Mid-season NCAA Div. I Report: the most surprising ranked wrestlers per weight class

By Mike Willis, USA Wrestling | Jan. 11, 2019, 3:41 p.m. (ET)

Photo: Kaden Gfeller, a 149-pounder for Oklahoma State. Photo by Bruce Waterfield, OSU Athletics.

Every year there are wrestlers who bust into the national rankings that no one saw coming. Ranging from unheralded freshmen to fifth-year seniors who jumped levels, there are always wrestlers who greatly exceed their preseason expectations. In addition to those wrestlers, there are also individuals who weren’t expected to be starters that find themselves in the lineup and the national rankings. Now that the holiday tournaments are over and most wrestlers have a sizeable body of work for the season, we will take a weight-by-weight look at the most surprising ranked wrestlers.

*Note we are using FloWrestling’s rankings as of 1/7/2019


#5 Jack Mueller, Jr. (Virginia)
As a true freshman, Mueller finished sixth in the 125-pound weight class two seasons ago. Last year, he finished in the round of 12 at 133 pounds. Seeing Mueller back at 125 is a surprise in its own right. Even more surprising, however, is that Mueller is competing attached at all. Virginia announced prior to the season that Mueller would be redshirting and focus on preparing for the U23 World Championships, where he ended up placing fifth. However, the plans changed when UVA’s starting 125 pounder Louie Hayes bumped up to 133. Mueller is 5-0 this season but hasn’t wrestled any ranked competition yet.

#13 Vitali Arujau, Fr. (Cornell)
Going into the season, it was assumed Arujau would be Cornell’s starting 133 pounder. He competed at 133 last season for Finger Lakes Wrestling Club, going 9-1, and then made the U23 World Team at 61 kg (134.5 pounds). However, Cornell’s returning NCAA qualifier Chaz Tucker defeated Arujau, 7-5, at the Bearcat Open in November, forcing him down a weight class to crack the lineup. Arujau is 13-1 on the season and 8-0 at 125 lbs. Arujau has a ranked win over #17 Cole Verner of Wyoming.


#4 Micky Phillippi, RS Fr. (Pittsburgh)
Despite being in his third season in a college room, Phillippi is only considered a redshirt freshman as the NCAA granted him an additional year after transferring from UVA. His success is not surprising given Phillippi was a big recruit that put together a 42-11 record competing unattached the past two years. However, seeing him ranked fourth in one of the deepest weight classes in the country is certainly unexpected. He has earned it with victories over #5 Luke Pletcher of Ohio State and #8 Ethan Lizak of Minnesota. The only blemish on his 10-1 record is an 11-3 loss to #2 Nick Suriano from Rutgers.

#17 Brandon Paetzell, RS Soph. (Lehigh)
With Lehigh’s two-time All-American Scott Parker missing at least the first half of the season, Paetzell has made the most of his opportunity to start and has broken into the national rankings. Despite carrying a losing record, 5-6, Paetzell earned his spot by defeating returning Wyoming All-American and 12th-ranked Montorie Bridges of Wyoming and #11 John Erneste of Missouri.


#8 Dom Demas, RS Fr. (Oklahoma)
After a lackluster 6-5 redshirt year, Demas had a busy offseason where he made a Junior World Team for the second year in a row. He kept the momentum rolling into the 2018-2019 season and is off to a 17-3 start, entering this weekend’s Virginia Duals. His signature win is over 2x All-American and #13 Kaid Brock. He also has wins over #11 Sam Krivus of Virginia and #12 Sam Turner of Wyoming.

#9 Matthew Findlay, RS Soph. (Utah Valley)
Findlay has seemingly come out of nowhere this season to earn the #9 ranking. A 2014 graduate, Findlay served a two-year Mormon mission before enrolling at Utah Valley. After taking a redshirt, he was UVU’s starter last season, going 11-9 and failing to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. This season, he is 10-1 with his only loss coming to #7 Mitch McKee of Minnesota, 11-6. He has wins over #11 Sam Krivus of UVA, #12 Sam Turner of Wyoming, #16 Tristan Moran of Wisconsin and returning All-American and #20 Chad Red of Nebraska.


#5 Kaden Gfeller, RS Fr. (Oklahoma State)
Gfeller was a highly touted recruit but did not look like he would starting this season. His natural weight class, 141, was filled by two-time All-American Kaid Brock, and bumping up to 149 take on returning All-American Boo Lewallen, while possible, seemed like a tall order. However, with an injury keeping Lewallen out of the lineup, Gfeller was handed the reins and hasn’t looked back. After a phenomenal 20-4 redshirt season competing at 141, he has started the 2018-19 campaign 19-0 (16-0 at 149). He has wins over past All-American and #19 Tommy Thorn of Minnesota, #18 Russell Rohlfing of CSU-Bakersfield and #7 Mitch Finesilver from Duke. Gfeller has a big weekend ahead of him as he is slated to take on #1 Matt Kolodzik of Princeton and #2 Anthony Ashnault of Rutgers in dual action this weekend.

#12 Brock Mauller, Fr. (Missouri)
In addition to having one of the best names in wrestling, Brock Mauller is having an impressive start to his college career. Mauller was not expected to start this year but had his redshirt pulled when returning All-American Grant Leeth went down with a season-ending injury. Mauler is 19-1 with his only loss coming to #11 Jarrett Degen of Iowa State, who Mauller has also recorded a win over this season. His other ranked win is over #13 Cole Martin of Wisconsin.


#5 Larry Early, RS Jr. (Old Dominion)
Early looks to have jumped levels after a strong sophomore season, where he went 28-13 overall, including a 2-2 showing at the NCAA Tournament. This year he is 13-3, and while some of his losses seem a little head-scratching for a top-five ranked wrestler, his signature win over returning national finalist #4 Hayden Hidlay of North Carolina State is certainly a boon to his resume. One of his three losses came to #3 Ryan Deakin of Northwestern, while his other ranked win was over #11 Zach Hartman of Bucknell.

#11 Zach Hartman, Fr. (Bucknell)
Hartman was a PIAA runner-up last season and not ranked in the top-100 recruits. This year, he finds himself just outside the top-10 157 pounders in Division I wrestling. Hartman is 13-4 on the year. His losses came to #10 Taleb Rahmani of Pittsburgh, #6 Kaleb Young of Iowa, #5 Larry Early of ODU and #1 Jason Nolf of Penn State. His ranked wins are over #15 John Van Brill of Rutgers and #13 Christian Pagdilao from Arizona State.


#9 Demetrius Romero, RS Jr. (Utah Valley)
For the most part, 165 doesn’t have too many surprises, so Romero is going to be the only wrestler mentioned in this weight class. The redshirt junior spent his first two seasons at Boise State before the school dropped its program. Last season, he transferred to Utah Valley, where he put together a 26-9 record and qualified for his first NCAA tournament, where he went 1-2. This season, he is 14-2 with his losses coming to #3 Evan Wick of Wisconsin and #7 Logan Massa of Michigan (which he later avenged). His other ranked wins include decisions over #18 Thomas Bullard of North Carolina State and #17 Joey Gunther of Illinois. 165 is a weight class with a lot of talent and currently Romero is ranked in front of #10 Junior World Champion Mekhi Lewis of Virginia Tech and #11 two-time All-American Chandler Rogers of Oklahoma State.


#5 Joe Smith, RS Jr. (Oklahoma State)
With the logjam of talent Oklahoma State has, it was assumed there would be some jostling of their lineup. However I don’t think many expected Joe Smith to wind up at 174. After two All-American seasons at 157, Smith redshirted last year. He missed the beginning of this season, but it seems like Smith has claimed his position as the starter at 174, bumping returning All-American Jacobe Smith to 184. He carries a 9-1 record with his only loss coming to #1 Mark Hall in the Southern Scuffle finals. He has a ranked win over #6 David McFadden of Virginia Tech and also defeated NC State’s redshirting blue chip recruit Trent Hidlay.

#11 Brit Wilson, RS Fr. (Northern Illinois)
Despite a solid 21-4 redshirt season, Wilson entered the season under the radar and quickly worked his way up the rankings. He is currently 14-3 with losses to #8 Taylor Lujan of Northern Iowa, unranked Carver James of Illinois and the current #1 ranked wrestler in Division III Darden Schurg of Wabash. His ranked wins include #20 Seldon Wright of Old Dominion and #13 Kimball Bastian of Utah Valley.


#11 Jacobe Smith, RS Sr. (Oklahoma State)
184 is another weight class that looks pretty close to what was expected in the preseason with Jacobe Smith being the exception. The returning 174-pound All-American bumped to 184 after Joe Smith’s return to the lineup. While there was speculation this was going to occur, no one really knew how the Oklahoma State lineup was going to shake out. At 174, Smith was 8-0 with wins over #20 Seldon Wright of Old Dominion and #12 Devin Skatza of Minnesota. His only matches at 184 so far came at the Southern Scuffle where he went 4-2 and took fourth. His losses were to Virginia Tech redshirt Hunter Bolen and #8 Lou Deprez of Binghamton.  His lone ranked win at the event was over #17 Sam Colbray of Iowa State.


#4 Rocco Caywood, RS Sr. (Army)
It is a little jarring to see Caywood ranked as high as fourth in the country. The Army senior was a fringe top-20 guy most of last season, where he went 18-14 and qualified for his first NCAA Tournament going 1-2. This season he is 16-3 his losses coming to Princeton’s #3 Pat Brucki and Northwestern’s redshirting freshman Lucas Davison. Brucki was a true freshman last year that made it to the round of 12 at the NCAA Tournament, which should emphasize how wide open 197 is after the top two, #1 PSU’s Bo Nickal and Ohio State’s #2 Kollin Moore. Caywood has ranked wins over #20 Malik McDonald of NC State, #19 Cale Davidson of Wyoming, #14 Stephen Loiseau of Drexel, #10 Tanner Orndorff of Utah Valley and #5 Jacob Warner of Iowa.

#7 Jay Aiello, RS So. (Virginia)
Last season, Aiello was 13-15, went 0-2 at the ACC Championships and failed to qualify for the national tournament. This season, he is 14-4 and in a position to All-American based on his ranking. His losses are to #19 Cale Davidson of Wyoming, #11 Eric Schultz of Nebraska (who he also beat), #3 Pat Brucki of Princeton and unranked (and currently not starting) Kyle Gentile of Lehigh. Besides Schultz, Aiello has ranked wins over #12 Tom Sleigh of Virginia tech, #10 Tanner Orndorff of Utah Valley, #9 Christian Brunner of Purdue and #8 Nathan Traxler of Stanford.


#3 Anthony Cassar, Sr. (Penn State)
Last season, Cassar lost the starting spot at 197 to Shakur Rasheed, who went on to earn All-American honors. This year, to crack the lineup, he bumped up to heavyweight and took out his teammate two-time All-American and the #2 ranked wrestler in the country at the time Nick Nevills, 7-2, at the Keystone Classic to earn the spot. His record this season is 11-1 with his only loss coming to #2 Derek White of Oklahoma State. He has ranked wins over #20 Joey Goodhart of Drexel, #13 Matt Voss of George Mason and #6 Jordan Wood of Lehigh. It is worth noting that Cassar has scored bonus points in all his wins this season.

#11 Demtrius Thomas, Jr. (Pittsburgh)
Thomas transferred in the offseason from Williams Baptist, where he was an NAIA Champion as a freshman and runner-up as sophomore. He has proved to be a great pickup for the panther squad and is 18-2 this season. His losses came to #16 Zach Elam of Missouri and Jarrod Hinrichs, who is currently #3 in Division II for Nebraska Kearney. BThomas has a ranked win over #19 Matt Stencel of Central Michigan.