Jake Wentzel defeated Mekhi Lewis on Feb. 12 (Photo/Virginia Tech Athletics)
The shortened 2021 regular season is over, and now it is time for the conference tournaments to begin. Across all NCAA Division I tournaments, there will be a variety of top matches. The following is a preview of the top potential individual bouts from each conference tournament.
165: No. 7 Zach Hartman (Bucknell) vs. No. 12 Tanner Skidgel (Navy)
The EIWA took a big hit this season as all the teams from the Ivy League are not competing. However, there is still potential for a strong ranked match at 165 pounds.
Hartman is a two-time NCAA qualifier. Last year, he went 27-8 and made the finals of the EIWA tournament. This year, the Bucknell wrestler has won all seven of his matches. In his last match, he scored a 15-0 technical fall over Owen Brown (Army).
Skidgel won the EIWA tournament last year and returned as one of the top wrestlers in the conference. He lost his season opening match against No. 6 Jake Wentzel (Pittsburgh), but bounced back with nine-straight victories. Eight of those victories came with bonus points.
Skidgel won his EIWA title over Hartman last year. Hartman upset Harvard's Phil Congilaro in the semifinals, while Skidgel was the No. 1 seed. It was a two-point match, and this one will likely be as close. Skidgel has looked very solid all season and should be in peak form.
Prediction: Skidgel decision over Harman
No. 4 Matt Stencel (Central Michigan) vs. No. 8 Ethan Laird (Rider)
Stencel is the returning MAC champion. For his senior season, he has won all seven of his matches. Stencel's toughest competition came early in the season, as he defeated No. 17 Zach Elam (Missouri) in his second match of the season. The Central Michigan wrestler then turned around and defeated Brian Andrews (Wyoming) on the same day.
Laird moved up to heavyweight for his senior season after spending the first three seasons of his career at 197 pounds. He has won all six of his matches, including a signature 8-5 victory over All-American No. 9 Jordan Wood (Lehigh). All of his other wins were bonus-point victories.
Stencel has held down the fourth spot in the rankings all season behind No. 1 Gable Steveson (Minnesota), No. 2 Mason Parris (Michigan) and No. 3 Tony Cassioppi (Iowa) of the Big Ten. The veteran has proved to be one of the top heavyweights in the country even if the competition has not been the toughest at points during this season. Laird has been a revelation after making the move up in weight, but he will be up against it here.
Prediction: Stencel decision over Laird
165: No. 6 Jake Wentzel (Pittsburgh) vs. No. 4 Mekhi Lewis (Virginia Tech)
Lewis returned to the college mats after taking an Olympic redshirt during the 2020 season. During the 2019 season, he surprisingly won an NCAA title at 165 pounds as a redshirt freshman. When he returned this year, he assumed the No. 1 ranking based on a victory over No. 1 Alex Marinelli (Iowa) in the semifinals of the 2019 national tournament. Lewis won his first eight matches of the year including victories over No. 13 Kennedy Monday (North Carolina) and No. 19 Thomas Bullard (North Carolina State).
The Virginia Tech representative then ran into Wentzel earlier this month. Wentzel built a 3-0 lead and had the riding time locked before Lewis suffered an injury. Lewis has not returned to action since, but he was seeded and drawn into the bracket for the ACC tournament. Wentzel had a strong season overall. He finished the regular season with a 7-1 record that included victories over Monday and Tanner Skidgel (Navy).
This should be an interesting match if it happens. Wentzel was rightly awarded the No. 1 seed for his victory over Lewis. However, the match between the fourth and fifth seed will feature a Monday and Bullard who are both ranked. Bullard holds a victory over Wentzel, so he should have a tough road to the finals.
It is hard to imagine Lewis reversing the recent result with Wentzel. Even before the injury, the Pitt wrestler was in the driver's seat. Lewis excels defensively, but if he tries to make it a one-move match, he will leave himself very little room for error.
Prediction: Wentzel decision over Lewis
No. 2 Shane Griffith (Stanford) vs. No. 5 Anthony Valencia (Arizona State)
Prior to this season, it was announced that Stanford would discontinue wrestling after the 2021 season. Fans never want to see a program dropped, especially a program with a wrestler who has a legit shot at an NCAA title. Last year as a redshirt freshman, Griffith built an undefeated 28-0 record and won the Pac 12 championship. He never got the chance to face off against many of the top wrestlers since the NCAA tournament did not materialize. This year, he has returned and gone 5-0 with four of those victories coming with bonus points.
Valencia has never really been able to duplicate his freestyle success on the folkstyle mats, and he will get one more chance as a senior. Last October, he finished second at the 2020 Senior Nationals with victories over the likes of No. 2 (157) Hayden Hidlay (NC State) and Evan Wick (Wisconsin). After going 22-6 last year, he has returned for his final season and put together an 8-0 record. In his last match, Valencia scored a second-period fall over Pat Schoenfelder (Northern Iowa).
Griffith has been untouchable for two seasons in a row. Valencia is certainly dangerous, but it is hard to see him holding up for an entire seven-minute match against the pressure of Griffith.
Prediction: Griffith decision over Valencia
149: No. 12 Josh Heil (Campbell) vs. No. 14 Jonathan Millner (Appalachian State)
Heil will be looking for his third-straight SoCon championship. The Campbell wrestler won the tournament and qualified for the NCAA tournament at 141 pounds before moving up this year. He lost his first match of the season against Bryce Andonian (Virginia Tech). However, since that match, Heil has gotten back on track with five-straight wins. In his last match, Heil scored a 4-0 decision over Aiden Murphy (Chattanooga).
Millner went 31-4 last year and qualified for the NCAA tournament by winning the SoCon tournament. He has already wrestled 12 matches despite the shortened season and won 11 of those. His only loss came against Hunter Lewis (NC State). Since that loss, Millner won eight-straight matches, including a victory over Heil's teammate Jason Kraisser.
This will be an interesting match between returning SoCon champions. Heil has been one of the best wrestlers in the conference this year, and that should lead him to a victory here. Millner may have the physical edge, but look for Heil to pull out the decision victory.
Prediction: Heil decision over Millner
Big Ten (March 6-7)
141: No. 1 Jaydin Eierman (Iowa) vs. No. 2 Nick Lee (Penn State)
The Big Ten tournament could feature four different matches between the No. 1 and No. 2 wrestlers. Some might prefer one of the other matches, but this one might have the most interesting backstory.
These two met at the 2018 NCAA tournament. Lee had been upset in the first round of the tournament by Ryan Diehl of Maryland and wrestled his way all the way back to the consolation semifinals. Eierman, who at the time was wrestling for Missouri, had lost in sudden victory against Yianna Diakomihals (Cornell) in the semifinals and dropped into the wrestlebacks. On that day, Eierman scored a 12-4 major decision.
That was their most recent meeting in folkstyle. However, they also collided at the 2019 Senior Nationals in freestyle. In that match, Lee had the advantage. He was able to get to legs, and he was able to score off Eierman's attacks. Lee also showed the ability to finish clean, which will be vital against Eierman in folkstyle.
After transferring to Iowa and sitting out with an Olympic redshirt, Eierman made his Hawkeye debut this year. He has won all five of his matches. After scoring a decision over No. 7 Chad Red (Nebraska) in his season debut, Eierman broke off a run of four-straight bonus-point victories. In his last match, he scored a second-period fall over Anthony Echemendia (Ohio State).
Lee went 20-1 last year and was one of the clear favorites to make the finals of the NCAA tournament that did not happen. This season, he has won all six of his matches with five coming with bonus points. The only wrestler to escape giving up bonus this year was Drew Mattin (Michigan). In his last match, Lee scored a 14-2 major decision over Danny Bertoni (Maryland).
In order to knock off Eierman and claim No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament, Lee will need to finish clean and not give up any points on the bottom. Eierman has worked hard to improve his neutral attacks, but Lee's pace might still be too much. Eierman has more paths to win, but Lee's pressure and tenacity might rule the day.
Prediction: Lee decision over Eierman
Big 12 (March 6-7)
149: No. 4 Boo Lewallen (Oklahoma State) vs. No. 5 Andrew Alirez (Northern Colorado)
Lewallen finished eighth as a sophomore in 2018 to become an All-American. He qualified through the Big 12 last year and finished with a 21-2 record. Lewallen returned to the Cowboys for his senior year, and he finished the regular season with a 12-1 record. He has picked up a pair of victories over No. 19 Mitch Moore (Oklahoma), and his only defeat came in ride outs against No. 3 Brock Mauller (Missouri).
It will be interesting to see how Alirez performs at the Big 12 tournament. He has always had outstanding performances in freestyle, including a victory at the 2020 Senior Nationals this past October. In the event, he scored victories over veterans Mitch McKee, Joey McKenna and Evan Henderson. This season, on the folkstyle mats, Alirez has wrestled only four matches. He returned on Feb. 20 for the first time since Jan. 8 and picked up a first-period fall over James Emmer (Utah Valley).
These two wrestled during the regular season last year. At the time, Alirez was on a bit of a roll, and his only loss was a one-point decision. Lewallen dominated the match and took an 11-4 victory. If Alirez can make this a takedown contest, he has a real shot to take it, but Lewallen will have too many chances to make him work on the mat and take the advantage.
Prediction: Lewallen decision over Alirez