Seven national champions return to the mats this year

By John Fuller | Oct. 27, 2005, 12 a.m. (ET)
Seven national champions will return to win individual titles this year at the 2006 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships which will be held in Oklahoma City, Okla. Of those seven, six won their titles last year.

Four of those six wrestled for Oklahoma State - Zack Esposito (149 lbs.), Johny Hendricks (165), Jake Rosholt (197) and Steve Mocco (285). Both Rosholt and Mocco will be going for their third individual titles this year, which would put them in some very elite company. Hendricks is the only non-senior looking to win another title this year.

Another of the defending champions, 141-pound Teyon Ware of Oklahoma, will also be going for his third NCAA crown. In other words, any talk of winning an NCAA individual or team title this year will go through the state of Oklahoma.

The other NCAA champions returning this year are Joe Dubuque of Indiana (125) and Troy Letters of Lehigh (165).

There are hundreds of young wrestlers and new faces, including 59 other All-Americans, who are hungry for a championship title. With the NCAA Championships less than six months away, the champions of last year now must prove themselves all over again. Following is a weight-by-weight breakdown of this year's NCAA Division I action.

125 lbs.
Dubuque, a senior, was a surprise champion last year, blowing through a very deep field to win the title. However, the top five placewinners from this weight class all return this year, including the two wrestlers most people thought would be in the title match last year, juniors Sam Hazewinkel of Oklahoma and Nick Simmons of Michigan State.

With this slate of wrestlers, one competitor people will continue to overlook will be senior Kyle Ott of Illinois, who has lost in the NCAA finals the last two years. Everyone saw last year what Ott could do for a full year while healthy. He will have to go through one of the deepest weight classes in the country, however, to get to the top of the podium this year.

Junior Matt Valenti of Pennsylvania and sophomore Coleman Scott of Oklahoma State could also figure into the mix at 125.

Pre-Season Top Four: 1) Dubuque; 2) Ott; 3) Hazewinkel; 4) Simmons

133 lbs.
Shawn Bunch of Edinboro lost in a close finals match last year, but he returns for his senior season looking for his first title. Big Ten foes Mack Reiter of Minnesota, a sophomore, and Tom Clum of Wisconsin, a senior, will also contend for titles this year, both in the conference and in the nation.

Returning is junior Darrell Vasquez of Cal Poly, who missed all of last season with an illness. Vasquez placed fourth in the NCAA Championships two years ago. If Vasquez can return to that form of two years ago, he may earn the top ranking before the season is over.

Two other All-Americans return at this weight - senior Evan Sola of North Carolina and junior Drew Headlee of Pittsburgh

Pre-Season Top Four: 1) Bunch; 2) Clum; 3) Vasquez; 4) Reiter

141 lbs.
The eight All-Americans from last year all return this year at 141 lbs., which should make this one of the more fun weight classes in the nation. Ware has won two titles already, and will want his third following his senior season. However, senior Nate Gallick of Iowa State gave Ware some epic battles last season, losing to the Sooner in the NCAA finals.

Another senior, Cory Cooperman of Lehigh, has slowly moved up the national ladder, placing third in the country last year.

Juniors Michael Keefe of Tennessee-Chattanooga and Andy Simmons of Michigan State placed fifth and sixth last year, respectively. Both wrestlers had strong seasons, but also showed at times they weren't quite to the level of the top three at this weight class. Another off-season of training may have changed that.

Two wrestlers had breakout seasons as freshmen and will look to elude the sophomore jinx, Daniel Frishkorn of Oklahoma State and Josh Churella of Michigan.

Cassio Pero of Illinois, a junior, surprised many when he placed seventh at the NCAA Championships. There will be pressure on him this year to repeat that performance.

Pre-Season Top Four: 1) Ware; 2) Gallick; 3) Cooperman; 4) Frishkorn

149 lbs.
Esposito broke through last year and easily won the NCAA title. Like Jesse Jantzen before him, Esposito is a heavy favorite to win the title as a senior as well.

Jon Masa of Hofstra, a senior, placed third last year. He has had expectations of placing high the last two years, as has senior Ty Eustice of Iowa. They may have to overcome surging sophomore Eric Tannenbaum of Michigan, who has begun to close the gap some on Esposito.

Junior Matt Storniolo of Oklahoma and sophomore Jeff Ecklof of Pittsburgh will also be much improved this season after posting All-American finishes last year.

Mark DiSalvo of Central Michigan, also a senior, placed eighth in the nation last year in his first year being 100 percent healthy.

Pre-Season Top Four: 1) Esposito; 2) Masa; 3) Tannenbaum; 4) Eustice

157 lbs.
Iowa's Joe Johnston, like Eustice, had been the subject of a lot of criticism from wrestling fans after not made an impact at the NCAA Championships. That was until last year, when he earned a spot in the NCAA Finals.

Alex Tirapelle of Illinois, a senior who was in the NCAA finals in 2003, did not even place last year. However, he has been consistently good throughout his career, and there is no reason to believe he won't contend for a title this year.

Senior Dustin Manotti of Cornell, and NCAA runner-up at 149 lbs. last year, moves up in weight this year. He will make this a much more exciting weight class while also bringing some more offensive action to the mats.

Trent Paulson of Iowa State, a junior, broke out last year and placed fourth in the nation. If he is able to stay injury free, he should do well again this year, but technically he is still a little behind some of the top wrestlers in this weight class.

Seniors Matt Lebe of West Virginia and Chris Horning of Clarion along with junior Brian Stith of Arizona State will also look to improve on their All-American finishes from last season. Sophomore Brandon Becker of Indiana is another name to watch at this weight.

Pre-Season Top Four: 1) Johnston; 2) Tirapelle; 3) Manotti; 4) Paulson

165 lbs.
This weight class is getting a makeover this year, as NCAA runner-up Mark Perry of Iowa will move up in weight and Matt Pell of Missouri will move down two weights. But the two constants remain - Hendricks and Letters, who both have NCAA titles to their names.

Pell placed seventh last year at 184, but this summer wrestled freestyle at 163 and has decided to stay down. He has good size for a 184-pounder, so his strength may help him to dominate his opponents at this weight. It will be interesting to see how Hendricks and Letters, both smaller than Pell, handle his size.

Seniors Ryan Churella of Michigan and Matt Nagel of Minnesota should not be forgotten. These are two really steady performers who are capable of winning big matches. Look for both of these wrestlers in the late rounds of next year's NCAA Championships.

Juniors Travis Paulson of Iowa State and Matt Palmer of Columbia have stood on the All-American podium as well.

Pre-Season Top Four: 1) Hendricks; 2) Letters; 3) Churella; 4) Pell

174 lbs.
Missouri junior Ben Askren has been waiting two years to become the top dog at this weight class. This year, Askren will get to compete with everyone aiming for him, something that seems to motivate him.

Perry, a sophomore, moved up in weight this year. He bulked up over the off-season. Last year in the NCAA finals, it appeared as though he was dominated physically, so it will be interesting to see how he handles the size and strength of larger opponents.

Sophomore Jake Herbert of Northwestern placed third last year as a freshman. He is good enough to place a couple of spots higher, and if anyone can wrestle in Askren's style, it is Perry and Herbert.

Senior Joe Mazzurco helped Cornell finish high again at the NCAA Championships last year. With a weight class getting deeper right in front of him, he has somewhat been forgotten already. Mazzurco is big and strong, and his contrasting style compared to the other top wrestlers here could be just what gets him to the top this year.

Travis Frick of Lehigh will drop down in weight for his senior season after placing eighth in the country at 184 lbs. last year.

Pre-Season Top Four: 1) Askren; 2) Herbert; 3) Perry; 4) Mazzurco

184 lbs.
This will be one of the tougher weight classes to figure out all season long. Pretty much anyone in the top 12 in the country is capable of beating each other, which won't make things easy on the seeding committee for the NCAA Championships.

Eric Bradley of Penn State and Paul Bradley of Iowa are the two highest returning placewinners here, finishing fourth and fifth, respectively. Both are seniors and have had some good battles with each other as well. Expect more of the same this year.

Junior Kurt Backes of Iowa State placed seventh two years ago in the NCAA Championships. He has struggled throughout his career in the postseason. His coaches will hope that changes this year.

Senior Pete Friedl of Illinois moved up in weight this year after placing fourth at 174 lbs. last year. He should do well at what is a wide-open weight class this year.

Ben Wissel of Purdue will also look to get back on the All-American podium as will Shane Webster of Oregon, who placed sixth in 2003 at 174.

Pre-Season Top Four: 1) Eric Bradley; 2) Paul Bradley; 3) Friedl; 4) Backes

197 lbs.
Rosholt has won two NCAA titles. After the regular season of his freshman year, most wrestling critics would have thought he would be lucky to even reach one NCAA finals. He had possibly his most dominant season last year, and with some of the top competition gone, he will be a heavy favorite to win the title this year.

Nebraska senior B.J. Padden has had a solid career as well, and he finally broke into the top eight last year. He has a lot of strength, and his win over Rosholt in the Big XII finals last year proves he can win an NCAA title.

Two sophomores should finish high this year - Joel Flaggert of Oklahoma and Wynn Michalak of Central Michigan. They placed fourth and sixth, respectively, as freshmen last year and made a huge impact.

Phil Davis of Penn State, a sophomore, and Ryan Flaherty of Wisconsin, a senior, will look to improve on their All-American finishes as well. Seniors Ryan Bader of Arizona State and Kyle Cerminara of Buffalo earned All-American honors in 2004.

Pre-Season Top Four: 1) Rosholt; 2) Padden; 3) Flaggert; 4) Michalak

285 lbs.
Mocco has controlled this weight class in his last two collegiate years. Last year, he was given a run for his money by then-sophomore Cole Konrad of Minnesota, who is very tall and has continued to get more and more lean. He also gave Mocco a good battle at the World Team Trials in freestyle this year.

Seniors Greg Wagner of Michigan and Cain Velasquez of Arizona State are the only two other returning All-Americans at heavyweight. Both are athletic heavyweights, but neither has made a good run at Mocco and may have a tough time doing the same with Konrad this year as well.

Sophomores Dustin Fox of Northwestern and Matt Fields of Iowa have put their names into the mix for this year.

Pre-Season Top Four: 1) Mocco; 2) Konrad; 3) Wagner; 4) Velasquez