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  • Photo: Sam Janicki

    Photo: Sam Janicki

    Five Things We Learned About Big Ten Wrestling in Week One

    The 2022 Michigan State Open (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)

    The 2022-23 NCAA wrestling season is in full swing, as many teams got their first taste of action last weekend.

    The opening week had its ups and downs for Big Ten teams. Wisconsin and Nebraska suffered upset losses to Iowa State and North Dakota State, respectively. Meanwhile, Maryland went 3-0 and Indiana started its season with a win.

    The weekend also saw some impressive individual performances in open tournaments.

    Here are five things we learned from Week1:

    True freshman Jesse Mendez puts 133 pounds on notice

    In just his first week of collegiate wrestling, Ohio State's Jesse Mendez went from promising freshman talent to a podium threat at 133 pounds. Yes, I know it's early. But beating last season's fifth-place finisher is nothing to sniff at.

    The true freshman showed all the poise and restraint of a seasoned veteran in his 3-2 win over Illinois No. 5 Lucas Byrd on Saturday in the Michigan State Open final. The pair battled evenly throughout seven minutes, trading a pair of escapes, until about five seconds left when Mendez secured a takedown on the edge from the front headlock position. That win was Mendez's fourth of the day. He earned a tech fall, a fall and a 5-0 decision over Utah Valley's No. 20 Haiden Drury to reach Byrd in the finals.

    He made his Covelli Center debut in style the week prior, pinning teammate Dylan Koontz in 58 seconds during intrasquad wrestle-offs. Koontz finished in sixth place at the open.

    Even though he's a true freshman, Mendez clearly isn't afraid to take on older, more experienced competition. He competed in the senior division this summer at the U.S. Open, placing third to qualify for World Team trials. And upon entering Ohio State's wrestling room this summer, assistant coach Logan Stieber said Mendez immediately wanted to “crush” three-time All-American and national runner-up Sammy Sasso, and got frustrated when it wasn't happening right away.

    While the collegiate sample size is small, what we know points to Mendez making an immediate impact for the Buckeyes this season. We'll find out, as the season progresses, how far he can climb in his first year. He should get another good test this week as Ohio State hosts Virginia Tech and ACC champ and All-American Sam Latona on Friday.

    No Deakin, no problem

    Ryan Deakin was a national title contender for several years for the Northwestern Wildcats at 157 pounds, up until the point when he finally got the job done last year. It's a great way for a fan favorite to end his career, and transition to international wrestling on the West coast with Stanford. Traditionally losing a national champion is a huge blow to a team's chance at a trophy. In speaking with Joe Colon, he feels that there's a lot of chances to make up those points elsewhere.

    The goal for the year is to get a team trophy, which seems like a reasonable goal that brings back 9/10 NCAA qualifiers. The only one not returning is Deakin, so a team that feels they belong helps. Also, they hadn't scored any points at NCAAs in a couple of those weights (165, 174, 184, 197), so at minimum, there's some more chances to score some more points and make up for the 0's towards the team score. Not to mention Yahya Thomas, an All-American two years ago, was eliminated in the Bloodround last season, and will be hungry to get another AA status.

    Most importantly though, Trevor Chumbley looked too legit to quit. He beat Paddy Gallagher, a highly touted Ohio State 157-pounder, in the finals by a score of 5-3 in OT. It was a wild match with a lot of action and back-and-forth momentum shifts, but the poise that Chumbley showed under fire was very impressive. In addition to beating Gallagher, Chumbley also beat Jacob Butler of Oklahoma, who placed second, as well as Max Mayfield, his teammate at Northwestern who took 4th. It was an impressive day all around for the Northwestern 157-pounders, and clear to me that they might not have an NCAA Champ there this year, but they will still be scoring points at NCAAs from 157.

    There will be blood

    First of all, can you imagine Derek St.John lumbering down a bowling alley like Daniel Plainview in the final scene of There Will Be Blood? I imagine Derek only eats steak with his bare hands as well. Anyway, Wisconsin lost by 20 to Iowa State on Saturday night. It would have been 21 if a team point hadn't been deducted from the Cyclones. They were upset in half of the matches, including the first four. I was talking this Saturday before the MSU Open started with Lou Rosselli and Sean Bormet (shameless name drop, but it's applicable here) about how crazy some dual meet results can be if one or two matches shift in an unexpected direction. In this dual, everything that could have gone wrong for the Badgers seemed to, and quickly. I didn't watch it live though, I had an event I needed to be at that night, so I got to absorb the results through group chats initially, and a series of tweets.

    Many of these tweets and messages were about the 20-minute brawl between Swiderski and Zargo. Early in the match, an explosive double leg from Swiderski caught Zargo in the nose which caused a fountain of blood to begin pouring out. I've watched a lot of wrestling, but I've never seen them give up and just wrap a dude's nose all the way around his head like that. Then you had Swiderski get a cut on his eye shortly thereafter. This match was so bloody it was as if it were being directed by Quentin Tarantino. In the end, it was one of the initial four upsets to start the match.

    Maybe I was wearing red and white glasses when I watched the matches after the fact, but I didn't think it was anything that had to linger for this Badgers team. If anything, this could be helpful to a team that came in with big expectations of themselves. I'm pretty sure you schedule tough competition for the purpose of having tough competition. This was supposed to be their toughest dual of the Battle in the River City, and it proved to be every bit of that. As evidenced by the Badgers having lost only three matches in their previous two duals earlier in the day against Buffalo and Chattanooga.

    I didn't see a Badger team that lacked intensity, even in most of the matches they lost. They just ran into buzz saws, which is again, what you want to see early in the season in tough matches. These can be opportunities to find things to improve on, whether it's positioning, technique, or preparation. It would have been bad to watch the Wisconsin wrestlers just get the doors blown off of them, but I didn't see that in most of these matches.

    Gomez looked particularly intense in his approach, and you'd think so being that he transferred away from Iowa State. Paniro was certainly prepared for what Gomez was about to throw at him, and was excellent at winning some tough positions. Hamiti lost to David Carr in what was an excellent match to watch. Carr is a special wrestler, and was able to get the better of Hamiti here, but let's not forget, Carr was favored in the match. It'll be interesting to see them match up again down the road. Braxton Amos lost a close match to sixth-ranked Yonger Bastida, but certainly didn't look outmatched by a guy who is 14 spots higher than him in the rankings. Then of course the intensity from Zargo and Swiderski was referenced above. It wasn't not intense.

    If you're Wisconsin, you're not happy with how this dual ended, and I'm not trying to make excuses for them. It's early in the season though. This is the time of year you want wake-up calls. The time of year when you can make adjustments. If you're going to get punched in the mouth, now is the time. Iowa State and Wisconsin will see each other again in a couple of weeks at the Harold Nichols Cyclone Open, and I'll be interested to see what adjustments are made by then.

    Spartans looking to peak at the right time

    While at the MSU Open this weekend, I had the opportunity to speak with the coaching staff, as well as some of the veterans in their lineup over the last couple of years. Despite hosting the tournament, the Spartans used it mostly for their younger guys to get their hands on some solid D1 competition rather than throwing out many of their experienced wrestlers.

    Michigan State wasn't the only team to not send out all of their veteran athletes, but in speaking with them this was clearly something they discussed and had planned on sitting out. It makes sense though, not just for them, but with several other teams. With the extra year granted, we are fortunate enough to get to see many wrestlers with extra years, and it's pretty clear now that most people are taking the extra year when they can. That being said, these extra matches absolutely add up and can affect when wrestlers feel their best.

    It was clear that the Spartans I spoke with weren't dealing with active or serious injuries, just trying to make sure that they are using their time effectively. I think this is going to be the norm for a lot of teams moving forward. Gone are the days of guys entering NCAAs with 48-3 records. Especially with the redshirt rules allowing younger guys to see competition without burning their redshirt season, we'll likely see some guys getting extra rest days. The Big Ten schedule is a meat grinder, and can beat up on even the youngest and freshest of athletes.

    Specific to MSU though, both coaches and athletes shared the same vision, which was that they had peaked earlier last year than they intended to, which they felt had led to disappointing postseason results. It'll be interesting to see if this approach will help them perform in March as they hope to. That being said, this was just the first tournament of the year. They are slated to go to the Navy Classic in a couple weeks (November 19th) and the Reno Tournament of Champions a month later (December 18th), so they'll have other chances to get multiple matches in a day before the Big Ten schedule gets going.

    Penn State again faces uncertainty at 125 pounds

    It appears that the Nittany Lions will again enter the season with questions surrounding its 125-pound weight class.

    Sophomore Robert Howard and Ohio State transfer Will Betancourt, two of the wrestlers Penn State hoped would contribute at that weight this season, won't be available, coach Cael Sanderson confirmed Monday. Howard will likely again miss the season due to injury and Betancourt is no longer on the team.

    Sanderson named redshirt freshman Gary Steen as the likely starter for the Nittany Lions' season opener against Lock Haven on Friday.

    We have a few different guys who will be competing for that spot but Gary Steen has done a nice job and will probably kick things off,” Sanderson said. “And hopefully get things rolling there.”

    Steen, a two-time Pennsylvania state champ and four-time placewinner out of Reynolds High School in Hermitage, compiled a 5-5 record last season in open tournaments. Since then, Steen said that working with the athletes in Penn State's wrestling room has helped him improve on top and bottom.

    “I've worked with the best every day, like Thomas Gilman, who helps me a lot,” Steen said of the World and Olympic medalist. “I'm just coming in here every day and having a purpose of getting better at every position.”

    Also listed at 125 pounds on Penn State's roster are sophomores Marco Vespa and Timothy Levine and freshman Karl Shindledecker. Junior Baylor Shunk is listed at 133 pounds but has also wrestled at 125 for the Nittany Lions.

    For his part, Steen is looking at this situation as an opportunity and not putting too much pressure on himself to break Penn State's long string of bad luck at 125 pounds.

    “My goal is to be an All-American and a national champ, so I just want to go out there and wrestle hard every match, put faith in God and get to the tournament and get on top of that podium,” he said.

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