DIV I WRESTLING Many Teams Still In The Hunt For NCAA Team Title Midway Through The Season

By John Fuller | Dec. 26, 2002, 12 a.m. (ET)
With two months of the college wrestling season gone by, one thing has become abundantly clear: there isn't a soul alive who could pick the NCAA Division I team champion at the end of the season with 100 percent certainty. Three teams have emerged as the frontrunners for the NCAA team crown in March: Oklahoma State, Iowa and Minnesota. The Cowboys of Oklahoma State have begun the season very strong. This team has dominated the Kaufman/Brand Open in Omaha, Neb. and the Reno Tournament of Champions in Reno, Nev. 133-pound NCAA champion Johnny Thompson has remained undefeated and nearly unchallenged at the midway point of the season. 165-pound All-American Tyrone Lewis and 174-pound Chris Pendleton join Thompson in the undefeated ranks. With All-Americans Skyler Holman (125 lbs.) and Shane Roller (157 lbs.) proving to be ever-so consistent, the Cowboys are the favorites early on to win the team crown. A lot of the team's success this year may depend on 141-pound true freshman Zack Esposito, who is also undefeated. Esposito has been dominant with wins over All-American Nate Parker of Oklahoma, Dylan Long of Northern Iowa, Luke Moffitt of Iowa and J.P. Reese of Missouri to solidify his standing. The Cowboys have also dominated the dual circuit as well. The team is 4-0 heading into a January showdown with two-time defending NCAA champion Minnesota. Oklahoma State posted wins over Tennessee-Chattanooga (41-6), Missouri (34-6), Oklahoma (23-16) and Boise State (27-12). The win over Oklahoma, who many felt would challenge for an NCAA title this year, was monumental as the Cowboys were without Holman and Thompson, yet still managed to pull off the win. This team has eight wrestlers ranking in the top 10 of their respective weight classes in the latest TheMat.com Division I Coaches Individual Poll. Iowa stepped back into the national picture after a one-year hiatus with an early dual win over Minnesota (24-11) in St. Paul, Minn. The Hakweyes dual record stands at 5-0 heading into the 40th Midlands Championships in late December, including its 30th consecutive win over in-state "rival" Iowa State (34-7). The Hakweyes have a January 12 dual with Oklahoma State in Stillwater, Okla. Barring a loss by the Cowboys to Minnesota, this would be a matchup of the two top-ranked teams in the nation in all polls. Undefeated NCAA finalist Luke Eustice (125 lbs.) and Steve Mocco (285 lbs.) have led the charge in the first half of the season for the Hawkeyes along with All-Americans Tyler Nixt (174 lbs.) and Jessman Smith (184 lbs.). All four have had strong and dominant seasons. Eustice is 5-0 and has not won a match by less than 10 points yet this year. Nixt has added the mix, posting an 8-1 record in the first half of the season. Smith's undefeated mark includes a win over future Hawkeye and Junior College national champion Willie Parks of Iowa Central. Mocco, only a sophomore, seems to have found the offense that made him one of the most highly-recruited heavyweights ever. He has recorded five pins, two technical falls and two major decisions. He has wins over All-American Garrett Lowney of Minnesota and Kellan Fluckiger of Arizona State. The two wrestlers who may have had the most surprising and consistent impact in the Iowa lineup are 157-pound Matt Anderson and 197-pound Ryan Fulsaas. Anderson, who has been accused by Iowa coaches of underachieving throughout his career, has only lost two matches this season, one of them to defending NCAA champion Luke Becker. He posted a win over Roller at the Kaufman/Brand Open earlier this year to solidify himself as an All-American candidate. Fulsaas, a wrestler not many Hawkeye observers felt would even be the starter this year, has been an offensive machine this year. One of his three losses was to NCAA runner-up Jon Trenge of Lehigh by a 21-14 score. He has scored at least six points in five of his wins and has also recorded four pins. Minnesota suffered its first dual loss in nearly two years in the very first meet of the season, but two things must be considered. All-American Damion Hahn (184 lbs.) was out of the lineup recovering from a knee injury and two-time All-American Garrett Lowney (285 lbs.) was suffering a shoulder injury, which he has since had surgery on. With those two in the lineup, and this team may be undefeated. Defending NCAA champions Jared Lawrence (149 lbs.) and Luke Becker (157 lbs.) have been dominant so far this season. Lawrence suffered a loss to Eric Larkin of Arizona State in the finals of the Las Vegas Invitational. Becker has not been challenged. With the team's lineup facing so many injuries, these two have needed to be strong. 133-pound Ryan Lewis, an NCAA finalist last year, has suffered one loss this year. In that match to Iowa's Cliff Moore, Lewis gave up a reversal and back points in the last 30 seconds of the match to lose. He has since rebounded. To help with the lineup problems, 2001 All-American Jacob Volkmann dropped to 165 lbs. this season. His only loss is to defending NCAA finalist Matt Lackey of Illinois 6-2. It is vital that he continues to be strong with Hahn and Lowney out of the lineup. 125-pound transfer Bobbe Lowe came in with high expectations, but it may have been too much on his shoulders early in the season. Now that nobody is watching him anymore, he has become more competitive, but still lacks any big wins. Hahn is expected back for the January 3 showdown with Oklahoma State in Minneapolis, Minn. This lineup will begin to take on a different look and will be much stronger with him in the starting rotation. With many thinking that Minnesota's season is already done, this will be a good dual for the Gophers to prove their critics wrong. Other teams who have had strong first parts of the season include Oklahoma, Ohio State, Illinois, Michigan, Lehigh, Nebraska and West Virginia. The Sooners are 1-1 at this time, including a Bedlam loss to Oklahoma State (23-16), but have been plagued by injuries again this season. 184-pound NCAA finalist Josh Lambrecht has been dominant once again and 285-pound All-American Leonce Crump has gotten into better shape after off-season knee surgery, but 141-pound All-American Nate Parker has struggled tremendously this season. He is a wrestler this team will need at the end of the season to contend for an NCAA title. With All-Americans Witt Durden (133 lbs.) and Robbie Waller (174 lbs.) starting the season strong, this team is as talented as anyone in the nation. Ohio State has struggled this season in the lower weights, and right now it looks like it may be enough to keep them closer to the top five in the nation instead of the top spot. 157-pound Keaton Anderson and 165-pound John Clark have been stellar, but a lackluster performance by defending 285-pound NCAA champion Tommy Rowlands at the Las Vegas Invitational has this team searching to find the right track. Rowlands will have a chance to wake up at the Midlands Championships, where he could run into Mocco or his coach, Mitch Clark. Illinois is still led by defending NCAA finalist Matt Lackey at 165 lbs., but this team has built around its youth this year. And with expectations low, freshmen Kyle Ott (125 lbs.), Mark Jayne (133 lbs.) have flourished. Ott has lost two matches by a total of six points this year to All-Americans Jason Powell of Nebraska and Ben VomBaur of Boise State. Jayne has averaged 11.2 points per match so far this season with some tough competition already. He can score points with anybody, and may develop into a major national threat by the end of the season. Tirapelle, whose wrestling style is completely different of that of his NCAA-champion brother Adam, has been dominant this year. He avenged one of his two losses this year, against Kenny Burleson of Missouri and he also holds a 6-0 win over Adam Britt of V.M.I. The Fighting Illini have also received solid production from Brian Glynn (174 lbs.) and Jason Potter (184 lbs.). Michigan has posted wins over Lehigh (26-12) and upstart Cleveland State (25-6), and the Wolverines appear to be on the same course they were last year when they only lost two dual meets.