Immel Blog: Top 10 stories of the college season heading into 2017

By Richard Immel, USA Wrestling | Dec. 29, 2016, 5:03 p.m. (ET)
 Cornell's two-time NCAA champion Gabe Dean has emerged as a top
Hodge Trophy contender in 2017 with a dominating fall semester.
Photo: Tony Rotundo,
It has been a spectacular four years for me as a young professional working for USA Wrestling. Coming off the high off my first trip to the Olympic Games, my interest and fandom of wrestling as never been greater. I can’t thank USA Wrestling and the athletes, coaches and others I work with on a daily basis for the opportunities and moments I have been blessed to take part in. It is the great people in wrestling around the world that really make my job so rewarding and special.

As 2016 comes to a close, it is a good time to take a look back at the top stories of the year. My colleague Gary Abbott did a remarkable job outlining the top wrestling stories of 2016 in his latest blog. I decided to examine my top stories coming out of the college ranks for the fall semester as we close in on what looks to be a thrilling race to the finish this march.

My top 10 stories of the NCAA Division I wrestling season heading into 2017:

1. Olympic medalists Kyle Snyder and J’den Cox return to college wrestling: Prior to this season only five Americans had won an Olympic medal and returned to NCAA competition. Olympic champion Kyle Snyder and Olympic bronze medalist J’den Cox bumped that number to seven after showing out in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil this August as college underclassmen. Both men are heavy favorites to repeat as NCAA champions, Snyder going for his second at Ohio State and Cox his third at Missouri. On December 8, wrestling fans were treated to an event that we had not seen before, two Olympic medalists competing in the same college dual meet. Fourth-ranked Ohio State downed No. 4 Missouri 30-9 at St. Johns Arena in Columbus, Ohio, with Snyder and Cox winning their matches. Snyder made it look oh so easy with a crushing win by fall in the heavyweight bout over Austin Myers. Cox, on the other hand, escaped with a tight 6-4 win over Buckeye freshman Kollin Moore at 197 pounds. The two men now set their sights on becoming the fourth and fifth college wrestlers to win a NCAA title the year after winning an Olympic medal.

2. Cornell’s Gabe Dean jumps levels: As a two-time NCAA champion, much was expected from Gabe Dean heading into his senior campaign for the Big Red. However, the domination Dean has displayed over the first half of this season has been off the charts. Dean opened his season by posting a 13-4 major decision win over NCAA champion Myles Martin at the NWCA All-Star Classic. At the midway point of the season, Dean has earned bonus points in every match he has wrestled, amassing 11 pins, one technical fall and two major decisions, placing him on the short list of Hodge Trophy contenders. All the while, Dean is putting up these staggering numbers at 184 pounds, arguably the toughest weight class in the NCAA this season.

3. Heavy-hitting injuries remove contenders from NCAA mix: A string of injuries has hit the NCAA scene early on this season, removing several All-American threats for the year. Prior to the season starting Virginia Tech All-American David McFadden was ruled out, dinging the Hokies NCAA title chances. After starting the year 5-0, it was announced Michigan’s Big Ten champion Domenic Abounader would have season ending surgery and seek a medical redshirt. Two-time All-American for Missouri Willie Miklus suffered a knee injury in the Tigers dual meet against Virginia Tech on November 20 and is out for the year. NC State senior Max Rohskopf was a legit All-American threat at 157 pounds, but was sidelined for the season after some impressive early wins. Another senior contender who had his campaign cut short was Rutgers 157-pounder Richie Lewis. It was also recently announced that Ohio State freshman Ke-Shawn Hayes suffered a season-ending injury and will be replaced by top-prospect Luke Pletcher at 141 pounds for the Buckeyes. Injuries always play a factor come season’s end, but this year seems to have a higher injury rate than most and we are only halfway through.

4. Eggum replaces Robinson as Minnesota head coach following Xanax scandal: Prior to the start of this collegiate season the Minnesota wrestling program was riddled with turmoil and uncertainty after it was discovered members of the team were using and selling Xanax. After months of internal investigation, J Robinson, one of the greatest college wrestling coaches in history, was relieved of his duties and replaced in the interim by top assistant Brandon Eggum. Robinson led the Gophers to three NCAA team titles during his tenure. Charged with a terribly difficult task of keeping the Minnesota program together, Eggum has held firm and kept the Gophers on track for a successful season. Minnesota is currently ranked in the top 15 of the major polls and is expected to get several key pieces back in the lineup at the start of the spring semester.

5. Penn State’s Retherford, Nolf and Nickal make it look too easy: Bonus points are often the deciding factor at the NCAA Championships when it comes to the team race. Luckily for the defending NCAA champs at Penn State, Zain Retherford, Jason Nolf and Bo Nickal know nothing but bonus points. Retherford, the defending NCAA champion at 149 pounds, is 9-0 this year with eight pins and a technical fall on his resume. The returning NCAA runner-up at 157 pounds, Nolf is also 9-0 and holds six pins and three technical falls. After moving up to 184 pounds following a NCAA runner-up season at 174 pounds as a freshman, Nickal owns eight wins on the year with seven coming by pin and the other a major decision. For those interested in doing the math, these three Nittany Lions have a combined record of 26-0 with every win coming with bonus points. Good luck trying to dethrone the Nittany Lions as top dog if this trend continues into March.

6. Freshman making a name for themselves early on: As we head into the new year, five freshmen have wrestled their way into the top five of the national rankings. Perhaps the most impressive freshman thus far is Michigan’s 165-pounder Logan Massa who is currently 15-0 and fresh off a first-place showing at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational where he defeated NCAA finalist Isaac Jordan in the finals. Also taking out a NCAA finalist in the Cliff Keen finals was undefeated Arizona State freshman Zahid Valencia at 184 pounds. Other undefeated freshman who are looking like legit NCAA title threats include Penn State 125-pounder Nick Suriano, Princeton 141-pounder Matt Kolodzik and Iowa 157-pounder Michael Kemerer.

7. Oklahoma State a consistent No. 1 throughout the fall semester: The Oklahoma State Cowboys have gone wire-to-wire thus far as the top-ranked team in Division I wrestling. The Cowboys are 5-0 in dual-meet competition with wins over Bucknell, No. 13 Minnesota, No. 18 Oklahoma, No. 23 Pittsburgh and No. 8 Cornell. The starting squad for Oklahoma State has yet to see tournament action, but the Cowboy backups pulled out a tournament title at the Reno TOC. That’s right, their backups won a major collegiate tournament. Talk about depth. The schedule picks up immediately for the Cowboys who are slated to compete at the Southern Scuffle this weekend followed by a showdown with No. 3 Iowa on January 15 in Stillwater, Okla.

8. Rutgers and Princeton draw second-highest dual-meet attendance in NCAA history: Dubbed the “Battle at the Birthplace,” over 16,000 fans filled High Point Solutions Stadium in Piscataway, N.J. to watch Rutgers top Princeton 19-16 in the second most attended dual meet in NCAA history. Bonus points proved the difference in the dual meet that saw both teams win five bouts. The premier bout of the dual came at 141 pounds with budding freshman Matt Kolodzik knocking off returning All-American Anthony Ashnault, 4-3. The Battle at the Birthplace football stadium match spring-boarded off the wildly successful Grapple on the Gridiron event held in Iowa City, Iowa last year with Oklahoma State and Iowa battling inside Kinnick Stadium.

9. Lou Rosselli takes the helm at Oklahoma: In the biggest offseason coaching shakeup, longtime Ohio State assistant coach Lou Rosselli took the job as head man at Oklahoma. Rosselli was named the head coach for the Sooners on August 30 following the abrupt departure of former head coach Mark Cody. The Sooners have shown promise under Rosselli thus far, holding a No. 18 national ranking and bringing in one of the nation’s top recruiting classes for the 2017 season. Not to mention, Rosselli has assembled an elite staff with past U.S. World Team members Keith Gavin and Michael Lightner, and Buckeye All-American Hunter Stieber joining him on staff. Rosselli is also looking to build a successful regional training center in Norman much like he did for Ohio State in recent years.

10. Wide open Hodge Trophy race: The Hodge Trophy is awarded annually to the best college wrestler. Most years there are one or two wrestlers that stand above the field when it comes to who will win the coveted award. The depth of contenders this season stands out more than perhaps ever before. I have mentioned Olympic medalists Kyle Snyder and J’den Cox and the rarity of their credentials on the college scene. Gabe Dean was considered on the bottom of the Hodge pack entering the year, but no sane person can argue against him at this point. Penn State has three legit contenders in Zain Retherford, Jason Nolf and Bo Nickal who can’t help but score bonus points. I haven’t even mentioned Illinois’ two-time NCAA champion Isaiah Martinez who has only lost one match in his entire collegiate career. One could even throw in Ohio State’s NCAA champion Nathan Tomasello and Iowa’s 125-pound hammer Thomas Gilman in the mix as dark horse contenders. This year’s crop of elite talent is second-to-none. It will no doubt be a thrilling race to watch as we count down the days until 10 men stand alone as NCAA champions in March.