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  • Photo: Photo/Sam Janicki

    Photo: Photo/Sam Janicki

    Dark-horse All-American candidates

    From 2014-2018, the NCAA only seeded the top 16 wrestlers. The rest of the field was completed by random draw. Now, the field is seeded all the way to No. 33. While unseeded wrestlers breaking through and going on an unlikely run was one of the bright spots of the tournament, that spirit can live on with the lower seeds.

    The following looks at some of the top dark-horse candidates to become an All-American despite being seeded 16th or lower.

    125: No. 16 Codi Russell (Appalachian State)

    Despite a 13-1 record and a third straight qualifying season, Russell received the 16th seed at this NCAA tournament. His lone loss came against North Carolina State's No. 6 Jakob Camacho via 11-4 decision back in early January. Since then, Russell won 10 straight matches and won the SoCon conference title with victories over Benny Gomez (Presbyterian) and Zurich Storm (Campbell).

    If Russell is going to make it onto the podium, he will likely need to make a run in the consolation bracket. He starts the tournament with a tough match against No. 17 Killian Cardinale (West Virginia). With a victory there, the Appalachian State wrestler would likely move on to face No. 1 Spencer Lee (Iowa).

    Malyke Hines won the EIWA title at 133 pounds (Photo/Sam Janicki, SJanickiPhoto.com)

    133: No. 17 Malyke Hines (Lehigh)

    Hines joined Lehigh last year as a three-time state champion and a top-100 recruit. On the high school level he finished with a 267-4 record and was a two-time NHSCA champion and a two-time Super 32 placer.

    The Lehigh wrestler redshirted his first year on campus and took a few uncharacteristic losses. However, he still finished with a 16-4 record and won the Mat-Town Open. This year, Hines joined the starting lineup and took a step forward. He dropped his first match of the season against No. 5 Micky Phillippi (Pittsburgh) but then won his next six matches. Along the way, he picked up the EIWA championship with bonus points in two of his three matches.

    Hines finds himself in the top half of the bracket with No. 1 Daton Fix (Oklahoma State). It could be an early match if he gets past Oregon State's Devan Turner. Hines is still relatively inexperienced on the college level, but his high school accolades and strong performance at the EIWA make him a dark-horse candidate in this division.

    141: No. 21 Real Woods (Stanford)

    Woods nearly did not qualify for this tournament. He did not compete until the Pac 12 tournament, and while he made the finals, he suffered an upset via fall against No. 12 Grant Willits (Oregon State). In order to meet the qualification criteria, Woods wrestled a pair of extra matches against Jose Landin (CSU Bakersfield) where he won via first-period fall and 16-0 technical fall.

    That loss against Willits at the Pac 12 tournament was only the second official loss of Woods' collegiate career. Last year, as a redshirt freshman, he went 19-1 with his only defeat coming against Luke Pletcher in overtime. During the season, Woods scored victories over Sa'Derian Perry, Kaden Gfeller (Oklahoma State) and Dusty Hone (Oklahoma State).

    Interestingly enough, Woods will get a rematch against Willits in his first match of the NCAA tournament. Despite giving up the fall at the recent tournament, he has had the upperhand in the series. The two wrestled twice during the 2020 season with Woods taking a pair of major decisions. It will certainly be a tough road from the 21st spot, but the Stanford wrestler could get off to a hot start if he can get past his Pac-12 rival.

    149: No. 28 Peyton Omania (Michigan State)

    On paper, Omania might look like the wildest dark horse on this list. Not only does he enter the tournament as the 28th seed, but he also actually has a losing record on the season. Even after qualifying through the Big Ten tournament, he holds a 4-6 record.

    Despite the record, Omania has done an impressive job of implementing his Greco Roman offense in folkstyle matches. He is a junior world bronze medalist in the Olympic styles, and recently, he has been throwing his opponents off the mat. For example, in a recent match against No. 11 Kanen Storr (Michigan), Omania won a 15-8 decision with 12 of those points coming on headlock throws from neutral.

    Obviously, Omania is still vulnerable and can be ridden at times. However, his throwing style makes him a dangerous opponent in the bracket. If a few things fall the right way, he could be standing on the podium on Saturday.

    His tournament starts against No. 5 Ridge Lovett (Nebraska). Lovett is at his best on the mat, so this is probably not a good style matchup for Omania. However, he is and will remain a wildcard.

    157: No. 21 Andrew Cerniglia (Navy)

    Cerniglia was a two-time Pennsylvania state champion in high school, and he has quickly made a name for himself at Navy. The true freshman enters the NCAA tournament with an 8-1 record. His only defeat was a surprising upset at the hands of Jaden Fisher (Bucknell) in the EIWA tournament. He has not faced the toughest competition on the year, but he has managed to put up bonus points in six of his eight victories.

    At the 21st seed, he will not start the tournament with an easy opener. He will face off against No. 12 Brady Berge (Penn State). Berge has bounced back from a series of injuries and put together a nice season. Cerniglia will need to find a way to get to his offense, since Berge has shown tremendous ability to control matches. It will be a long shot, but Cernigilia could certainly shock some people in this tournament.

    Minnesota true freshman Andrew Sparks enters the NCAAs as the No. 24 seed at 165 pounds (Photo/Sam Janicki, SJanickiPhoto.com)

    165: No. 24 Andrew Sparks (Minnesota)

    Sparks would likely find himself with a much higher seed if he had a better performance at the Big Ten tournament. The Minnesota freshman entered the bracket with record of 8-1, but he went 1-2 and medically forfeited his last match. If he is able to turn things around, he will be a very dangerous 24th seed.

    During the regular season, Sparks' only defeat came against No. 1 Alex Marinelli (Iowa). Other than that, he was perfect through the Big Ten schedule where he picked up key wins over No. 14 Peyton Robb (Nebraska) and No. 19 Gerrit Nijenhuis (Purdue).

    Sparks will get a chance to show if the Big Ten tournament was an outlier or not early in the NCAA bracket. He will face No. 9 Luke Weber (North Dakota State) in his first match. Weber will be a tough challenge as he is coming off a surprising upset of Travis Wittlake (Oklahoma State) and Big 12 tournament title winning performance.

    Army West Point's Ben Pasiuk takes a shot on Drexel's Michael O'Malley in the EIWA finals (Photo/Sam Janicki, SJanickiPhoto.com)

    174: No. 17 Ben Pasiuk (Army)

    Pasiuk was a four-time Ohio state finalist in high school, and he has found his way into the Army lineup as a freshman. He wrestled only two matches before entering the EIWA tournament. He scored victories over Jake Logan (Lehigh) and Dean Caravela (Navy).

    Despite the lack of experience, Pasiuk won the EIWA tournament. His most impressive performance on the day was a 2-1 decision over No. 19 Michale O'Malley (Drexel), who spent time in the InterMat rankings during the year.

    Pasiuk's tournament gets off to a tough start against No. 16 Clay Lautt (North Carolina). The Tar Heel junior went 6-3 against a mostly ACC schedule this year. He went to sudden victory and ultimately defeated Logan, which is his only common opponent with Pasiuk this year.

    Iowa State's Sammy Colbray gets in on a shot against Arizona State's Cade Belshay (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)

    184: No. 29 Sammy Colbray (Iowa State)

    Even though Iowa State was one of the busiest college teams this winter, Colbray did not wrestle his first match until mid-February. He went 2-1 during the abbreviated regular season with victories over Jacob Schoon (South Dakota State) and Cade Belshay (Arizona State) as well as a defeat against No. 4 Parker Keckeisen (Northern Iowa) before entering the Big 12 tournament.

    Colbray went 4-2 in the Big 12 bracket to earn a spot in this NCAA tournament. This will be the third time he has qualified for the tournament. He made it to the round of 12 as a sophomore in 2019, and the tournament did not happen last year. Colbray will likely have the opportunity to come back next year if he wants it, but if this is the end of the road for him, he could make some noise in this bracket.

    The Iowa State representative starts his day with a rematch against Keckeisen. The freshman defeated Colbray back in February. However, it was a one-point match. If a few of the exchanges go another way, this could be one of the biggest upsets of the opening rounds.

    197: No. 26 Jake Woodley (Oklahoma)

    Over the last few seasons, Woodley has been an essential part of the Oklahoma rebuild that culminated in a share of the Big 12 tournament title. For the third straight season, he has qualified for the NCAA tournament.

    This season, the 197-pound division seemingly became extremely deep overnight. The field in the Big 12 especially seemed to improve with the addition of No. 4 A.J. Ferrari (Oklahoma State) and the development of No. 9 Noah Adams (West Virginia), No. 13 Tanner Sloan (South Dakota State) and No. 8 Stephen Buchanan (Wyoming). Despite this, Woodley was able to fight his way through the conference and qualify. He will enter this tournament with a 9-7 record on the year.

    Woodley will have a tough match right out of the gate. On Thursday morning, he will face off against No. 7 Rocky Elam (Missouri). Not only is Elam undefeated on the year at 7-0, but he is also a junior world silver medalist in freestyle.

    285: No. 18 Hunter Catka (Virginia Tech)

    Catka likely would have earned a higher seed if he had been the starter throughout the season. He split time with John Borst who ultimately dropped out of the lineup with an injury. The opening created a spot for Catka who has made the most of it.

    He entered the ACC tournament with a 9-1 record. Not only did he make the finals of the tournament, but he avenged his only loss of the season up to that point. No. 20 Quinn Miller (Virginia) had defeated him earlier in the year, but he reversed that with a 4-3 decision. In the finals, Catka faced off against No. 10 Deonte Wilson (North Carolina State) and dropped a 2-1 match in rideouts.

    The top of the heavyweight division is very strong, so there will likely be tough competition for the final All-American slots. Catka is still a true freshman and learning on the job. If he takes another step forward, he could leapfrog some seasoned wrestlers and find his way on the podium.

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