Four wrestlers with CA HS backgrounds earned All-American status by finishing in the top 8 at the NCAA Wrestling Championships, held March 18-20 in St. Louis, MO. A total of 24 wrestlers with CA ties competed in the tournament.
BERNIE BURNS THE FIELD Leading the way was Bernie Truax of Cal Poly SLO, who entered the tournament as the #12 seed but sent shockwaves through the NCAA community with an inspired run through the 174 lbs. draw. In the round of 16, he beat #5 seed and returning NCAA All-American Logan Massa (Michigan) in overtime 3-1 SV1 and continued the momentum with a last-second 4-2 victory over another returning NCAA All-American and #4 seed Michael Labriola (Nebraska). Massa had finished 3rd in the NCAAs in 2017 and was also crowned Senior Nationals freestyle champion in 2019 (at 74 kg/163 lbs.). Labriola had claimed a 6th place NCAA medal in 2018.
In the semifinals, Truax ran into #1 seed Michael Kemerer (Iowa), who had finished 3rd and 4th in the 2018 and 2019 NCAA tournaments and was the #2 seed in last year’s cancelled event. Truax would lose 8-1 and drop down to the consolations while in the finals, Kemerer eventually lost 3-1 SV1 to Carter Starucci (Penn State) – a reversal of the Big Ten finals, where Kemerer jolted Starucci 7-2. In his final two consolation matches, Truax encountered familiar foes – he defeated Massa for the second time, this time 7-6 but in the 3rd place match, Truax lost to Labriola 8-3. The match was 2-2 in the third period but Labriola secured a body-lock to put Truax on his back. Regardless, a 4th place finish for the Cal Poly star is quite a feat – Truax is the first Mustang to step on the NCAA medal podium since 2012. With three more years eligibility, he will vie for further individual glory in the coming years.
PARCO AND ABAS SHARE PODIUM SPACE AT 149 Two familiar CA names (both state champions in 2019, at 132 and 145 lbs.) placed in the 149 lbs. class – and ironically, both are only redshirt freshmen who also happen to represent college programs that may be cancelled next season. Kyle Parco of Fresno State arrived in St. Louis as the #17 seed but departed with a well-earned 6th place medal. He battled throughout the Championships, logging six matches against top 10 seeds and having his hand raised in half of them. After squeezing by #16 seed PJ Ogunsanya (Army) 7-5 SV-1 in the opening round, Parco lost a heartbreaker to the #1 seed and eventual NCAA runner-up, Sammy Sasso (Ohio State) in a 11-10 barnburner. Sasso needed a last-second takedown to stave off the massive upset bid from Parco. We’ve seen it so many times – a tough loss to a top seed followed by a letdown in the subsequent match … but fortunately, Parco displayed his grit by doing the opposite. He rolled through the consolation rounds, with wins over #9 seed Legend Lamer (Cal Poly SLO) 5-2, #6 seed Bryce Andonian (Virginia Tech) 7-4, and #7 seed Jonathan Millner (Appalachian State) 9-5 to guarantee a top 6 finish. In a post-tourney interview, Parco cited the loss of his high school coach at De La Salle, Mark Halvorson (who passed away a little over a month ago), as motivation for his NCAA run. An All-American finish during his first trip to the NCAA tournament is a heck of a way to honor Halvorson’s memory.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the 149 lbs. draw was #8 seed Jaden Abas of Stanford. Touted as an All-American (or rather multi All-American) hopeful from the day he stepped on the Palo Alto campus, things actually did not look very promising for Abas following a first round loss to #25 seed Yahya Thomas (Northwestern). A quick aside: two weeks ago Thomas, a returning NCAA qualifier, lost 3 times to finish 8th at the Big Ten conference finals. But in a reversal of fortunes, Thomas – who had an 8-5 record going in – would place THIRD at the NCAA Championships. He won 6 matches while the 3 Big Ten opponents he lost to at conference finals tallied 4 wins combined. But back to Abas, who really does not need any introduction for even the most casual fans of CA wrestling. With little margin for error in the consolation brackets, he reeled off four consecutive wins to land All-American honors, the most important being a 2-1 overtime (TB-1) victory over Iowa’s Max Murin in the blood round. After losing to Thomas for a second time in the consolation quarterfinals, Abas topped #7 seed Jonathan Millner (Appalachian State) in the 7th place match.
VALENCIA OVERCOMES INJURY TO EARN FIRST NCAA MEDAL Finally, at 165 lbs., Anthony Valencia (Arizona State) reached the All-America podium for the first time in his illustrious career but the #2 seed was dealt an unfortunate hand. He opened the quarterfinal match with two quick takedowns against #7 seed Ethan Smith (Ohio State) and was leading 4-2 heading into the second period. Then disaster struck – Valencia sustained a leg injury in a scramble (where Smith was awarded a reversal to knot the score 4-4) which effectively crushed his chances to advance. Following an injury time-out by Valencia, Smith was given choice and scored another reversal to go up 6-4. Under pain and with limited mobility, Valencia tried a throw late in the third and final period but ended up on his back, relinquishing a 6-point move to Smith. Smith tacked on a riding time point for a 13-4 win. With the #1 and #4 seeds also losing in the quarterfinals (the #4 seed and 2019 NCAA Champion Mekhi Lewis of Virginia Tech withdrew with injury), this was quite a golden opportunity for Valencia. But suddenly, there was a distinct possibility that an injured Valencia would be forced to medical default out as well. However, Valencia gutted out the blood round match against #21 seed Peyton Hall (West Virginia) to clinch All-American honors. A notable landmark, the win was the 100th win of his collegiate career.
Valencia eventually finished in 8th place. The man he beat 7-1 in the Pac-12 finals, Shane Griffith (Stanford), avoided the landmines to claim the NCAA championship title. Griffith, who was the #3 seed in last year’s tournament and a 2020 Hodge Trophy finalist, was disrespected with a #8 seed but beat top-ranked Alex Marinelli (Iowa) in the quarterfinals – who himself also injury defaulted after the quarterfinals. Valencia has another year eligibility remaining (along with everyone else) so he and Arizona State – who finished 4th in the team standings behind traditional powerhouses Iowa, Penn State, and Oklahoma State – will look for bigger and better things in 2022.
A trio of CA wrestlers missed the medal podium by a single match. They included #19 seed Chance Rich (CS Bakersfield) at 133 lbs., #23 Jacob Wright (Wyoming) at 157 lbs., and #18 Izzak Olejnik (Northern Illinois) at 165 lbs. Wright and Olejnik were involved in cross-CA matches – Wright upset #10 seed Justin Thomas (Oklahoma) in the opening round while Olejnik lost to Valencia in overtime during a round of 16 match-up.
LAST HURRAH FOR STANFORD AND FRESNO STATE? Stanford qualified 7 wrestlers to the NCAA Championships and two placed (Abas 7th and Griffith title). They finished 17th in the team standings and in a crowded field, just a handful of points away from breaking into the top 12. Cal Poly, riding Truax’s outstanding performance, finished in 25th place. Fresno State ended up 35th with two qualifiers but a fact deserving a long sigh, FOUR former Bulldog wrestlers competed in the NCAA tournament for OTHER teams (Gaxiola, Wright, Hemauer, and Reyes). Cal State Bakersfield brought 3 competitors to the big dance and finished in a three-way tie for 41st place.
Fingers crossed but if Fresno State and Stanford discontinue their wrestling programs, “what a shame” would be quite an understatement. Their potential demise effectively cuts the number of CA Division 1 programs to just Cal Poly and Cal State Bakersfield with Cal Baptist joining the Big 12 in 2022-2023. Three out of 78 total D1 programs is a pittance considering our state’s population (40 million), number of HS wrestlers (roughly 23,000), and number of wrestlers qualifying for the NCAA championships (24). We’re not at the level of alpha-dog Pennsylvania (9,500 HS wrestlers but 49 total NCAA qualifiers and 11 D1 programs) but let’s compare with New York – 11,000 HS wrestlers, 16 NCAA qualifiers, and SEVEN D1 programs. Or with North Carolina – 8,000 HS wrestlers, only 3 NCAA qualifiers, and SEVEN D1 programs.
Fresno State originally dropped wrestling in 2006 but reinstated the sport for the 2017-2018 season to much fanfare – they hired a “name” coach with significant national and international credentials (Troy Steiner). This move made sense as the Fresno area is fertile grounds for producing national-caliber talent. For example, Buchanan, Clovis, Clovis North, and Selma are all within a half-hour of one another – and these four programs have nearly two dozen alumni on NCAA Division 1 rosters this season alone. Fresno State’s rebirth was promising with “homegrown” prep stars Josh Hokit and Parco earning All-American honors for Fresno State in 2019 and 2021. But just four years back and despite top-10 attendance numbers during pre-COVID environments, Fresno State wrestling will likely be shut down yet again.
Stanford’s case is just as tragic as the program seemed to be turning the corner as a potential national force. They won their first conference title in 2019 and with buzz-worthy recruiting classes, a breakthrough at the NCAA Championships seemed imminent in the coming years. This season, despite the dark cloud of cancellation looming and COVID environment stifling their training/scheduling capabilities, Stanford crowned its second NCAA champion ever (Griffith) and added another All-American (Abas). They also had two others, Real Woods and Nathan Traxler, who were a match away from the medal podium. Especially disappointing is that Stanford’s decision is not necessarily related to financial reasons, as is the case with Fresno State. Certainly, Stanford administrators have pointed fingers at their budget but Stanford supporters have committed $12 million to continuing the wrestling program – which would effectively self-endow the team for years, if not decades.. And a teeny-weeny detail should be mentioned that the school has a near-$30 billion endowment. But administrators, shying away from transparency, seem steadfast in culling wrestling, along with other 10 sports programs – all niche and traditionally non-revenue-producing.
OK, off the soapbox. Here’s the final rundown of the 24 CA wrestlers who competed at the NCAA Championships. As 2021 is considered a “free year” by the NCAA, all will have the opportunity to compete again during the 2021-2022 season.
1-2 @ 125 pounds
Liam Cronin #13 Year: Junior School:U. of Nebraska Finish/Conference: 9th Big Ten Qualification: At-large bid 2021 Record: 8-5 Career Record: 62-50 InterMat Ranking: #14
NCAA: d. #20 Jake Ferri (Kent State) 6:29 NCAA: l. #4 Drew Hilebrand (C. Michigan) 2-1 NCAA: l. #14 Jaret Lane (Lehigh) 13-12
Indiana University (2017-2020) 2020: 5th Big Ten, NCAA Qualifier (125)
Servite HS (Southern, 2016) 2016: 7th NHSCA Sr. Nationals (113) 2016: 2nd CA (113) 2015: 2nd CA (106)
NCAA: l. #14 Zach Price (So. Dakota St.) 4-2 NCAA: d. #30 Jordan Hamdan (Michigan St.) 2:42 NCAA: d. #20 Ryan Sullivan (W. Virginia) 4-3 NCAA: d. #12 Jarrett Trombley (NC State) 5-3 NCAA: l. #10 Louie Hayes (Virginia) 2:10
2020: 4th PAC-12 (133)
Valencia HS (Southern, 2018) 2018: 8th CA (126) 2017: 4th Jr. Folkstyle Nationals (126) 2017: 6th CA (120) 2016: 1-2 CA (113)
1-2 @ 133 pounds
Jacob Allen #27 Year: Junior School:Naval Academy Finish/Conference: 2nd EIWA Qualification: Automatic 2021 Record: 9-7 Career Record: 38-30 InterMat Ranking: #17
NCAA: l. #6 Matthew Schmitt (Missouri) 4-1 NCAA: d. #11 Anthony Madrigal (Oklahoma) 7-1 NCAA: l. #12 Jarrett Trombley (NC State) 4-0
Poway HS (San Diego, 2018) 2018: 4th CA (120) 2017: 8th CA (106) 2016: Qtrs., Top 12 CA (106)
1-2 @ 141 pounds
DJ Lloren #13 Year: Senior School:Fresno State Finish/Conference: 3rd Big 12 Qualification: Automatic 2021 Record: 13-3 Career Record: 63-34 InterMat Ranking: #14
NCAA: l. #20 Brian Courtney (Virginia) 10-5 NCAA: d. #29 Chase Zollman (Wyoming) 11-3 NCAA: l. #14 Dylan Duncan (Illnois) 4-1
2020: 5th Big 12, NCAA Qualifier (141)
Utah Valley (Big 12, 2017-2019) 2018: 2-2 Big 12 (133)
Buchanan HS (Central, 2016) 2016: 2nd Flo Nationals (126) 2016: 2nd CA (132) 2015: 3rd Jr. Folkstyle Nationals (126) 2015: 1st CA (120) 2014: 3rd NHSCA So. Nationals (120) 2014: 5th CA (113) 2013: 8th Flo Nationals (106) 2013: 5th CA (106)
NCAA: l. #2 Nick Lee (Penn State) 18-0 NCAA: l. #19 Parker Filius (Purdue) 9-0
2018: 0-2 EIWA (141)
San Marino HS (Southern, 2016) 2016: 4th Jr. Folkstyle Nationals (145) 2016: 4th CA (138) 2015: 3rd Jr. Folkstyle Nationals (138) 2015: 1st CA (132) 2014: 4th Jr. Folkstyle Nationals (132) 2014: 5th CA (132) 2013: 2nd Jr. Folkstyle Nationals (126) 2013: 5th CA (120)
7th @ 149 pounds
Jaden Abas #8 Year: Redshirt Freshman School: Stanford University Finish/Conference: 1st PAC-12 Qualification: Automatic 2021 Record: 13-4 Career Record: 39-8 InterMat Ranking: #10
NCAA: l. #25 Yahya Thomas (Northwestern) 6-2 NCAA: d. #24 Luke Nichter (Drexel) 7-1 NCAA: d. #23 Triston Lara (No. Iowa) 4-1 NCAA: d. #16 PJ Ogunsanya (Army) 9-2 NCAA: d. #12 Max Murin (Iowa) 2-1 TB1 NCAA: l. #25 Yahya Thomas (Northwestern) 7-1 NCAA: d. #7 Jonathan Millner (Appalachian St.) 5-3
Rancho Bernardo HS (San Diego, 2019) 2019: 1st CA (145) 2018: 1st CA (138) 2017: 3rd CA (126) Frontier HS (Central) 2016: 3rd NHSCA Fr. Nationals (120) 2016: 2nd CA (120)
6th @ 149 pounds
Kyle Parco #17 Year: Redshirt Freshman School:Fresno State Finish/Conference: 3rd Big 12 Qualification: Automatic 2021 Record: 18-4 Career Record: 35-6 InterMat Ranking: #17
NCAA: d. #16 PJ Ogunsanya (Army) 7-5 SV1 NCAA: l. #1 Sammy Sasso (Ohio State) 11-10 NCAA; d. #31 Cory Crooks (Arizona St.) 3-2 NCAA: d. #9 Legend Lamer (Cal Poly) 5-2 NCAA: d. #8 Bryce Andonian (VA Tech) 7-4 NCAA: d. #7 Jonathan Millner (Apalachian St.) 9-5 NCAA: l. #4 Boo Lewallen (Oklahoma St.) 8-0 NCAA: l. #3 Brock Mauller (Missouri) 8-5
De La Salle HS (North Coast, 2019) 2019: 1st CA (132) 2018: Qtrs., Top 12 CA (126) San Ramon Valley (North Coast) 2017: 0-2 CA (126) 2016: 5th Cadet Folkstyle Nationals (126) 2016: 1-2 CA (126)
0-2 @ 149 pounds
Peyton Omania #28 Year: Redshirt Freshman School:Michigan State Finish/Conference: 11th Big Ten Qualification: At-Large 2021 Record: 4-8 Career Record: 23-14 InterMat Ranking: N/R
NCAA: l. #5 Ridge Lovett (Nebraska) 6-4 SV1 NCAA: l. #21 Graham Rooks (Indiana 9-1
De La Salle HS (North Coast, 2018) 2018: 1st CA (145) 2017: 6th CA (145) 2016: 5th CA (145)
NCAA: l. #33 Cameron Hunsaker (Utah Valley) 5-1 NCAA: d. #30 Marcus Robinson (Cleveland St.) 4-0 NCAA: d. #19 Casey Cobb (Navy) 3-2 NCAA: l. #20 Joshua Heil (Campbell) 5-2
Fresno State (Big 12, 2017-2020) 2020: 5th Big 12, NCAA Qualifier (149) 2018: 0-2 Big 12 (157) Cal Baptist (Division 2, 2016-2017) 2017: Regional Qualifier
Buchanan HS (Buchanan, 2016) 2016: 4th CA (145) 2015: 7th CA (132) 2014: 6th NHSCA So. Nationals (126) 2014: 2-2 CA (126) 2013: 1-2 CA (113)
0-2 @ 157 pounds
Justin Thomas #10 Year: Senior School:U. of Oklahoma Finish/Conference: 3rd Big 12 Qualification: Automatic 2021 Record: 11-5 Career Record: 86-46 InterMat Ranking: #9
NCAA: l. #23 Jacob Wright (Dinuba) 5-4 TB2 NCAA: l. #7 Jarrett Jacques (Missouri) 3-1
2020: 4th Big 12, NCAA Qualifier (157) 2019: 2nd Big 12, 3-2 T12 NCAA (157) 2018: 1-2 Big 12 (157)
Calvary Chapel HS (Southern, 2016) 2016: 1st CA (160) Santiago Corona HS (Southern) 2015: 2nd CA (152) 2014: 3rd CA (145) 2013: 6th Cadet Nationals Folkstyle (145) 2013: 4th CA (126)
0-2 @ 157 pounds
Chase Saldate #15 Year: True Freshman School:Michigan State Finish/Conference: 4th Big Ten Qualification: Automatic 2021 Record: 8-7 Career Record: 8-7 InterMat Ranking: #14
NCAA: l. #18 Cade DeVos (So. Dakota St.) 3-1 NCAA: l. #31 Michael Petite (Buffalo) 7-2 Gilroy HS (Central Coast, 2020) 2020: 1st CA (152) 2019:3rd NHSCA Jr. Nationals (152) 2019: 2nd CA (138) 2018: 1st NHSCA So. Nationals (132) 2018: 4th CA (126) 2017: 2nd NHSCA Fr. Nationals (120) 2017: 2-2 CA (120)
2-2 Qtrs. @ 157 pounds
Jacob Wright #23 Year: Junior School:U. of Wyoming Finish/Conference: 5th Big 12 Qualification: At-Large 2021 Record: 18-6 Career Record: 73-28 InterMat Ranking: #20
NCAA: d. #10 Thomas (Oklahoma) 5-4 TB2 NCAA: d. #26 Johnny Lovett (C. Michigan) 2-1 TB1 NCAA: l. #2 Hayden Hidlay (NC State) 2:33 NCAA: l. #5 Kaleb Young (Iowa) 10-2
Fresno State (Big 12, 2018-2020) 2020: 5th Big 12, NCAA Qualifier (157) 2019: 5th Big 12 (157)
Dinuba HS (Central, 2017) 2017: 4th CA (145) 2016: 2nd CA (138) 2014: 3rd NHSCA Fr. Nationals (126) 2014: 2-2 CA (120)
8th @ 165 pounds
Anthony Valencia #2 Year: Senior School:Arizona State Finish/Conference: 1st PAC-12 Qualification: Automatic 2021 Record: 13-2 Career Record: 100-26 InterMat Ranking: #2
NCAA: d. #31 David Ferrante (Northwestern) 14-4 NCAA: d. #18 Izzak Olejnik (No. Illinois) 6-4 SV1 NCAA; l. #7 Ethan Smith (Ohio State) 13-4 NCAA: d. #21 Peyton Hall (West VA) 13-4 NCAA: l. #6 Keegan O’Toole (Missouri) 16-1 NCAA: l. #11 Cameron Amine (Michigan) MFF
St. John Bosco HS (Southern, 2015) 2015: 1st CA (170) 2014: 2nd Jr. Folkstyle Nationals (170) 2014: 1st CA (170) 2013: 3rd Jr. Folkstyle Nationals (145) 2013: 2nd CA (145) 2012: 1st Flo Nationals (126) 2012: 1st CA (126)
NCAA: d. #21 Jacob Oliver (Edinboro) 19-3 NCAA: d. #5 Logan Massa (Michigan) 3-1 SV1 NCAA: d. #4 Michael Labriola (Nebraska) 4-2 NCAA: l. #1 Michael Kemerer (Iowa) 8-1 NCAA: d. #5 Logan Massa (Michigan) 7-6 NCAA: l. #4 Michael Labriola (Nebraska) 8-3 2020: 2nd PAC-12, NCAA Qualifier (165)
Rancho Buena Vista HS (San Diego, 2018) 2018: 3rd CA (145) 2017: 5th Junior Folkstyle Nationals (138) 2017: 2nd CA (138) 2016: 0-2 CA (113)