tourney in December, and he didn’t quite look like his old self.
Berge, on the other hand, looked both fresh and solid. His upper back muscles reveal his suitability for the 165-pound weight class, his neutral defense and positioning were sound, and his ankle pick is as slick as ever. Look at this absolute beaut!
On the mat, he racked up 56 seconds of riding time before allowing Amine to escape, and on bottom, he managed to get out with 35 seconds of RT still remaining.
I agree with the BTN here that it’s great to see Chef Bardy getting his hand raised again:
174 #1 Carter Starocci DEC #6 Logan Massa, 3-2; PSU 20-6
Logan Massa is the very definition of a savvy veteran. Starocci was a HS Freshman when Massa first competed as a Wolverine in 2016; dude’s got Old Man Tricks for days.
These two had a tight, cagey bout in last year’s dual, before Massa attempted a way-too-slow granby and Starocci pounced on him for 4 NF in overtime. This year’s bout was a bit of the same.
Starocci opened the scoring in the first with a good single leg, and aggressive scrambling pursuit when Massa again attempted two slow granby rolls:
I’d thought that Starocci might use top-wrestling to separate himself in this bout, but Massa escaped after only 10 seconds. He collected a stall warning before the period ended.
In the second, Massa appeared to employ the same strategy: that this bout would be won on the feet, and Starocci escaped in two seconds. More caginess and no scoring saw an end to the second.
In the third, with Starocci on top, Starocci appeared to strategically attack immediately after allowing an escape. In fact, the ref awarded the escape point loudly, and Starocci appeared to have earned a takedown on the edge. Another Official’s Review resulted in both the escape and takedown being waved off, and the time awarded to Starocci’s ride.
After 27 seconds of RT, Massa escaped to a 3-2 score. He pursued aggressively, Starocci looked slightly gassed and earned one stall warning, before time expired.
184 #1 Aaron Brooks DEC #2 Myles Amine, 3-1; PSU, 23-6
Hoo boy, was this ever a heavyweight championship fight at 184 pounds. Both grapplers at multiple times throughout the match asserted their candidacy for the #1 ranking.
The first period was full of heavy ties and setups and at least three stalemates. Amine earned a hands to the face warning.
The second period showcased more grit. Amine chose bottom and Brooks looked determined to ride him. But Amine escaped with Brooks’ riding time at 51 seconds. Brooks attacked and earned a stalemate and an Amine stall warning, but could not score.
If it was even possible, the third period had yet another level of grit to share with the fans. Brooks escaped within about 30 seconds, making the Riding Time point moot. Another result would be determined on the feet!
Amine came at Brooks hard and dropped into a deeeep single leg shot. The strain in this sequence was absolutely epic: Amine pulling in tight; Brooks dropping Cenzo-like cement hips. Against anyone else, Amine might likely have scored. Against anyone else, Brooks might not have looked so in danger.
After many, many struggle seconds, Brooks finally broke Amine’s iron grip, laid down a final heavy hip, and spun around for the winning takedown.
Congrats to both champions for an absolutely epic battle.
And reminder: this is only round one of a possible, likely-even, three matchups this year.
197 #2 Max Dean DEC #8 Patrick Brucki, 6-4 (SV1; 7:18); PSU, 26-6
Against Penn State’s Top-5-ranked wrestlers, Brucki was the first to succeed in penetrating the feisty Lion neutral defense. He earned his first takedown in the first period, but only rode for 21 seconds before allowing Dean the escape.
When Dean escaped after choosing down in the second, the score was tied 2-2, but Brucki again attacked successfully to earn his second takedown. Again Dean kept the score tight, by escaping before 1 minute of Riding Time was earned.
In the third, with the score 3-4 and Brucki having chosen bottom, Dean had two main choices. He could cut Brucki loose and try to earn a takedown to tie it, or he could try to ride him out and send it to overtime via the Riding Time point. For a very brief moment, even Coach Cael & Coach Casey appeared on the fence about the correct strat, before syncing up and commanding Dean to ride.
And ride he did.
They went out of bounds twice, but at each reset, Dean held on and earned a 2-point scoring differential: he earned one point for the ride, and prevented one point by denying the escape.
It is bouts such as these that opponents of the style point to as evidence that Folkstyle scoring rules are broken—that Dean, who had earned zero takedowns to Brucki’s two, should not have been in contention to tie or win. “Make the Takedown worth 3 points,” they’d crow. But to that I say nay.
Wrestling is a three-position sport and that variety is a spice of its life. True, Brucki to that point, had won the battle on the feet. But he had also failed to control Dean when he was on the mat on top of him (3x!) and, perhaps worse, when he was on bottom he could not free himself. The recently-departed rocker Meat Loaf famously sang that “two out of three ain’t bad,” but we can improve upon that. Dean’s two out of three position wins was indeed good.
And further, it only tied the bout! Each wrestler still possessed the opportunity to break the tie in that same neutral position that Brucki had dominated.
Alas, the fatigue earned through fighting & failing to both ride and escape while on the mat settled in on Brucki and he did not succeed in his last desperate attempt to shoot and score the winner. Dean did:
285 #4 Greg Kerkvliet DEC #2 Mason Parris, 8-5; PSU, 29-6
Wrestling fans have been waiting to see what Kerkvliet might be capable of. A nasty infection and a knee injury last year nearly prevented him from competing until just before the postseason. He returned in good enough shape to safely take the mat, but his weight and mobility were both way down, and he still managed a 7th-place All-American finish.
For the past two seasons, Parris has mauled everybody but National and Olympic Champion Gable Steveson. In the 2020 season, he went 28-1. In the 2021 season, he went 12-2 and finished second to Steveson at B1Gs & Nationals. At B1Gs, he rolled through Kerkvliet’s stationary undersized frame, 11-3. What would this year show us?
Plenty, it turns out.
Kerkvliet surprised Parris and us with, not one, but two, snatch singles in the first period, with perfect technique. After snatching the back of the knee, he patiently moved the foot to the shelf and used footwork to change Parris’ balance and topple the giant to the mat. Here’s the first one:
Both times, Parris quickly escaped. And he earned his own takedown before the period ended.
After choosing bottom, Parris took the lead 5-4 with an escape after only 20 seconds. But the left wrist tie that Kerk employed put Parris into visible discomfort and no further attacks were launched.
In the third, Kerkvliet escaped to tie it, and then snatched a third single leg takedown that demoralized Parris and the Michigan fanbase such that he was able to ride out the period on top, earn the riding time point and put one final nail in the Wolverine coffin.
The box score tells the tale of a tight, fierce fight.
If you remove Nick Lee’s bout against an overmatched backup, the total match points were quite low, a 36-21 PSU advantage. In the 8 contested bouts, the average margin of victory was 2.63 points. The takedown advantage would have been only 9 to 5. Even at the final 16-5, the Wolverines held the Lions to their lowest takedown total of the season. The rankings of those who lost last night: 7, 8, 10, 6, 2, 8 & 2.
It was a hotly contested dual meet that gave all wrestling fans an ocular treat. Strain and struggle and guts and technique were all on display, and we all marveled.
And yet, in a remarkable 8 out of 10 bouts, the Nittany Lion prevailed. It was a clutch performance like we haven’t seen since ... last year at Nationals when Penn State went 4-0 in the National Finals.
In case you missed it, here are some select matches made available for replay by the Big Ten Network, perhaps the greatest boon to the great sport of College Wrestling in the modern era:
Penn State fans are not short on perspective here. We know we’re lucky to be fans of such an entertaining and repeatedly dominant brand of wrestling. We know we have the best coaches, the most well-funded Regional Training Center and access to perhaps the best local recruiting grounds. We understand that Cael Sanderson chose us back in 2009 and that he has built a program here whose goal it is “to be the best team in the country and to win and compete for national titles every year,” where greatness is “just an expectation.”
But it can still be surprising to see it in action.
It’s one of the many magics of sports—that even expected dominance can still shock and surprise.
Michigan has been building toward this year for 5 years, ready to ascend to the top of the mountain at Nationals in their home state—and they still might! Remember that this is only Round One between these two titans this year. The Big Ten Tourney in Lincoln, and the National Tourney in Detroit could still play out quite differently.
But last night was a warning, a lesson, for the aspirant Wolverines: that to attain such a lofty goal, the Nittany Lions must first be vanquished.
And that will not, cannot, be achieved without the fiercest of fights and the most refined of techniques.