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  • Photo: Tony Rotundo

    Photo: Tony Rotundo

    How do NCAA Champions Fare After Bumping Up?

    Zahid Valencia at the 2019 NCAA Championships (Photo/Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)

    Earlier this week, news trickled out of the North Carolina camp that 2021 NCAA champion Austin O'Connor could move up from 149 to 157 lbs for the 2021-22 season. It was a move that was rumored ever since the end of the 2021 tournament, but has more legitimacy now. In addition, there are a handful of 2021 national champions that could move up next winter. Nick Lee (Penn State), David Carr (Iowa State), Shane Griffith (Stanford), all could be in the bulking up phase. Additionally, past champions like Yianni Diakomihalis (Cornell) and Mekhi Lewis (Virginia Tech) may.

    That brings us to the question, “What's the precedent for national champions moving up the following season?” We know it has happened. How often do these champions replicate their previous success? Did it work out badly for anyone?

    To get enough of a sample size, InterMat has looked back since the year 2000 at every NCAA champion (there's 12 of them) that has moved up in weight the following year. We'll mention a bit about their championship-winning season and what happened the next go 'round.

    Zahid Valencia (Arizona State) - 174 to 184 lbs

    The 2019 season was Zahid Valencia's “rockiest” from a regular-season standpoint. He dropped a pair of duals to Mark Hall (Penn State) and Daniel Lewis (Missouri), but rebounded in a big way during the postseason. Despite the third seed at nationals, Valencia met and majored Lewis in the semifinals, before avenging the Hall loss, 4-3, for his second title.

    Following the 2018-19 season, Valencia went up to 184 lbs. Zahid showed no signs of slowing down at the new weight with bonus points in 18 of his 20 bouts. Unfortunately, in February, Valencia was suspended for reportedly failing a drug test. What we didn't know at the time was that the 2020 NCAA Tournament would never occur due to the COVID outbreak.

    Bo Nickal (Photo/Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)

    Bo Nickal (Penn State) - 184 to 197 lbs

    The 2017-18 season saw Bo Nickal claim his second consecutive title at 184 lbs while also going unbeaten for the first time. Nickal earned chip number two in dramatic fashion by miraculously pinning Myles Martin (Ohio State), when he looked ready to surrender a fall himself. The win clinched the school's seventh national title in eight years. It also came in Ohio State's backyard as Cleveland was the host city for the event.

    Despite a dominant campaign at 184 lbs, some questioned whether Nickal had the horsepower to put up the same type of results at 197 lbs. In retrospect, those same doubts arose after Nickal moved from 174 to 184. His lean build distracted plenty of fans. Not only did Nickal “do well” at 197 lbs, but he also won the Hodge Trophy. In 2018-19, Nickal pinned 18 of his 30 opponents and only failed to register bonus points in three of his 30 contests. Nickal was victorious in his final 68 collegiate bouts.

    Isaiah Martinez (Illinois) - 157 to 165 lbs

    In 2014-15, Isaiah Martinez took the college wrestling world by storm, logging the first undefeated season by a freshman since Cael Sanderson did so in 1998-99. He followed it up by winning 32 of 33 bouts as a sophomore and, along the way, gave Jason Nolf (Penn State) the only non-injury-related losses of his collegiate career.

    After a pair of titles at 157 lbs, Isaiah Martinez moved up to 165 lbs for his junior campaign. Martinez kept a similar bonus rate (68% compared to 68% and 66% as a freshman and sophomore, respectively), and headed into the 2017 NCAA Championships unbeaten. He claimed his third Big Ten title, in as many tries, and dispatched a pair of talented freshmen (Logan Massa - Michigan and Vincenzo Joseph - Penn State) in his final two matches. Martinez would meet Joseph again in the NCAA finals and it was the Nittany Lion who stunned him with a fall just :26 into the third period.

    Myles Martin (Photo/Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)

    Myles Martin (Ohio State) - 174 to 184 lbs

    One of the biggest shockers at the NCAA Tournament in the past decade occurred in 2016 when 11th seeded Myles Martin won the 174 lb weight class as a true freshman. Martin entered the tournament with a 28-6 record and was fresh off a third-place finish at the Big Ten Championships. While three of those losses came at the hands of Bo Nickal, he also had setbacks against Mike Ottinger (Central Michigan), Davonte Mahomes (Michigan), and Jacob Morrissey (Purdue). The fourth time was a charm for Martin, who was able to outscore Nickal, 11-9 in the NCAA finals.

    Martin, along with Nickal, moved up immediately to 184 lbs in 2016-17. That 184 lb weight class was loaded with returning studs. The top four placewinners from 2016 all returned (Gabe Dean, TJ Dudley - Nebraska, Pete Renda - NC State, and Nolan Boyd - Oklahoma State). Martin was able to grab a win over Dudley in dual competition and in the Big Ten semis. In his first Big Ten final, the Buckeye was majored 12-2 by Sam Brooks (Iowa). At Nationals, Martin suffered a slight upset in the second round to Emery Parker (Illinois) and later fell again to Brooks, before settling into fifth place.

    Alex Dieringer (Oklahoma State) - 157 to 165 lbs

    Sophomore Alex Dieringer won the first of his three NCAA titles as 157 lber in 2014. Dieringer's 2-1 loss to defending champion, Derek St. John (Iowa), accounted for the final defeat of his collegiate career. He wouldn't get a shot at redemption for the St. John loss, as Derek was knocked off in the quarters by Brian Realbuto. Dieringer's title came after a one-sided, 13-4 major decision against the dangerous Dylan Ness (Minnesota). Two matches earlier, Ness had shocked the top-seeded James Green (Nebraska) with a pin after his patented, “gator bacon.”

    As alluded to earlier, Dieringer went undefeated during his first (and second) year at 165 lbs, racking up a 32-0 mark. The Cowboy logged 11 falls and racked up bonus points at an 84% clip, which was actually better than his Hodge Trophy-winning senior season. After grabbing the third of his four Big 12 titles, Dieringer had another lopsided NCAA finals match. He defeated Taylor Walsh (Indiana), 14-7. In the tournament, he added two falls and a major decision, to get with a 6-1 win over Bo Jordan (Ohio State) in the semis.

    Logan Stieber (Ohio State) - 133 to 141 lbs

    All three of the four-time NCAA champions that competed in the 2000s won multiple weight classes. Logan Stieber added the second championship to his resume after putting the finishing touches on the first of two undefeated seasons. Stieber went 27-0 and captured bonus points in 23 of those wins. Among those he amassed bonus points on were Cody Brewer (Oklahoma) and AJ Schopp (Edinboro). He teched Brewer in the NCAA quarters, before teching Schopp in the semis. For his title, he had a bit of controversy, but edged Tony Ramos (Iowa), 7-4.

    Stieber's career at 141 started with bonus points in his first nine bouts before running into true freshman, Zain Retherford (Penn State). Zain would hand Stieber the final loss of his collegiate career, 4-2, in sudden victory. Stieber prevailed over Retherford in the Big Ten finals and the NCAA semifinals, both by the score of 7-4. In winning as a junior, Logan became the program's first three-time national champion. His bonus point rate (90.6%) was actually the highest total of his illustrious career. A year later, he would win the Hodge Trophy and lead Ohio State to their only national title in wrestling.

    Kendric Maple (Photo/Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)

    Kendric Maple (Oklahoma) - 141 to 149 lbs

    Kendric Maple became a two-time All-American in 2013 when he finished undefeated and won a national crown at 141 lbs. Maple had a remarkable emergence as he was 33-12 as a true freshman in 2009-10 and three years later stood atop the 141 lb weight class. Maple bonused 19 of his 31 opponents and seven of those came via fall. His NCAA title came after a 4-3 win over Mitchell Port (Edinboro).

    Out of anyone on this list, Maple has the most difficulty in bumping up a weight. Maple went 22-4 during the regular season, but was able to collect his third consecutive Big 12 title. Those four losses made Kendric settle for the number four seed at nationals in Oklahoma City. There he was edged in tiebreakers by upstart freshman Jason Tsirtsis (Northwestern). Tsirtsis would go on to win two more bouts in extra time and win a national title. After a bloodround win over Justin Arthur (Clarion), Maple dropped his final two matches against Eric Grajales (Michigan) and James English (Penn State) and had to settle for eighth place.

    4x NCAA champion Kyle Dake (Photo/Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)

    Kyle Dake (Cornell) - Moved up 3 times and won titles

    The most famous instance of a wrestler moving up after winning a national championship is Kyle Dake, as he did the feat three times. Dake remains the first (and only) wrestler to win titles at four different weight classes. While you can never say never, it's a record that should stand for a LONG time. His career record was 137-4 and he did not taste defeat during a collegiate bout after the EIWA Championships during his sophomore year. He is also the only four-time champion that wrestled in the EIWA and the only that did not redshirt. Dake's collegiate career started at 141 lbs and ended at 165.

    Ed Ruth (Penn State) - 174 to 184 lbs

    Penn State's second title-winning season (2011-12) during the Cael Sanderson era featured a trio of undefeated national champions (Frank Molinaro, David Taylor, and Ed Ruth). The final member of the group, Ruth, probably received the least publicity but was just as efficient. Ruth looked effortless as he posted bonus points in 26 of his 31 wins. Although he won by a 13-2 margin in the national finals, his “closest” bout of the tournament came against Nick Heflin (Ohio State) in the national quarterfinals (11-4).

    Ruth moved up to 184 in 2012-13, which cleared a place for Matt Brown at 174 in the Nittany Lions lineup. Brown was responsible for the closest match against Ruth during his sophomore year (6-3). The move had no effect on Ruth as he was only more dominant. His junior season is one of the best ever for a non-Hodge Trophy winner. Ruth notched bonus points in 26 of his 33 wins and 12 came via fall. At nationals, Ruth had four bonus-point wins, one of which came against the 2011 runner-up, Robert Hamlin (Lehigh), in the finals. His only decision of the tournament was in the semis against 2012 champion, Steve Bosak (Cornell).

    Gregor Gillespie (Photo/Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)

    Gregor Gillespie (Edinboro) - 149 to 157 lbs

    The 149 lb weight class at the 2008 NCAA Championships is generally regarded as the best in recent memory, but the 2007 bracket wasn't too shabby, either. One of the surprises from that tournament took place in the semifinals as Gregor Gillespie upset the returning champion, Dustin Schlatter (Minnesota), and put a halt to his 65-match winning streak. Gillespie's tournament included wins over four past/future NCAA runner's-up (Schlatter, Dan Vallimont - Penn State, Jordan Leen - Cornell, Josh Churella - Michigan). Gillespie was dangerously close to surrendering a takedown in sudden victory to Churella, but quickly secured a winning score of his own.

    After moving up to 157 lbs, Gillespie racked up a 32-2 record and still was named the top-seed at his weight class. Leen got a bit of revenge on the Fighting Scot junior as the two once again squared off in the NCAA quarterfinals. This time Leen was victorious, 8-6. After defeating Matt Kocher (Pittsburgh) and Cyler Sanderson (Iowa State), Gillespie lost to another opponent he beat at the previous national tournament. Dan Vallimont edged Gillespie 2-1 in the consolation semifinals. He would bounce back to clinch fifth-place.

    Travis Lee (Cornell) - 125 to 133 lbs

    One of the catalysts for Cornell's long run of domination in the EIWA and beyond, Travis Lee's 2003 national title at 125 lbs, was the Big Red's first since 1994. The second-seeded Lee claimed his national title with a 6-4 win over Chris Fleeger (Purdue) in a battle of the unbeatens.

    Even after moving up to 133 lbs, Lee managed to go 35-1 pre-nationals and won the third of his four EIWA Championships. That was enough for the top-seed at the Big Dance. Lee crushed his first three opponents with two falls and a tech, before running into Zach Roberson (Iowa State) in the semis. He suffered a 6-3 loss to the fifth-seeded Roberson and dropped down to face two-time NCAA champion Johnny Thompson (Oklahoma State), an upset victim in the quarters. Lee was on the wrong side of a 10-8 shootout against Thompson, but did end up getting fifth place. When his collegiate career was over, Lee held Cornell's all-time wins record at 143.

    Cael Sanderson (Iowa State) - 184 to 197 lbs

    After winning three NCAA titles at 184 lbs and going undefeated in the process, Cael Sanderson decided to move up to 197 for his senior season. Sanderson's third title run saw him defeat eventual two-time Olympian and two-division UFC champion Daniel Cormier (Oklahoma State) in the finals, 8-4. During Sanderson's 2001 tournament, he outscored the competition 74-26 and that doesn't include a second-round fall.

    Cael was just as dominant at 197 lbs in 2002. In Albany, he pinned his first two opponents before putting up 45 points in the quarters and semis. Opposing Sanderson in the finals was Jon Trenge (Lehigh), the only foe to keep Sanderson to a regular season that season. Sanderson managed to get a 12-4 major decision, which marked the third win over Trenge during his record-breaking senior campaign. Cael made history by finishing his collegiate career with a 159-0 mark and four national titles. At the time, he was only the second DI wrestler to win four.

    Some others won a title and eventually moved up in weight; however, not the following season. Nathan Tomasello (Ohio State), Quentin Wright (Penn State), Jake Rosholt (Oklahoma State), Greg Jones (West Virginia), Andrew Howe (Wisconsin/Oklahoma), and Dustin Schlatter (Minnesota) are some that fit that bill.

    Jordan Burroughs (Nebraska) won the 157 lb title in 2009, wrestled in a handful of matches at that weight in 2009-10 before getting injured. He was able to take a medical redshirt for that year. He returned in 2010-11 at 165.

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