The two “big” conference finals were held over the weekend, with the Big 12 Championships in Tulsa, OK, and the Big Ten Championships in University Park, PA. The two conferences account for 26 teams, and 10 of the top 16 programs in the nation, including #1 Iowa (Big Ten), #2 Penn State (Big Ten), #4 Oklahoma State (Big 12), #5 Nebraska (Big Ten), #6 Michigan (Big Ten), and #9 Iowa State (Big 12).
With the final two conference championships under wraps, the 266 auto-qualifiers for the upcoming NCAA Championships have been decided. Over the weekend, Chase Saldate (Michigan State), DJ Lloren (Fresno State), Kyle Parco (Fresno State), and Justin Thomas (Oklahoma) clinched automatic berths.
However, there are still 64 at-large bids for the 10 weight classes (6 or 7 per weight) which will be determined by an NCAA committee and announced on March 10. That day, the final seeds and brackets will be released as well. The tournament itself will be held in St. Louis from March 18-20. TV coverage will be revealed here in the near future. Fans should be particularly excited about the 2021 edition as last year’s NCAA Championships was cancelled – the first time since WWII.
A number of CA wrestlers competed in both conferences and we’ll start with the Big Ten. Nebraska’s senior Liam Cronin (Servite HS) was the #2 seed entering the tournament at 125 lbs., and saying he had a tough day at the office would be an understatement. Last season, Cronin placed 5th Big Ten for Indiana. At 125, it is the Spencer Lee Show – 2-time NCAA champion and last year’s Hodge Trophy winner with no close matches in two years – so the fight was on for second place. A whopping TEN of the nation’s top 17 wrestlers at 125 lbs. are from the Big Ten. Cronin dropped his quarterfinal match to Devin Schroder of Purdue 3-1 in overtime, who was the #7 seed but ranked #17 in the country which means he’s considered the 10th-ranked BIG TEN wrestler in the national polls. In his next match, Cronin lost to #6 seed Michael DeAugstino of Northwestern, who was ranked #15 in the country. The crazy thing? Schroder and DeAugustino had placed 2nd and 3rd in the Big Ten last year! And eventually, they would finish 2nd and 5th in the Big Ten on Sunday. As such, Cronin ended up in the mini-draw for 9th place and he won that. With the top 8 finishers at the weight receiving auto-qualification into the NCAA Championships, Cronin is very likely to nab an at-large bid as he was in the top 10 for most of the year. If given the chance, he’ll look to rebound at the NCAAs in a very unpredictable weight (after Spencer Lee).
Freshman Marcos Polanco of Minnesota at 141 lbs. (Bishop Amat HS) and sophomore Peyton Omania of Michigan State at 149 lbs. (De La Salle HS) both finished 1-2 but without the benefit of a 9th place mini-draw, will need some good fortune for at-large berths. On the bright side, their cases are quite strong. Polanco was #21 and Omania #27 on the last coaches poll before conference finals. Omania was involved in a strange outcome this weekend – in the first round, he beat #8 seed Mike Van Brill of Rutgers 9-6 before losing in the quarters to #1 seed and eventual champion Sammy Sasso of Ohio State. In his next match, Omania dropped a close 5-3 decision to Graham Rooks of Indiana, who finished in 6th place. And guess where Van Brill ended up? 3rd place! Senior heavyweight Christian Rebottaro of Michigan State (Monte Vista Christian HS) was 0-2 during his third trip to the Big Ten Championships. An interesting case will be true freshman Andrew Sparks of Minnesota (Calvary Chapel HS) at 165 lbs. – he was injured during the first day of competition and defaulted out. After winning his first match, Sparks lost in the quarterfinals to #4 seed Cameron Amine of Michigan and then to #6 seed Joe Lee of Penn State. Considering Sparks was ranked #14 in the country going in, sandwiched by Amine (#13) and Lee (#15), an at-large berth to the NCAAs is viable, but dependent on the severity of his injury.
Of course, the big story was true freshman 157-pounder Chase Saldate (Gilroy HS) and his incredible run to a 4th place finish for Michigan State. A little over a year ago, he was winning a CA state title in dominant fashion. This weekend, Saldate was seeded #7 but not unfairly so – the six wrestlers ahead of him were all ranked in the nation’s top 10 – #1, #5, #6, #7, #8, and #9. After dropping a quarterfinal match to #5 ranked Kaleb Young (Iowa) 4-0, Saldate won his next three matches, the most significant being a 3-1 triumph over #7 ranked Kendall Coleman (Purdue) in the consolation semifinals. His victory avenged an earlier dual meet loss to Coleman, 6-4 in overtime. Though Saldate’s 8-5 season record seems a bit muted, all five of his losses have come against top 10 wrestlers and he could challenge for a spot on the All-American podium in St. Louis.
The magnitude of a true freshman placing so highly in the nation’s best conference is enormous. In recent memory for CA wrestlers, only Morgan McIntosh (Penn State) – a 3-time NCAA All-American and national runner-up – Jason Welch (Northwestern) – another 3-time NCAA All-American and national runner-up – and Nikko Triggas (Ohio State) – a 4-time NCAA qualifier and All-American – achieved such a feat out of the Big Ten. Legendary names aside, McIntosh finished 5th Big Ten (197) in 2012, Welch took 2nd Big Ten (157) in 2009, and Triggas was 6th Big Ten (125) in 2008. The opportunity in itself is rare.
1,100 miles away in Tulsa, OK, the Big 12 Championships were being held, with 12 teams (and 6 among the top 25) clashing for NCAA spots. In the team title race, Oklahoma, aided by 3 CA wrestlers in their line-up, surprised by tying powerhouse Oklahoma State with 124.0 team points. Individually, several CA wrestlers were in the draw with Fresno State making its final hurrah and competitors also on the rosters of Wyoming and Oklahoma teams.
Qualifying for the NCAA are two Fresno State bulldogs and an Oklahoma Sooner – and there’s several more who have strong cases for at-large berths. FSU senior DJ Lloren (Buchanan HS) improved his season record to 12-1 with a 3rd place finish at 141. Despite being ranked #12 in the country, he was seeded #4 in the tournament – in the semifinals, Lloren lost 6-2 to top-seed and #5 ranked Ian Parker of Iowa State. However, in the 3rd place match, he topped Clay Carlson of South Dakota State, who was ranked #15 in the country but was given the #3 seed for Big 12. After starting his college career at Utah Valley (another Big 12 school), Lloren returned “home” before the 2020 season and immediately clinched the Bulldog starting spot. He qualified for the NCAA Tournament last season and should be a strong threat for All-American honors in a couple weeks. In the same weight, Wyoming’s sophomore Chase Zollmann (Poway HS) exceeded his original #8 seed by finishing in 5th place and with the top 4 gaining auto-qualification into the NCAAs, he has a strong shot for an at-large bid – it helps that he was ranked #27 in the last coaches poll. Zollman has amassed a 12-6 season record during his first year as the Cowboys starter.
At 149 lbs., Lloren’s freshman teammate Kyle Parco (De La Salle HS) had a terrific run to 3rd place. Despite a 9-0 record going into the tournament, he was unseeded. To be fair, the seeds were a bit of a mess and up-for-grabs after the top two wrestlers (ranked #5 and #6 in the country). Jarrett Degen of Iowa State, who’s ranked #8 in the country was seeded #5 … and Parco beat him twice – once on Saturday 4-3 to open (first round) and once on Sunday 9-4 to close (for 3rd place) – to secure his first trip to the NCAA Championships. Combined with his redshirt season in 2019-2020, Parco’s career college record now stands at 30-3. Needless to say, he may still be competing with a heavy heart with long-time club and high school coach Mark Halvorson suddenly passing away in February. Parco was Halvorson’s second CA state champion (after Omania). Another interesting development is where he will go AFTER this season with Fresno State wrestling disbanding. Parco has committed to Utah Valley.
At 157 lbs., Oklahoma’s Justin Thomas (Calvary Chapel HS) secured his third trip to the NCAA Championships by finishing in 3rd place. He’s likely disappointed – ranked #11 in the country and seeded #2, he lost to #13 ranked and #3 seed Jared Franek of North Dakota State in overtime (3-1 SV-1) – Thomas also lost to Franek in last year’s Big 12 tournament. The semifinal loss cost Thomas a chance to match up against #3 ranked David Carr of Iowa State, the eventual Big 12 champion. In a late January dual, Thomas lost to Carr 4-0. Nevertheless, Thomas has bigger fish to catch and fry at the NCAAs. At the 2019 tournament, he won 3 matches and was a 6-5 loss away from All-American status. Thomas has all the tools to challenge for an All-American spot. Wyoming’s junior Jacob Wright (Dinuba HS) will need help to claim one of the at-large berths – he finished 5th at 157 lbs., dropping matches to the eventual 3rd (8-2 to Thomas) and 4th place finishers. Wright was an NCAA qualifier for Fresno State in 2020 and with a 16-4 season record and #18 national ranking, he should be able to grab an NCAA spot.
The Mantanona brothers made serious contributions to the Oklahoma’s Big 12 team title run (or rather co-title run), combining for 27 team points. Sophomore Troy Mantanona (Palm Desert HS) was unseeded but added 3 pins on route to a strong 6th place finish at 165 lbs. Older brother and junior Anthony Mantanona (Palm Desert HS) was dealt a #8 seed at 174 lbs. and given a tough draw to finish in 5th place – he lost in the quarterfinals 11-6 to #3-ranked Demetrius Romero (Utah Valley) and also in the consolation semifinals to #9-ranked Hayden Hastings (Wyoming). The Big 12 auto-qualifies 5 wrestlers at 165 and 4 wrestlers at 174 so both Mantanona brothers will be in the discussion for at-large bids. It’s been a bit of a mixed-bag season for Anthony, who earned NCAA qualification in 2020 after finishing 2nd at the Big 12 tournament. Certainly, his talent belies an 8-7 season record and if given the chance, could prove to be a very dangerous foe in the NCAA tournament. Anthony was ranked #23 in the last coaches poll so an at-large berth is likely.