Adeline Gray cruised to a U.S. Open title in April (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
The second stage of Final X takes place this Saturday in State College, Pa. The card will determine several additional members of the 2018 U.S. World Team. Headlining the event are a pair of longtime rivals, Kyle Dake and David Taylor. This time, they will avoid each other and instead try to turn back a pair of hungry collegiate challengers. All bouts will be conducted as a best-of-three series. The following is a weight-by-weight preview of the event with predictions.
65 kilograms: Joey McKenna vs. Logan Stieber
After transferring to Ohio State, McKenna became an All-American for the second time. The former Stanford wrestler made it to the semifinals before dropping a one-point bout against Bryce Meredith. McKenna ended up knocking off Jaydin Eierman in the third-place match. Prior to the NCAA season, McKenna represented the U.S. at the U23 World Championships. He lost his second match to the eventual champion. He qualified for the repechage and finished with a bronze medal.
The Buckeye earned his spot in Final X by winning the U.S. Open. At the tournament, he won his first four matches via a combined score of 43-0 and then defeated Eierman in finals with a 7-3 score.
Despite making the U.S. World Team last year, Stieber had to win the World Team Trials before earning his spot in Final X. He failed to medal at the 2017 World Championships. At this year's Open he fell victim to an upset in the quarterfinals. Stieber had an early lead on Eierman but ended up falling 6-5. The pair rematched in the best-of-three Trials final. This time, Stieber defeated Eierman in two-straight matches, 10-5 and 7-1.
On the international circuit, Stieber had a slow start to the year. He went 1-2 at the Ivan Yarygin Grand Prix in January and failed to place. Then, at the World Cup, Stieber won three out of four matches including a victory over three-time world champion Haji Aliyev. In his most recent international action, Stieber defeated three opponents via a 30-0 score to win a title at the Pan American Championships.
McKenna is at his best when he is able to shut down his opponents and prevent them from scoring or scrambling. That is certainly a hard task against Stieber. On the other hand, Stieber's hyper offensive style does leave him open for counters. If McKenna is able to take advantage of those opportunities, he has a chance. However, at this point, Stieber should be able to break through with enough offense to take the series.
Prediction: Stieber in 3
62 kilograms: Kayla Miracle vs. Mallory Velte
Miracle earned her spot in Final X with a gold-medal performance at the U.S. Open. In the finals, she defeated Velte via a 3-0 score. Miracle began her year with a victory at the Klippan Open. There, she defeated world silver medalist Yulia Tkach (Ukraine). One month later, Miracle represented the U.S. at the World Cup. She went 2-2 in the tournament and picked up wins over Commonwealth Games bronze medalist Emily Schaefer (Canada) and Emma Johansson (Sweden). In her most recent action, Miracle picked up a bronze medal at the Pan American Championships
Velte had a tough start to her year with an eighth-place finish at the Klippan Open. However, she had a much better showing at the World Cup. Velte went 3-1 in the dual tournament and defeated Asian champion Orkhon Purevdorj (Mongolia). After falling against Miracle at the Open, Velte needed to win the World Team Trials in order to qualify for Final X. After receiving a bye to the finals, she bested Brenda Reyna in a pair of matches with a combined 23-2 score.
This match could easily turn into a defensive struggle. In their first match, only one takedown was scored, and the referee had to allow major continuation for it to happen. In theory Velte's status as a veteran could make the difference. However, Miracle's movement and footwork gives her an advantage in terms of passivity. In a match that could come down to shot-clock points, Miracle takes the edge.
Prediction: Miracle in 3
72 kilograms: Erin Clodgo vs. Rachel Watters
Clodgo was mostly out of action this year. She returned at the U.S. Open and earned a spot in Final X. Clodgo won her first three matches at the Open without giving up a point. In the finals, she edged Watters to win the bracket. Clodgo got out to a 6-4 lead early in the second period and held on for a 6-5 victory.
After losing to Clodgo, Watters needed to win the World Team Trials in order to qualify for Final X. In the finals, she defeated Hannah Gladden in two-straight matches via 11-1 and 10-3 scores. Watters recently finished her sophomore year at Oklahoma City University. In her second year of college, she finished third at the WCWA championships while wrestling up at 170 pounds.
While Watters is quickly rising up the ranks, Clodgo might still be too much of a challenge for her at this point. Their first match was close, but Clodgo showed that she has a strength and physicality advantage. If she scores a few takedowns early, she will be able to slow the match down and sit on a lead.
Prediction: Clodgo in 2
79 kilograms: Kyle Dake vs. Zahid Valencia
When UWW expanded the weight classes, wrestling fans in the U.S. immediately saw an opportunity for Dake to make his first senior-level world team. So far, he has looked like the man to beat at the new weight. The former Cornell wrestler began his year with a silver medal performance at the Ivan Yarygin Grand Prix. He won his first two bouts, including a victory over Junior world champion Alan Zassev (Russia), before falling against European champion Akhmed Gadzhimagomedov (Russia) in the finals.
Dake had a standout performance at the World Cup. He ran through his first three opponents, including world silver medalist Sohsuke Takatani (Japan), by a combined score of 31-0. In the final dual, Dake knocked off two-time world bronze medalist Yabrail Hasanov (Azerbaijan).
To reach Final X, Dake won the U.S. Open. He ran through his first three opponents in only 3:57 and did not surrender a point. In the finals, Dake held on at the last minute to claim a 5-5 victory on criteria over Alex Dieringer.
Valencia earned his spot in the World Team Trials challenge tournament via his NCAA title. In his sophomore season at Arizona State, he went undefeated and knocked off returning champion Mark Hall in the finals. At the Trials, he moved to the finals with a 10-0 victory over veteran Josh Asper. In the finals, he upset Dieringer in two-straight matches and only surrendered a single point.
Valencia's last two major challenges, Hall and Dieringer, are both defensive stalwarts. However, Valencia has had the offensive skill, technique and persistence to score on the feet. Dake represents another strong defensive wrestler for the Arizona State wrestler. Unlike Hall and Dieringer, Dake the ability to turn his defense into offense. He can, and often does, score from counter positions. If Valencia constantly attacks, it could end up giving Dake more opportunities to score.
Prediction: Dake in 3
76 kilograms: Adeline Gray vs. Korinahe Bullock
Gray won back-to-back world championships in 2014 and 2015. She was the gold-medal favorite for the 2016 Olympics, but she unexpectedly finished seventh. Gray took most of 2017 off before returning in the fall. So far this year, she has won the Flatz Open, Klippan Open and the Pan American Championships. At the Klippan Open, she defeated 2017 world champion Yasar Adar (Turkey). To qualify for Final X, Gray won three straight matches at the U.S. Open. In the finals, she defeated Leilani Camargo-Naone via 11-0 technical fall.
It is safe to say that nobody had Bullock making Final X when the series was first announced. She recently completed her freshman season at McKendree where she finished eighth at the WCWA championships and became an All-American for the first time. Bullock placed fourth at the Open after losing in the semifinals to Camargo-Naone. The result qualified her for the World Team Trials. At the Trials, she won a two-person tournament against Mariah Harris of Campbellsville.
Gray remains one of the best wrestlers in the world at this weight. Bullock has made a surprising run to Final X, but her luck will run out in State College. Look for Gray to bully Bullock in the ties and get to her leg attacks whenever she wants.
Prediction: Gray in 2
David Taylor celebrates after a victory at the Freestyle World Cup (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
86 kilograms: David Taylor vs. Nick Reenan
For two years now, Taylor has been on quite a run at 86 kilograms. Last year, he seemingly did everything until running into J'den Cox in the finals of the World Team Trials and failing to make the team. This year, he has won every event he has entered, and Cox will not be standing in his way. He began his year with a victory at the Ivan Yarygin Grand Prix. There, Taylor defeated Olympic silver medalist Selim Yasar (Turkey) and pinned 2018 European champion Artur Naifanov (Russia). A few months later, the former Penn State wrestler was back in action at the World Cup. He picked up four technical fall victories in the tournament with a combined score of 45-5. To make Final X, Taylor won the U.S. Open. He needed to go through one of the larger brackets and did so seemingly with ease. Taylor surrendered only two points in five matches and defeated Richard Perry in the finals. In his most recent action, he won a gold medal at the Pan American Championships where he picked up a second close victory over Cuban standout Yurieski Torreblanca Queralta.
Reenan might be the biggest surprise of Final X on the men's side. This past season, he redshirted for North Carolina State after qualifying for the NCAA tournament as a freshman. Reenan needed to place at the U.S. Open in order to qualify for the World Team Trials. Things did not get off to a good start as he lost his first match to Perry. However, he won six straight matches in the consolation bracket, including wins over Pat Downey and T.J. Dudley, to finish third. At the Trials, Reenan reversed a previous loss against Joe Rau and then also got revenge against Perry in two straight matchers in the final.
Taylor has been a man on mission recently. While Reenan scored a string of upsets to qualify, he is facing a different kind of test with Taylor. His top position scoring continues to improve at this stage in his career. If he ever ends up on top, he has a chance to finish the match. On top of that, Taylor will have the home-crowd advantage in this one.
Prediction: Taylor in 2