By Jim & Tony Nordland

     The 88th annual NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships could be a very tight race between defending champion Penn State and Big Ten champion Ohio State. The Nittany Lions crowned five NCAA winners at the 2017 meet and the Buckeyes have three NCAA titlists, both squads have a strong supporting cast that could produce multiple finalists and All-Americans. Theoretically, after three days of grueling competition, the team title could be decided at the 285-pound championship bout. Other top tier teams are Big 12 champion Oklahoma State (NCAA leader with 34 mat titles), Missouri, Michigan, Iowa, North Carolina State and EIWA winner Lehigh. 

​     There is a record-tying 12 returning NCAA champions in the field, along with four finalists and a plethora of returning All-Americans, the last time 12 champs were in the tournament was 1982 and 1983. There are four two-time champions: Dean Heil (23-5) of Oklahoma State at 141, a pair of unbeatens, Zain Retherford (26-0, 116-3) of Penn State at 149 who has an 89-match win streak and Isaiah Martinez (14-0, 112-2) of Illinois at 165, along with Ohio State's Kyle Snyder (12-1,89-5) in the competitive 285-pound class. Other champions include: Lehigh's  Darian Cruz (26-0) of Lehigh and Nathan Tomasello (11-1) of Ohio State, both lodged in the loaded 125-pound bracket, 2014 winner Jason Tsirtis (17-6) now at Arizona State at 149, along with tough Myles Martin (27-2) of Ohio State at 184. Penn State's other titlists are junior Jason Nolf (21-1) at 157, Vincenzo Joseph (20-2) at 165, Mark Hall (28-0) at 174 and perennial pinner Bo Nickal (26-0) in the 184-pound class. 

     Other top-seeded matmen include: Seth Gross (24-1), a returning NCAA finalist of South Dakota State at 133, Wyoming's Bryce Meredith (29-1) at 141, Hayden Hidlay (22-0) of NC State at 157, returning NCAA bronze medalists Zahid Valencia (27-0) of Arizona State at 174 and Ohio State's Kollin Moore (22-2) at 197 pounds. Iowa has a quartet of wrestlers that will be in the medal mix: Spencer Lee (17-2) at 125, Brandon Sorensen (21-2) at 149, Michael Kemerer (22-1) at 157 and highly-regarded freshman Alex Marinelli (16-3) who could meet Martinez in a 165-pound semi-final bout.

Mat Notes:

     There could be three weight classes that feature match-ups between NCAA champions: 125, 165 and 184 pounds, and if second-seeded Nathan Tomasello (2015 NCAA champ) captures the gold medal, it will be in front of his hometown crowd of Parma, which is about ten miles from the arena. Congratulations to Ohio State head coach and former Wantagh HS native Tommy Ryan (now in his 11th year) for the Buckeyes winning their second consecutive Big Ten team title. The Buckeyes have enough firepower to make a run for the team championship and will be bolster by returning AAs; the Jordans- Micah (157) and Bo (174), along Luke Pletcher (26-2) at 133 and Joey McKenna (16-1) in the 141-pound class. Entering the tournament there are only ten undefeated wrestlers in the field, the aforementioned #1-ranked Cruz, Retherford, Hidlay, Martinez, Hall, Valencia, Nickal, along with Nick Suriano (21-0) of Rutgers at 125, David McFadden (31-0) of Virginia Tech, and Missouri's AA Daniel Lewis (29-0), in the talented 174-pound class. The 174-pound championship bout could be one of the marquee matches of the night with either Hall, Lewis or Valencia in a battle of unbeatens. The Big Red of Cornell crowned three EIWA champions; Diakomihalis (3rd seeded), Jonathon Chavez (18-4) at 165 and red-shirt freshman Ben Darmstadt (30-1) at 197. Keep an eye on Darmstadt, a two-time Ohio state champion, he is a scrambler and pinner and could emerge from the bottom of the bracket. Also to watch is Michigan's Adam Coon (25-1) who holds a win over Snyder, he is second seeded and could meet Snyder in the tournament finale.

     The Empire State has 12 NCAA qualifiers including NCAA fourth-place finisher Nick Piccininni (23-3) of Oklahoma State, the 6th seed at 125 and heralded true freshman Yianni Diakomihalis (29-1) at 141 pounds, both cruised to their conference championship crowns and are potential champions. Possible quarterfinal bout could have Diakomihalis pitted against two-time champ Heil. Other highly-touted native New Yorkers are tournament runners-up: Shakur Rasheed (20-3) of Penn State, the 5th seed at 197 and Hofstra's Michael Hughes (34-3,110-44), the NCAA falls leader with 18 pins in the 285-pound class. Hughes has an opening prelim with Buffalo's Jake Gunning (17-6). Also vying for AA honors will be: Bryan Lantry (16-5) of Buffalo, John Muldoon (15-5) of SIU-E, both at 133, Binghamton teammates; Frank Garcia (27-11) at 149 and Steven Schneider (21-5) at 184, along with Princeton junior Mike D'Angelo (22-8) and Andrew Shomers (29-6) of Edinboro, both at 157, Thomas Lane (15-9) of Cal-Poly at 197 and Youssif Hemida (27-5) of Maryland at 285. D'Angelo could meet top-seeded Hidlay in a second round bout on Thursday night. That group along with the field of the nation's top 330 wrestlers will seek to reach the coveted NCAA podium at the 2018 NCAA meet held at the Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland, Ohio on March 15th - 17th.