Northern Colorado's national champion Andrew Alirez (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
2022-23 InterMat Big 12 Wrestler of the Year: Andrew Alirez (Northern Colorado)
One year after falling in the dreaded NCAA Round of 12 Andrew Alirez not only broke through the All-American barrier, but also captured Northern Colorado's first national title since 1962. That was one of many "first since" for Alirez who also became the first Bear wrestler to get on the NCAA podium since future UFC star Justin Gaethje in 2010.
A year ago, Alirez became the first Northern Colorado wrestler to win a Big 12 championship. This season, he won his second title which led to a #2 seed at the NCAA Tournament.
In Tulsa, Alirez started his national tournament with a fall before winning three matches that appeared closer on the scoreboard than they actually were in person. A 6-4 win over #10 Lachlan McNeil (North Carolina) in the quarterfinals, solidified All-American status, while a 6-2 victory against Penn State's #6 Beau Barlett put him in the national finals.
For the NCAA title, Alirez met fellow undefeated wrestler Real Woods (Iowa). The 2023 Big Ten champion, Woods, was responsible for one of Alirez's losses during the 2021-22 campaign. Alirez hit a six-point throw which included points for a reversal and nearfall which ended up being the difference in a 6-4 win for the UNC star. Not only did Alirez capture a national title, but he also went undefeated (28-0) in the process, the only Big 12 wrestler to achieve that feat in 2022-23.
This was the first time that Alirez made the NCAA podium; however, he was named a first-team All-American in 2020 after going 24-4 as a true freshman. With another year of eligibility remaining, Alirez holds an 81-10 career record.
North Dakota State All-American Michael Caliendo (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
2022-23 InterMat Big 12 Freshman of the Year: Michael Caliendo (North Dakota State)
The Big 12's only All-American during the 2022-23 season was Michael Caliendo who finished seventh at the 165 lbs weight class. The same Big 12 weight class that featured two returning national champions (and the eventual finalists). Caliendo still managed to take third in the conference.
Of his five 2022-23 losses, four came to returning NCAA champions. Caliendo was able to notch one win over a past champion as he downed 2021 champ Shane Griffith (Stanford) in dual competition. Griffith won the other two meetings, the first coming about a week and a half before their dual, in the finals of the Southern Scuffle, and another time in the NCAA consolation quarterfinals.
Caliendo, along with teammate Jared Franek, were the first Bison wrestlers to make the NCAA podium since the 2015 tournament. After a second-round loss at the NCAA Tournament, Caliendo downed a pair of top-15 opponents (#8 Matt Olguin and #15 Justin McCoy) before a 12-6 win over #29 Caleb Fish to earn All-American honors. He ended his tournament by defeating MAC champion Izzak Olejnik for seventh place.
Caliendo finished his first official season with NDSU with a 29-5 record. Those 29 wins included a Bison Open title and a runner-up finish at the Southern Scuffle.
Air Force head coach Sam Barber (left) at the 2023 NCAA Championships (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
2022-23 InterMat Big 12 Coach of the Year: Sam Barber (Air Force)
There were a handful of potential candidates for Big 12 Coach of the Year, but we decided to go with one that oversaw the best performance in the last 20 years at his respective program in the Air Force Academy's Sam Barber.
Air Force accumulated 28.5 points at the 2023 NCAA Championships which put them in a tie for 18th place with Oklahoma State. The previous high point total for Air Force came in 2022 with 22.5 points. The Falcons also saw one of their own claim All-American honors for the first time since 2003, as Wyatt Hendrickson took third at 285 lbs. Hendrickson collected an impressive array of accolades, including the Gorriaran Award (for most falls in the least time - 3), the most dominant DI wrestler, and the season leader in pins (16).
Hendrickson captured his second consecutive Big 12 crown and earned the #2 seed at heavyweight. Last season, he was seeded fifth and missed out on the podium. This time around, Hendrickson clashed with some of the elite wrestlers at this weight and came away with falls against multiple-time All-Americans Tony Cassioppi (Iowa) and Lucas Davison (Northwestern).
It wasn't just Hendrickson who contributed in Tulsa, 133 lber Cody Phippen chipped in with a pair of falls over top-12 opposition (#11 Dylan Ragusin/Michigan and #12 Chris Cannon/Northwestern). Tucker Owens also notched a pair of wins. All-in-all, five Air Force wrestlers qualified for the NCAA Tournament. That was the highest number for the school since the 1991 tournament.
During the regular season, Air Force went 8-5 in dual competition. Their biggest win came over the eventual Pac-12 dual champion Cal Poly. Another important Big 12 victory was over Wyoming.
Coach Barber just finished his ninth year leading the Air Force program.