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  • Photo: Tony Rotundo

    Photo: Tony Rotundo

    Breaking Down DI Wrestling's Top Rivalries

    Daton Fix (left) and Austin DeSanto (photo courtesy of Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)

    Rivalries were front and center this past weekend as the regular season for DI wrestling wound down in style. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State did battle in their second Bedlam dual. Their first included a skirmish in the post-match handshake line. NC State hosted Virginia Tech in a top-ten, non-conference dual between conference opponents. Non-conference because Virginia Tech did not make the trip earlier in the year after an unfortunate run of Covid-related issues. Fans from both sides almost demanded the match and coaches from both schools agreed.

    So what makes a good rivalry and what are some of the best? We've broken down eight current rivalries, some you may expect to see on the list, others that will surprise you.

    To judge these rivalries, we've created six rivalry-related criteria below. Each rivalry will get a score, between one and ten, based on how their rivalry stacks up.

    Wrestling Rivalry Criteria

    1. Either a geographical or conference tie

    2. Recruiting battles. Do the coaching staff's fight for the same kids?

    3. Competitiveness. Are the matches close? Is there a question who will win? Does one team normally dominate?

    4. National Significance. The results should have an impact on national/team rankings

    5. Fan Involvement. There has to be animosity between the fanbases

    6. History. It's one thing to have a heated dual meet, but do these teams have a long track record of competing against each other.

    Appalachian State vs. Campbell

    Criteria 1: 10/10. Both schools are in the SoCon and separated by about three hours.

    Criteria 2: 6/10. Campbell has generally recruited on a very national basis, moreso than Appalachian State. Even so, there are plenty of under-the-radar NC kids that both parties seek out.

    Criteria 3: 9/10. Since Kolat's arrival and under his successor, Scotti Sentes, Campbell has taken three of eight duals. Appalachian State won the first four, before the Camels reeled off three-in-a-row. Appalachian State retook a hold of the SoCon regular-season crown this season with a 19-13 win last weekend. You can almost guarantee that their duals will come down to the final bout. Campbell's seven-point win in 2020 represented the “largest” margin of victory by either squad since 2016.

    Criteria 4: 5/10. Both teams have a few wrestlers vying for the podium annually. They both are currently just outside of the top-25 for duals.

    Criteria 5: 8/10. Since both are relatively small schools, they don't have the widespread alumni base, like other schools on this list, but they aren't shy about their disdain for the other school.

    Criteria 6: 6/10. Appalachian State and Campbell have competed against each other since 1974, but did not meet between 1980-1990. There were also a few years in the early 2000's where they did not meet as Campbell was not in the SoCon yet. This is one that has really taken off over the last decade. Since Campbell made the huge splash and hired Cary Kolat in the spring of 2014, the Campbell program has been on a steep upward trajectory.

    Total Score: 44

    Army West Point vs. Navy

    Criteria 1: 10/10. This whole rivalry probably deserves a story and a rating of its own, because it's not like any other on this list. The distance between West Point, New York and Annapolis, Maryland (150 miles) is largely irrelevant based on the other ways these schools are tied together. Both are services academies and whenever they meet, regardless of the sport, it's the biggest, most significant match/game on their calendar.

    Criteria 2: 5/10. While Army and Navy are chasing similar types of recruits, those looking to serve their country, first and foremost. That can eliminate some of the upper-echelon high schoolers who are focused on NCAA and international wrestling stardom. So it's a different “type” of recruiting going on, between the schools. Under their current coaches, both have elevated their recruiting game, in terms of the pre-collegiate wrestling accomplishments, while non compromising on the academic/intangible end.

    Criteria 3: 6/10. Of late, these duals have been highly competitive and went back-and-forth. However, in the big picture, Navy has dominated the series 51-10-5. Army West Point has excelled under Kevin Ward, defeating Navy in four of his first five years. The first two seasons under Cary Kolat's tutelage, the Midshipmen have come out victorious.

    Criteria 4: 4/10. Expect this dual to continue to have more relevance nationally as high-caliber recruits continue to commit to both programs. Aside from the 2020 campaign, Navy's last NCAA All-American came in 2016, while Army's was in 2008. That isn't to say there aren't quality wrestlers on both sides, but again, not at the caliber of the other schools on this list.

    Criteria 5: 10/10. Army head coach Kevin Ward once told me that this is a match where, “if you win, you'll find dozens of congratulatory emails from non-wrestling alums, you've never talked to before.” Army also has a “Beat Navy” tunnel on-campus that lists the year's where each team has defeated Navy in their respective sport. At either school, even a bad season isn't “that bad” if they beat the other academy. This rivalry even has a name, the “Star Match.”

    Criteria 6: 10/10. The Army/Navy match has a rich history dating back to 1957. Something tells me that this one will never drop off the schedule.

    Total Score: 45

    Iowa vs. Iowa State

    Criteria 1: 10/10. Though these two are not in the same conference, they are only separated by about two hours. The coaching staffs for both schools have always made it a priority to keep the other on the schedule.

    Criteria 2: 6/10. This is kind of nuanced. Within the last five years or so, Iowa had been recruiting more outside of the state. Hence their five starters from Pennsylvania on the 2021 national title-winning team. Iowa State gets its fair share of kids outside of the state boundaries, too. Only three of their ten current starters are homegrown.

    Now, with a great crop of high schoolers from Iowa in the Class of 2022 and 2023, the Hawkeyes have flexed their muscles, a bit with 11 in-state commitments this fall. We'll settle for “not as much as one may expect” when it comes to recruiting battles.

    Criteria 3: 5/10. Overall, this is a series that has been dominated by the Hawkeyes to the tune of 16-65-3. Iowa State's last win over Iowa came in the 2004-05 season. The 2018-19 dual between these rivals was excellent, but the only one that went down to the final bout since 2009-10. Since then, the Cyclones have been held under ten team points on eight occasions. Hopefully, with a great season by Iowa State, the competitiveness in this rivalry is on an upswing.

    Criteria 4: 7/10. Throughout history, this has been a rivalry between college wrestling superpowers. The teams have combined to win 32 NCAA team titles (24 for Iowa; 8 for Iowa State). David Carr's 2021 NCAA title was only the third for an Iowa State wrestler since 2011. Once again, that number could rise in the near future and help enhance this series.

    Criteria 5: 10/10. It's safe to say this is a ten; however, some Iowa fans may downplay the significance of the rivalry because of the lack of competitive duals in the last decade-plus.

    Criteria 6: 10/10. While the history of this dual can be traced back to 1916, Iowa and Iowa State have been regular sparring partners since the mid-1970's. Some of the most legendary figures in the sport have competed in this dual (Dan Gable, Cael Sanderson, Tom Brands, Kevin Jackson, Spencer Lee, etc.).

    Total Score: 48

    Cornell vs. Lehigh

    Criteria 1: 9/10. Only three and a half hours separate EIWA rivals Cornell and Lehigh, two schools located in neighboring states. The two are wrestling rivals, but in different conferences for other sports. The Ivy League for Cornell and the Patriot League for Lehigh.

    Criteria 2: 8/10. Despite Cornell being an Ivy, Lehigh has academics that are nearly on par with the Ivies. That can lead to some recruiting battles. Since Cornell has the Ivy title associated with them, they are more likely to recruit on a national level. Being located in one of the best hotbeds for wrestling in the country, Lehigh doesn't necessarily “have” to look very far for quality recruits.

    Criteria 3: 10/10. It's an overused cliche, but you can “throw out the record books” when these two teams take the mat. Look no further than early January when a 5-4 Lehigh team knocked off then-eighth-ranked Cornell. In fact, Lehigh has now won three straight duals against Cornell, which may come as a surprise to some. Both squads have combined to win every EIWA Championship title since 2001. Lehigh with nine (including the last four) and Cornell with 11 straight between 2007-2017.

    Criteria 4: 6/10. Since the early-2000's, Cornell has been a perennial top-ten team and is a regular team trophy threat. 2021 marked only the second time since 2004-05 that Cornell missed out on finishing in the top-ten at nationals. Their highwater mark was back-to-back national runner-up finishes in 2010 and 12. Lehigh hadn't seen that same level of success since 2000-06, when they collected two team trophies and missed the top-ten only once. While both programs have highlights individually and as a team, combined, they don't stack up recently in comparison to others on this list.

    Criteria 5: 8/10. If you weren't a part of this rivalry, you may have forgotten that these schools took a break from competing against one another in 2006-07 and 2007-08, because the rivalry was getting too heated. At least, between the two fanbases. That's a unique situation! Since then, it hasn't been quite as tense, but still one of the best to follow.

    Criteria 6: 9/10. Cornell and Lehigh have a rivalry that dates back to 1910! They've met 99 times, with Lehigh holding the advantage 63-33-3. As their dual record indicates, Lehigh has been more consistent throughout the history of their clashes, while Cornell has emerged dramatically over the past two decades.

    Total Score: 50

    Iowa vs. Penn State

    Criteria 1: 5/10. 770+ miles, 12 hours via car, and three full states separate Iowa and Penn State. They are both members of the Big Ten; however, due to the size of the conference, they do not always meet in dual competition.

    Criteria 2: 9/10. The only thing that prevents this from being a 10/10 is the fact that the personality of each head coach and draws certain types of kids. Some may be better suited towards Iowa and gravitate toward Brands. All that being said, both are typically in the hunt for the brightest young superstars.

    Criteria 3: 9/10. Since Cael Sanderson arrived in Happy Valley, the dual results have favored the Nittany Lions, ever-so-slightly. Five matches to four. Though some final dual scores appear to be lopsided, they typically fell into the category of “closer than the score indicates.”

    Criteria 4: 10/10. Seeing how Penn State and Iowa have combined to win all but two NCAA team titles since Tom Brands was named Iowa head coach for the 2006-07 season, I'd say their duals have a bit of significance. Last year, two weight classes had Iowa and Penn State wrestlers meet for an NCAA title (along with the Big Ten too).

    Criteria 5: 10/10. Whenever these two teams renew their rivalry, it tends to be the most coveted dual ticket available. This year is no different as over 16,000 packed into Carver-Hawkeye Arena. If you don't believe this deserves a “10”, check out both teams' message boards.

    Criteria 6: 8/10. The 1992-93 season was Penn State's first in the Big Ten, but it took until Sanderson took over for Penn State to emerge as a consistent conference and national title threat for Iowa. 30 years of competition is very significant, but still not as long as some of the others; however, the quality of the meets/tournaments involving both schools since, is enough to make up for it.

    Total Score: 51

    NC State vs. Virginia Tech

    Criteria 1: 9/10. The schools are in neighboring states and separated by about three and a half hours.

    Criteria 2: 9/10. NC State and Virginia Tech have been fixtures in the top-ten for recruiting rankings since NC State's top-ranked Class of 2016. Both schools have established themselves as spots where wrestlers can win national titles, which has put them amongst the recruiting powers of the Big Ten. They often are on the final list of schools for elite recruits.

    Criteria 3: 10/10. Last night's 21-10 win by NC State was an outlier for this series. Their previous four meetings came down to the last bout of the meet. The NC State/Virginia Tech rivalry has heated up since the hiring of Pat Popolizio in 2012. Since then, the schools have combined to win eight of the nine ACC Tournament titles. Each squad has four during that time period.

    Criteria 4: 8/10. This rivalry has developed into one that has great national significance. Both schools have recently earned their first NCAA team trophy (Virginia Tech - 2016 and NC State - 2018) and are generally among the top ten. They also are a safe bet for multiple All-Americans at nationals. Excluding 2020, the last time the Hokies failed to have at least three AA's was in 2012. The Wolfpack have had three or more three times since 2016.

    Criteria 5: 10/10. Before this season, I probably would have called it a 9 out of 10. But after the forfeited dual meet and the ensuing social media and message board chatter, I think it's safe to say it's a 10 out of 10.

    Criteria 6: 6/10. The first meeting between these schools was in 1955; however, Virginia Tech did not join the ACC until the 2004-05 season. Before the move, these schools had a gap between 1998 and 2004, where they did not dual. Some points were deducted as this rivalry isn't quite as huge in other sports. The Hokies primary rival in most other sports, and in general is Virginia, while North Carolina and Duke are for NC State.

    Total Score: 52

    Iowa vs. Oklahoma State

    Criteria 1: 6/10. Wrestling blue-bloods Iowa and Oklahoma State are separated by about eight hours and Missouri and Kansas. They also aren't in the same conference. Most other sports wouldn't necessarily consider these schools rivals.

    Criteria 2: 8/10. For top-notch recruits with NCAA/World/Olympic aspirations, Iowa and Oklahoma State are routinely among their final schools and therefore, they go head-to-head often. Both schools recruit nationally, but tend to keep the bluest of their blue-chipper's at home.

    Criteria 3: 10/10. This is a series that tends to go in waves. The first year after Iowa's three-time champions graduated (2010-11), the schools tied at 15. Oklahoma State followed with back-to-back wins. Then Iowa reeled off three-in-a-row. From the 2017-20 seasons, the teams split their next four duals. The meetings between these schools can lead to upsets, as was the case in Stillwater in 2019 as Nick Piccininni and the Cowboys prevailed 27-12.

    Criteria 4: 10/10. Oklahoma State's 34 NCAA team titles are more than any other team in any other collegiate sport. Iowa's 24 are extremely impressive in their own right. Both schools have a handful of national title contenders every year. You have to go back to 2009 to find the last year where neither Iowa nor Oklahoma State crowned an individual national champion. These teams have been great on the international stage, too, as Oklahoma State grads have won 21 Olympic gold medals, while five Hawkeyes have won gold. Both are led by Olympic gold medalists, Iowa with Brands and Oklahoma State by John Smith.

    Criteria 5: 10/10. The schools have two of the largest and most renowned fanbases. Both are passionate in their own right. In November of 2015, the schools set a dual-meet attendance record when over 42,000 fans packed into Iowa's Kinnick Stadium for the “Grapple on the Gridiron.” Just a week ago, fans from both schools traveled to Texas, in the middle of the high school postseason, to watch these squads scrap at the Texas Rangers stadium; over 12,000 turned up.

    Criteria 6: 10/10. Without much more explanation, it's safe to say that both teams have a long, storied history of success and have battled for college wrestling supremacy for decades.

    Total Score: 54

    Other Notable Wrestling Rivalries:

    Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State - Bedlam! Held twice a year (great!), but traditionally dominated by the Cowboys.

    Iowa vs. Minnesota - Iowa was always blocking tough Minnesota teams from winning in the late 90's/early 2000's, before the Gophers finally broke through. We'll see how good this one is if Minnesota gets back into the title hunt.

    Iowa State vs. Northern Iowa - The head coaches got in on the fun this year with some good-natured trash talk, before an entertaining dual. The state of Iowa is passionate enough to have a great rivalry that doesn't include the Hawkeyes.

    Michigan vs. Ohio State - You know it's a good rivalry when the schools refuse to say each other's names correctly.

    North Carolina vs. NC State - As North Carolina continues to improve, this series will too. I experienced this dual firsthand in 2020 as the Wolfpack set an attendance record. It was an incredible event!

    Ohio State vs. Penn State - We mentioned them with other rivalries, but these two hit on the recruiting trail and have been team title favorites before Iowa's current resurgence.

    Princeton vs. Rutgers - Both teams have been on the rise over the last decade, leading to more nationally relevant results. Check-in a few years down the road and this could be a fun one.

    Missouri vs.??? - Missouri left the Big 12 prior to the 2012-13 season and joined the SEC. Since the SEC doesn't offer wrestling, Mizzou was an affiliate member of the MAC. Now, the Tigers are back in the Big 12. I can see rivalries developing or reigniting with perhaps Iowa State or Northern Iowa.

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