2022 NCAA 3rd Place Bryce Andonian (Photo/Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
The Hokie's finished another strong year in Blacksburg with a top-10 finish at the NCAA Championships and extending their streak of having three or more All-Americans for the ninth year--one of five programs in the country to claim such a streak. They were ACC Runners-Up in both duals and the tournament behind NC State.
The Hokies only lose two starters from this top-10 team--Korbin Myers and Nathan Traxler--and have a lot of talented wrestlers ready to move up into starting roles. There will be a lot of shifting in weight from last year's lineup; Sam Latona, Bryce Andonian, and Connor Brady are all moving up a weight class. While the incoming recruiting class is small in number, it is deep in talent. The Hokies bring in #8 TJ Stewart, #16 Caleb Henson and #81 Tom Crook.
There are bound to be changes to this lineup, but here is what I see from the Hokies next year.
125: Eddie Ventresca/Cooper Flynn
With veteran Sam Latona moving up, the Hokies have two solid options fighting for the spot at 125. Cooper Flynn went 15-3 in his redshirt campaign with two of those losses to Ventresca, who was 15-6 on the year. The Hokies coaches are excited about the future at 125 and think both of these guys could step in to make an immediate impact.
133: Sam Latona
It's no secret that Latona had a tough cut to maintain 125 the last two years--and this seemed to have a big impact on the start of the season last year. He was 4-6 in the first half of the season, albeit against some stout competition. Latona came into the new year on a tear and had an 8-match winning streak before falling 3-1 to Jakob Camacho in the ACC title match. He went on to make the bloodround at the NCAA tournament, one match short of repeating his All-American performance. I think a focused Sam Latona, who isn't consumed by a big cut, is a dangerous Sam Latona. He has shown he can go with anyone in the country and I could see him making a statement next year. I'm excited to see him fill out his frame a little more and be focused on the mat instead of the bike as much--I'm sure Sam is excited about that as well.
141: Collin Gerardi/Tom Crook
Collin Gerardi will likely hold the spot at 141 again next season after winning the spot this year and earning a berth in the NCAA tournament. Gerardi was over .500 on the year and is a notoriously stingy defensive wrestler. He has been great at winning close matches and minimizing damage against higher-ranked opponents. However, there will be competition from four-time Florida State Champion Tom Crook who is coming in as part of a stacked recruiting class for the Hokies. Crook is a top-100 recruit who has a skill set that translates very well to college; he will be a great long-term solution for the Hokies.
149: Caleb Henson
There is real potential for blue-chip recruit Caleb Henson to immediately step into the lineup. Henson is a top-20 recruit that has an impressive resume--3x GA State Champ, Fargo Champ, Super 32 Champ; that also includes a title at the Southeast Open (ahem, Hokie Open). Henson ran through the 149 bracket last season and showed that he is college-ready out of the gate. Kylan Montgomery saw some time in the starting lineup last year while filling in for Bryce Andonian.
This could be a weight where the Hokies look to the transfer portal for a short-term solution if they want to give Henson a year to redshirt.
157: Bryce Andonian
If you don't enjoy watching the chaotic beauty of Bryce Andonian wrestling, we can't be friends. Andonian has been must-see viewing every time he steps on the mat since he arrived in Blacksburg, but really put on a show for the national audience this year at the NCAA tournament. The move up a weight class could be a blessing for Andonian. 149 has been a more difficult cut than it may seem. Andonian had an amazing run at the NCAA tournament that had three of the most entertaining matches of the tournament. He fell just short of a trip to the finals against Ridge Lovett, but came back to beat Austin Gomez for a second time to finish his All-American run in third place. Andonian caps off his impressive year with a Bronze at the Junior World Championships and an All-American finish in Detroit--it's hard not to think that this momentum will continue as he moves up a weight class.
165: Connor Brady/Clayton Ulrey/Transfer
This will be an interesting weight for the Hokies. They have two experienced starters in Connor Brady--potentially moving up from 157--and Clayton Ulrey, who held the 165 spot this season. Both have a load of potential and could be big contributors for the Hokies. Brady started the season off very strong with a 9-2 record before going winless in conference duals. He did pick up a critical win at ACCs to qualify for the NCAA tournament where he went 1-2. Ulrey had an opposite experience-he started slow and improved throughout the year, picking up some big wins along the way. He went 2-2 at ACCs and fell just short of an NCAA berth.
Watch out for the wildcard here of a move from the transfer portal. Both Brady and Ulrey could benefit from a year of growth; Brady to grow into the weight and Ulrey to continue to improve to his fullest potential.
174: Mekhi Lewis
What more can one say about Mekhi Lewis? Lewis is the quiet leader of this team on and off the mat. He is a three-time NCAA qualifier and only has one loss in that tournament; a heartbreaker in the finals last month. Junior World Champ, NCAA Champ and two-time NCAA finalist. The move up to 174 was seamless for Lewis and he looked incredible at the higher weight. He was big enough and strong enough to hang with even the biggest 174's and he didn't lose any of the speed that makes him so dangerous on his reattacks. Lewis only had two losses on the year, 3-1 in sudden victory to Hayden Hidlay and 6-5 in TB1 to Carter Starocci in the NCAA finals. I have no doubt that Mekhi will grow from those tough losses and be an even more dangerous wrestler next season--and I can't wait to see it.
184: Hunter Bolen
The return of the Christiansburg Cowboy is one of the bigger stories of the offseason for the Hokies. Bolen is an All-American and a four-time NCAA qualifier and will return to Blacksburg looking to add more hardware to his shelf. He has consistently been in the top-tier of wrestlers at 184 since moving up after his first season. Bolen is 60-12 as a starter at 184. The return of Bolen will allow for another blue-chip recruit time to acclimate to college. TJ Stewart is a huge signing for the Hokies and will be a major part of the continued success in Blacksburg. Stewart is from Virginia but attends Blair Academy where he was a National Prep Champion in addition to his Fargo accolades--winning as both a Cadet and a Junior. Stewart was the #1 ranked wrestler at 182 and #10 in the class of 2022; he has an incredible amount of potential and will be a fan favorite in Blacksburg. I would guess Stewart will get a redshirt and Bolen will be on a limited schedule, so look for another VA guy-Sam Fisher-to get reps in the lineup as well.
197: Dakota Howard/Andy Smith
This weight will again be a battle between Howard and Smith for the starting spot. Howard edged out Smith for the spot last season; Smith struggled with returning from injuries as he tried to make a push for the lineup later in the year. Howard is a fan favorite and gives everything he has every match; he was over .500 on the year and had some solid wins to help the team. Smith has a lot of upside, but has struggled to stay healthy--if he is 100% he can be a dangerous option at 197.
285: Hunter Catka
Catka started as a true freshman in 2021 and he had a 10-4 record and was an NCAA qualifier. He redshirted last season behind Nathan Traxler and competed unattached with a 10-6 record. Catka is a very large human and is incredibly athletic and fast for his size. He benefited greatly from a year of training with Traxler and will be a force at heavyweight; I expect big things from Catka.