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  • Photo: Sam Janicki

    Photo: Sam Janicki

    Love the Unicorns; Appreciate the Greats

    2x NCAA champion Carter Starocci (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)

    Let’s face it, it’s a great time to be a college wrestling fan. We’re living in an incredible era of generational wrestling talent. We might even be a little spoiled.

    The first NCAA Tournament I attended in-person was in 2007 at the Palace at Auburn Hills. Subbar, if you’re talking worst sites for an NCAA Tournament, Auburn Hills is competing in the semifinals for that dubious distinction, at least.

    Anyhow, it wasn’t until the 2012 national tournament that I saw a wrestler win his third NCAA title, when Kyle Dake did so. Since that point, there have been 10 more wrestlers who have won at least three national championships. This figure could increase in 2023 as three wrestlers are seeking a third NCAA title.

    For comparison’s sake, there were only four, three, or four-time NCAA champions from the previous ten years (2001-11).

    Also, there’s a good likelihood that we’ll see two wrestlers win their fourth national titles in Tulsa a month and a half from now. This mark has only been hit by four other wrestlers, ever.

    What I allude to is that seeing all-time greats wrestling every week, tends to make us numb to greatness. This came to a head on Friday night as people were underwhelmed by the action and score totals during the much-anticipated #1 versus #2 dual between Penn State and Iowa.

    For most college wrestlers, even most national title contenders, it’s hard to win matches. It’s hard to score points. Just because you’re a national champion or highly-ranked wrestler, you can’t just score at will against top-notch competition.

    Part of what took the college wrestling scene by storm during the initial run of team titles from Penn State was the ability of their two best wrestlers, David Taylor and Ed Ruth, to put bonus points on the board. During Taylor’s first NCAA title run in 2012, he tallied four falls en route to the national finals and a 22-7 tech fall in the championship bout. Ruth had falls in his first two bouts, an 11-4 decision in the quarters, a tech in the semis and a 13-2 major decision in the finals.

    Wrestlers don’t typically post bonus points in the NCAA semis and finals. None of the 2022 NCAA finals featured a match with bonus points. The semis saw two major decisions and a fall. The lone fall came late in regulation during the 174 lb contest between Mekhi Lewis and Logan Massa, which wasn’t a blowout situation, but rather a tightly-contested bout.

    Another factor to think about is the mentality of wrestlers in high-pressure situations. As we get deeper into tournaments, the stakes rise, and wrestlers tend to get more tentative. They focus more on getting the “W” rather than putting on a show. The same goes for a dual meet that pits the top two teams in the nation against each other. As we saw in the 133 lb match, one poor shot/great counter-attack turns a decision into a fall.

    That is why we should appreciate the Spencer’s, Stieber’s, Gable’s, Yianni’s, Zain’s, and Nickal’s other greats when we see them. By the way, Taylor and Gable Steveson don’t even count for our list of 11 three-time national champions since 2012.

    Circling back to Friday’s dual with Penn State and Iowa. I think that the misconception that certain wrestlers are “boring” “too defensive” or “don’t open up enough” or whatever labels they wear, is because their most widely viewed matches are the NCAA semis or finals or a Penn State/Iowa dual. So basically, they have a hard time scoring points in bunches during the most high-pressure situations imaginable against the best competition. Wow, tough crowd!

    What’s more unusual? The best wrestler in the country fighting tooth and nail to get by the second-best wrestler by a point or the best wrestler throttling the second-best wrestler? The former is more common, but we tend to get upset if we don’t see the latter?

    Singling out some of the wrestlers that have garnered such labels in the past (or currently). Penn State’s Roman Bravo-Young and Carter Starocci. For Iowa, let’s use Patrick Kennedy.

    RBY has bonus points in nine of his ten matches this season. The outlier? Dylan Ragusin of Michigan. The two have tangled four times already in their careers, with Bravo-Young winning each. Each time, the margin has gotten closer. That’s natural between talented wrestlers, particularly one like Ragusin that is of All-American caliber and has a top-notch coaching situation.

    Last year, RBY had a bonus point rate of almost 55%. Aside from the unicorns of the wrestling world like Nickal, Taylor, and Ruth, that’s pretty freaking good. Digging deeper into those numbers, three of his decisions came against Austin DeSanto. The two wrestled eight times throughout their careers and DeSanto was always a title contender. It seems natural to think they’ll wrestle one-takedown matches during bouts, six, seven, and eight.

    Ok, now throw in two more decisions against Ragusin, who we’ve already discussed. Another decision against Michael McGee (6-2). A four-point win against the eventual fourth-place finisher, seems about right to me. The two outliers in the group were an 11-5 win over Joey Olivieri and an 8-3 victory over Jason Shaner in his season debut. 11-5, in my opinion, is generally not a close match and you put up 11 points. I’m not sure about the Shaner match, but it could be his first time down to weight, but again, he scored eight points.

    And finally, we have the NCAA finals bout against a Senior world medalist in Daton Fix. Sorry, he didn’t score more than three points. By the way, Fix hasn’t lost a collegiate bout to an opponent other than RBY since 2019.

    Moving on to Starocci. He’s scored bonus points in 9 of 11 matches this year. Starocci’s two decision wins were the only time he’s been held under double digits (excluding pins, which are great). Both of Starocci’s decision wins were in duals against the #2 and #3 teams in the country. I’m sure wrestlers want to win, but they also want to limit damage and risk in such tightly contested duals.

    Looking back at Starocci’s 2021-22 season, he had a slightly higher bonus rate than Bravo-Young. And Starocci’s decisions. 10-3 over Hayden Hidlay. Come on! Hidlay only gave up ten points three times in his career. Once came in a wild NCAA consolation loss to Jacori Teemer (18-12) and the other time was when he narrowly missed a tech fall (26-12).

    Others that don’t concern me: 6-1 over Mikey Labriola, 10-3 over Adam Kemp, both at the NCAA Tournament. How about two close wins over Logan Massa? A tiebreaker win over Michael Kemerer in Carver-Hawkeye Arena?

    Another that can be easily explained is a 3-2 victory over Chris Foca at the 2021 Collegiate Duals. Foca has proven to be, when healthy, a high All-American threat and has given Mekhi Lewis fits the last two years.

    The only outlier for Starocci is an 8-3 win over Dom Solis of Maryland. Again, he scored eight points.

    Now, let’s move over to Iowa and Patrick Kennedy. Generally, when perusing a box score and you see a 2-1 win in tiebreakers that usually can elicit an “Ewww.” But watching Friday’s match, Kennedy was the aggressor and extremely close to a pair of takedowns. One might have even been a takedown as he locked up a cradle. Give Alex Facundo some credit for his defensive wizardry. By the way, both have plenty of eligibility left, so they might be in some low-scoring bouts for years to come.

    During Kennedy’s most recent loss, he fell to Dean Hamiti in a contest that featured great flurries and some situations with scoring potential.

    For the rest of Kennedy’s season, he put up double-digits in eight of his 13 wins; along with two pins and a 9-6 decision.

    The lesson with Kennedy’s matches is “Don’t be a sucker for reading box scores.” Just because it wasn’t 14-12, doesn’t mean there wasn’t action. For our other examples, I’d advise critics to check out these wrestlers WrestleStat pages. Look at their entire seasons and careers, who they wrestled and when.

    I’ll say it. The Penn State/Iowa dual was kind of a dud (action-wise), based on the prematch hype and the talent on both sides. That being said, there shouldn’t be a rush to judgment about certain wrestlers being boring or sweeping changes needed to revamp the entire sport and its scoring. I’m always open to listening to suggestions, but don’t lose your mind over one match.

    What I’d recommend is appreciating the unicorns that can put up bonus points against All-Americans and throughout the NCAA tournament. Remember they are extremely rare.

    At the same time, don’t think less of the other great wrestlers that we have just because they can’t score at will against great competition. Pay attention to all of their matches. Maybe they don’t score ten points a match against an opponent from Iowa, but they likely do against an unranked, non-conference opponent.

    Love the unicorns, but appreciate the greats, too.

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