Messiah's national qualifier Josiah Gehr (top) (Photo/Messiah athletics)
It is indisputable that the toughest level of college wrestling is happening on the NCAA Division I front. However, throughout history, there have been a variety of wrestlers from other divisions who have gone on to make a name on the international level. For example, former Nebraska-Kearney wrestler Tervel Dlagnev officially received his Olympic bronze medal this past week, and fellow Loper veteran Kamaru Usman currently holds the UFC welterweight title.
Unlike many college sports, there is still a fair bit of competition across levels. It is not irregular for an NAIA team to face off against a Division I team in a tournament or even a dual. This past season there were 52 duals between Division I teams and teams from other divisions. In a sign that perhaps the gap is widening, only one team from a lower division was able to win one of these matches. The following looks back at that dual and some of the top individual performances across inter-divisional duals.
The only team from a lower division to best a top-level team in a dual this season was Averett. The Division III squad knocked off Bellarmine 22-16 in a match back on Nov. 13. To be fair, Bellarmine just launched their wrestling program in 2016 and only moved up to the Division-I level for the 2021 season. However, Averett is also a budding program as the school began competing during the 2018 season.
The dual was part of the Patriot Duals hosted by George Mason. The Cougars won the first four matches of the match as Sam Braswell (125), Joseph Jones (133), Brandon Woody (141) and Gabe LaVey (149). Bellarmine made things interesting by going on a four-match streak of their own. However, Averett sealed the victory in the final two matches. At 197, Billy Baldwin scored a decision over Charlie Cadell to even the dual score at 16-16. With the result on the line, heavyweight Trent Ragland scored a third-period fall over Bryant Wilkinson.
A few weeks ago, Averett finished third in the Southeast Regional and qualified four wrestlers for the upcoming NCAA tournament. Braswell won the qualifying tournament while Woody, Alex Turley, and Hunter Campbell also qualified.
Outside of Averett's victory, the only other team from a lower division to come within a match against a Division I team was Cumberland. The NAIA team dropped a 25-10 match against Chattanooga on Nov. 6. The Mocs forfeited 125 pounds, but Cumberland wrestlers Cole Smith (165), River Henry (197) and Patrick Depiazza (285) scored victories as well. All three qualified for last weekend's NAIA tournament. Smith, a refugee from the dropped Old Dominion program, pinned Grand View's Marty Margolis in the finals to claim the NAIA title at 165 pounds and finish the season undefeated.
While dual victories were hard to come by this season, there were some standout individual performances by lower division wrestlers in these duals. The following are some of the best wins by these competitors against ranked or nearly ranked Division I wrestlers.
165: No. 1 Matt Malcom (Nebraska-Kearney - Division II) decision over No. 30 Bubba Wilson (Nebraska) 10-5
Malcom was an Iowa state champion in high school and started his collegiate career with the Hawkeyes before transferring to Nebraska-Kearney. With the Lopers, he has already become a three-time All-American and won a national title at 157 pounds in 2019. This year he is back, looking to reach the top of the podium once again. Malcom recently won the Super Region 6 title and holds a 26-2 record, with one of those losses coming against No. 1 Evan Wick (Cal Poly).
Nebraska hosted in-state foes Chadron State and Nebraska-Kearney to open this season. Wilson joined the starting lineup after going 19-3 as a redshirt in 2020 and sitting out the 2021 season with an injury.
Wilson scored the first two takedowns of the lead and had a 5-1 lead about halfway into the second period. However, Malcom turned things around with a takedown and tile to finish the frame. He scored the final nine points of the bout and took the decision victory.
The two rematched at the CKLV Invitational, and this time Wilson won the bout via an 11-5 score. The Nebraska wrestler is currently ranked in the InterMat rankings. He entered last weekend's Big Ten tournament as the eighth seed, but finished sixth to qualify for the NCAA tournament.
133: No. 10 Jack Huffman (Augustana - Division II) decision over No. 26 Kellyn March (North Dakota State) 5-3
Huffman recently won the Super Region 5 tournament to qualify for his first NCAA tournament. He went 18-1 on the season, with his only loss coming against No. 13 Kaden Anderlik (Upper Iowa). During the year, Huffman actually picked up a pair of wins over Division I opposition, but his win over March was his most impressive.
The bout was part of a dual that the Bison ended up winning 28-10. During regulation, Huffman was able to score a reversal and escape, and the bout went to sudden victory even at 3-3. In the extra period, The Augustana wrestler broke through and took the 5-3 victory.
March went 14-7 prior to the Big 12 tournament and holds an impressive fall victory over No. 27 Ramazan Attasauov (Iowa State). He entered this past weekend's Big 12 tournament as the number-four seed but dropped both of his matches. He missed out on an at-large bid to make the NCAA tournament.
141: No. 9 Josiah Gehr (Messiah - Division III) fall over Seth Koleno (Clarion)
Gehr entered this season as a two-time NCAA qualifier. He has gone 33-4 on the year and recently finished second at the Southeast Regional. That finals appearance earned him yet another trip to the NCAA tournament.
On Dec. 11, Messiah hosted a quadrangular against Clarion, Lock Haven and Stevens Tech. It was a tough day for the Falcons as they dropped all three duals. However, Gehr's performance at 141 pounds was certainly a bright spot. Earlier in the day, Koleno had taken a major decision over No. 5 Kyle Slendorn (Stevens Tech), who had handed Gehr two of his four losses on the season, so the Clarion wrestler appeared to be a clear favorite. However, Gehr was able to pick up the fall only 1:22 into the match.
Koleno finished the regular season with a 25-7 record. He is not currently ranked by InterMat, but he is 21st in the RPI, which indicates he faced a rather demanding schedule during the year. He entered the MAC tournament as the third seed. He needed to place in the top three to automatically qualify for the tournament but ended up finishing fifth. Koleno did not receive an at-large bid to make the tournament.