Rutgers All-American Sebastian Rivera (top) (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
We've only got one week left in the college wrestling season, so it's time to revisit our Hodge Trophy standings. Each week, for the last month, little-by-little wrestlers have dropped from the ranks of the unbeaten, basically eliminating themselves from the Hodge Trophy discussion. While an unbeaten record isn't the â€œbe-all, end-all,â€ you have to go back to Brent Metcalf (Iowa) in 2007-08 to find a Hodge Trophy winner without a perfect mark. With the kind of competition expected for the award this season, having a loss along the way is probably a deal-breaker.
Before we meet the candidates, revisit the actual Hodge criteria:
2. Number of Pins
4. Past Credentials
5. Quality of Competition
So, as we consider the criteria for the award and the voting tendencies of past Hodge races, we present the top-seven list of 2021-22 Hodge Trophy candidates.
7) David Carr (Iowa State) - 16-0; 69% Bonus Points, 4 falls; 4 techs
The returning 157 lb national champion is looking as good as ever, with a bonus point rate that is slightly higher than in 2021, when he was a finalist for the award. His fall number has already matched his total from last season. Carr is on a 47-match winning streak with one more regular-season bout looming against Missouri on Wednesday. Barring a loss between now and the NCAA Tournament, Carr will surely go into nationals as the #1 seed, something that was different from a year ago. Then he was the third seed. Either way, he'll likely have to contend with two-time Big Ten champion Ryan Deakin (Northwestern), who is responsible for Carr's only loss of his collegiate career.
Though it's totally coincidental and has no bearing on the award or voting, no 157 lber has ever won the Hodge.
6) Carter Starocci (Penn State) - 14-0; 71% Bonus Points; 2 falls; 5 techs
Once again, we have another returning champion who is currently undefeated in Carter Starocci. What Starocci has going for him is the star power atop the 174 lb weight class. He avenged a loss to Michael Kemerer (Iowa) in the 2021 Big Ten finals, by downing Kemerer in the NCAA title match. A few weeks ago, Starocci held on by the slimmest of margins to get by Kemerer in tiebreakers. To win another title, Starocci will likely have to beat the Hawkeye at least once, maybe twice. Looking past Kemerer, the weight class also features a pair of past NCAA finalists in #3 Mekhi Lewis (Virginia Tech) and #4 Hayden Hidlay (NC State). Both are currently unbeaten, though they are set to square off Sunday. Should Starocci run through this gauntlet without a loss, he should get strong consideration. He has almost tripled his bonus point from his redshirt freshman year, which was 25%.
5) Yianni Diakomihalis (Cornell) - 18-0; 72% Bonus Points, 5 falls; 5 techs
In our last update, Yianni Diakomiahlis was curiously not included in our top-ten candidates. At the time, Diakomiahlis did not have a single fall, which is paramount for this award. Since then, Yianni has hit the Ivy League portion of his schedule, which is not as imposing at 149 lbs. He's capitalized with five falls and a tech since. What Diakomihalis has going for him is the past credentials criteria. He is the only two-time champion returning and is currently riding a 65-match winning streak. Yianni also has made a Senior World team while still active in college. Though these are incredible achievements, they typically haven't been factored in as much for past winners until their senior seasons (Dake, Stieber, Dieringer). One criterion that could work for and against Yianni is the â€œquality of competition.â€ 149 lbs isn't entirely as loaded with title contenders as some other weights. Aside from a meeting with Sammy Sasso (Ohio State), there aren't multiple title contenders like at 141, 165, 174, that make for a memorable, meatgrinder bracket. Now, the flip-side is that guys at those weights have a higher probability for a loss, which generally knocks you out of consideration.
4) Aaron Brooks (Penn State) - 14-0; 71% Bonus Points, 3 falls; 1 tech
Aaron Brooks has pretty similar stats to his teammate, Carter Starocci. He'll also have to contend with a legit title contender at the Big Ten and possibly NCAA finals in Myles Amine (Michigan). Brooks last month against quality, conference competitors has been staggering. He has majored All-American's Taylor Venz (Nebraska) and John Poznanski (Rutgers), along with top-20 fixtures Kyle Cochran (Maryland) and DJ Washington (Indiana). His dominance of such high-caliber competition separates him from Starocci and others. We also have to think about PSU having multiple candidates, which could lead to a split-vote situation if Brooks, Starocci, Nick Lee, and Roman Bravo-Young all repeat as champions.
3) Keegan O'Toole (Missouri) - 16-0; 81% Bonus Points; 6 falls; 2 techs
In the purest sense of the award, Keegan O'Toole may be your favorite if we did a blind resume test. Without the name and career achievements of Yianni or Gable, O'Toole may put together the most Hodge-worthy campaign of any of these contenders. O'Toole leads all of our finalists with six falls and has an 81% bonus point rate, which is excellent. Like Starocci, O'Toole has a deep weight class which could either help or hinder his chances. Getting by a potential NCAA field that includes a quarterfinal against #7 Anthony Valencia (Arizona State), combined with a semifinal against #3 Shane Griffith (Stanford)/#6 Dean Hamiti (Wisconsin), before a final facing #1 Evan Wick (Cal Poly)/#4 Carson Kharchla (Ohio State)/#5 Alex Marinelli (Iowa), is quite impressive. Now there's the chance that any of them could knock off O'Toole. Until then, the Tiger should be able to pad his bonus numbers in the early rounds of the Big 12 and NCAA Championships.
2) Sebastian Rivera (Rutgers) - 21-0; 86% Bonus Points, 2 falls; 11 techs
Along with O'Toole, the Hodge candidate getting the most buzz surrounding his 2021-22 output is Sebastian Rivera. His bonus point percentage leads everyone on this list, not named Gable Steveson. Last year, Rivera may not have been a full-sized 141 lber and his results were good, just a little below his typical standards. In 2021-22, they have taken off. Over the course of Rivera's career, his best bonus percentage came in 2018-19, when he finished at 59%. Last season it dipped to 33%.
So for Rivera to garner serious consideration for the award, he'll have to capture the title at 141 lbs. That's a tall task considering returning champ, Nick Lee (Penn State) is currently ranked number one and Jaydin Eierman (Iowa) is right behind him. Last season, Rivera dropped both contests against Lee, though one came in sudden victory. As stated earlier, it looks like Rivera is on a different level anyways. A senior, winning an elusive national title and having to go through some version of Lee/Eierman multiple times and a gaudy bonus point percentage would make plenty of voters think twice before casting votes.
1) Gable Steveson (Minnesota) - 10-0; 100% Bonus Points, 1 fall; 3 techs
Nothing has changed at the top of our Hodge Trophy rankings as Gable Steveson is still number one. Steveson has finished the regular season undefeated and with bonus points in all ten of his contests. Despite the lack of matches, Steveson has wrestled the highest quality competition possible. He has wins over #3 Mason Parris (Michigan), #4 Tony Cassioppi (Iowa), #10 Lucas Davison (Northwestern), #11 Trent Hillger (Wisconsin), #12 Christian Lance (Nebraska), #13 Tate Orndorff (Ohio State). His closest match during this time was a nine-point win over Davison. As always, putting up those types of numbers at heavyweight should carry more weight (pardon the pun).
The biggest positive factor for Steveson's side is his Olympic gold medal. That doesn't happen everyday in college wrestling! He also shared the trophy in 2021 with Spence Lee, which also adds to his list of â€œpast credentials.â€ Like 2021, his other achievements should overshadow a lack of falls. In 2021, he only had four in 15 total matches. And that was before he had the Olympic gold on his resume.