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  • Photo: Photo/Tony Rotundo

    Photo: Photo/Tony Rotundo

    Previewing featured match in every weight class this weekend

    Yianni Diakomihalis defeated Josh Alber twice last season (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)

    The marquee bout this week is a showdown of the last two wrestlers to win a national title at 174 pounds. Obviously a lot of interest will be directed at the bout between No. 1 Zahid Valencia (Arizona State) and No. 2 Mark Hall (Penn State), but there are plenty of other intriguing matches this weekend. The following looks at the best matches by weight class.

    125: No. 4 Nick Piccininni (Oklahoma State) vs. No. 16 Rico Montoya (Northern Colorado)
    Where/When: Oklahoma State at Northern Colorado on Sunday, Dec. 16

    Piccininni is starting at 125 pounds for the third straight year for the Cowboys. His junior season is off to a strong start. He has won all seven of his matches including a decision victory over returning NCAA qualifier No. 5 Sean Russell (Minnesota). Of his seven victories, Piccininni has picked up bonus points in six. In his last match, he notched a 56-second fall over Zach Atencio (Oklahoma) in the Bedlam dual.

    After winning the Northern Colorado Open in early November, Montoya sat out until returning to action last weekend. After competing at 133 pounds last year and qualifying for the NCAA tournament, he is down in weight this year. On Sunday, he split a pair of matches with a technical fall over Cliff Conway (VMI) and his first loss of the season against Dylan Ryder (Hofstra). On Monday, Montoya got back on track with a major decision over Joe Manchio (Columbia).

    Montoya is a sort of wildcard after dropping down in weight. However, Piccininni should be the clear favorite in this match. At this point, his offensive arsenal is much too diverse and persistent. However, if Montoya is able to make this a match, it could signal that he could contend for All-America honors at the end of the year.

    Prediction: Piccininni (Oklahoma State) maj. dec. Montoya (Northern Colorado)

    133: No. 19 Matthew Schmitt (West Virginia) vs. No. 6 Micky Phillippi (Pittsburgh)
    Where/When: West Virginia at Pittsburgh on Saturday, Dec. 15

    Schmitt has been out of the lineup since early November, so it is entirely possible that he does not start here for the Mountaineers. In his last action, the returning NCAA qualifier won the Hokie Open. Along the way, he bested Zach Sherman (North Carolina) via a 3-1 decision.

    This is Phillippi's first year in the lineup for Pittsburgh after transferring from Virginia. He announced himself as a player in the 133-pound division with a strong showing at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational. At the tournament, he scored victories over No. 18 Cam Sykora (NDSU), No. 8 Ethan Lizak (Minnesota) and No. 7 Luke Pletcher (Ohio State) before eventually falling against returning finalist No. 3 Nick Suriano (Rutgers).

    It is questionable if Schmitt even wrestles this match since he has not wrestled in over a month. If he does, this instantly becomes an intriguing match. Even though he dropped 14 matches last year, he showed that he could give a high quality wrestler a tough test. The smart money is on Phillippi due to his recent momentum, but he will need to show that his Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational performance was not just a good run.

    Prediction: Phillippi (Pittsburgh) dec. Schmitt (West Virginia)

    141: No. 1 Yianni Diakomihalis (Cornell) vs. No. 10 Josh Alber (Northern Iowa)
    Where/When: Cornell at Northern Iowa on Saturday, Dec. 15

    Last season Diakomihalis won an NCAA title as a true freshman with a torn ACL. Over the offseason, he had surgery to correct the injury. He returned for the first time season at the Mat Town Open where he won first place. However, he has been out of action since late November. This should be his first big test of the season.

    Alber has started his senior season with an 11-3 record, but he has gone only 1-3 against ranked competition. His lone victory over ranked wrestler came over Nicholas Gil (Navy) at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational. Last weekend, Alber won the UNI Open where he picked up a victory over veteran and NCAA qualifier Vince Turk (Iowa).

    Diakomihalis was able to defeat Alber twice last season, and he only surrendered four points total across the two bouts. Obviously, he should be able to take care of business if he is healthy. This remains his biggest test of the season, and it will go a long way to show that he is rounding back into championship form.

    Prediction: Diakomihalis (Cornell) dec. Alber (Northern Iowa)

    149: No. 11 Josh Maruca (Arizona State) vs. No. 12 Brady Berge (Penn State)
    Where/When: Arizona State at Penn State on Friday, Dec. 14

    In some ways, Maruca has had a tough start to the season. However, his tough schedule has certainly played a role in that. He has dropped three matches, but they have come against No. 19 Cole Martin (Wisconsin), No. 6 Austin O'Connor (North Carolina) and No. 3 Micah Jordan (Ohio State). Maruca's only ranked win this season came against No. 18 Henry Pohlmeyer (South Dakota State) over a month ago.

    Berge wrestled sparingly last year during his redshirt season, and so far that trend has continued this year. He opened his season at the Keystone Classic and defeated his teammate Jarod Verkleeren before dropping out via medical forfeit. Since then, he has only wrestled once and picked up a technical fall victory over Joey Schiele (Bucknell). Berge has some big shoes to fill as he is filling in for multiple-time NCAA champion Zain Retherford. He certainly has the talent to finish as an All-American, but he will need to overcome injuries and solidly make the weight.

    While Maruca has suffered more losses on the year, he has faced the much tougher schedule. It will be interesting to see if Penn State sends out Berge. If he wants to find himself on the podium this season, he will need to pick up victories over guys like Maruca. If Berge is healthy and has his weight under control, he has the talent to win, but it might be too much too soon.

    Prediction: Maruca (Arizona State) dec. Berge (Penn State)

    157: Zachary Moore (West Virginia) vs. No. 10 Taleb Rahmani (Pittsburgh)
    Where/When: West Virginia at Pittsburgh on Saturday, Dec. 15

    Moore has started his junior season with an 8-2 record. At the Journeymen Collegiate Classic, he nearly knocked off No. 17 Lucas Weiland (Army), but he ultimately fell after giving up a takedown in sudden victory. In his last match, he got back on track in a big way with a first-period fall over Pat Schoenfelder (Northern Iowa).

    Rahmani went 18-14 last season, but he has shot up the rankings due to a 9-2 decision victory over No. 11 Kennedy Monday (North Carolina) at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational. In the same bracket, he also dropped matches against No.7 Ke-Shawn Hayes (Ohio State) and No. 9 Griffin Parriott (Purdue), but Rahmani showed flashes of brilliance that have given Pittsburgh fans a reason to get excited about his prospects this season.

    Without knowing the history, this might appear to be a one-sided match in favor of Rahmani. However, the two have already wrestled twice in their collegiate careers. The Pittsburgh wrestler pinned Moore last December, but eight days later the West Virginia wrestler took home a 3-1 decision. Moore won by staying fundamental and stifling Rahmani's offense. Don't expect that to happen here. Even in his losses this year, Rahmani has been able to get to his leg attacks. Look for him to score early and often in this bout.

    Prediction: Rahmani (Pittsburgh) dec. Moore (West Virginia)

    165: No. 6 Isaiah White (Nebraska) vs. No. 18 Thomas Bullard (NC State)
    Where/When: Nebraska at NC State on Sunday, Dec. 16

    White's season has already been an adventure. He started the season with a 1-3 record, which included losses against No. 17 Cam Coy (Virginia) and No. 15 Ebed Jarrell (Drexel). However, he bounced back in a major way at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational. He won the tournament, and along the way he defeated No. 14 Joey Gunther (Illinois), No. 8 Mekhi Lewis (Virginia Tech) and No. 7 Logan Massa (Michigan).

    Bullard was an NCAA qualifier two seasons ago before redshirting last season. So far this year, he has gotten off to an 8-1 start with his only defeat coming against No. 3 Chance Marsteller (Lock Haven). In those eight victories, he has scored five falls.

    Prediction: White (Nebraska) dec. Bullard (NC State)

    174: No. 1 Zahid Valencia (Arizona State) vs. No. 2 Mark Hall (Penn State)
    Where/When: Arizona State at Penn State on Friday, Dec. 14

    The match between the last two NCAA champions at 174 pounds would obviously be the marquee bout of the weekend. Two seasons ago, Hall defeated Valencia in 4-3 in the national semifinals. In last year's final, Valencia returned the favor and knocked off Hall 8-2. In between those matches, Valencia also defeated Hall in an exhibition match at last season's All-Star Classic.

    Valencia has started his junior season with an undefeated 9-0 record with six falls. Hall is also undefeated at 7-0 with a victory over No. 6 Jordan Kutler (Lehigh)

    Valencia has shown that he has the recipe to beat Hall. He comes forward with a high pace and shoots and shoots and shoots. Halls has had an entire offseason to make changes to his game, but until he shows that he can hang with Valencia's determination in neutral, the Arizona State wrestler remains the favorite.

    Prediction: Valencia (Arizona State) dec. Hall (Penn State)

    184: No. 3 Taylor Venz (Nebraska) vs. No. 5 Nick Reenan (NC State)
    Where/When: Nebraska at NC State on Sunday, Dec. 16

    Outside of a loss against No. 1 Myles Martin (Ohio State), Venz has won all of his matches this season. He already has a pair of ranked victories on the season as he has bested No. 12 Nino Bonaccorsi (Pittsburgh) and No. 7 Drew Foster (Northern Iowa). As it currently stands, Venz has to be one of the favorites to make the NCAA finals at this weight class.

    Reenan has looked great since returning to the lineup following a redshirt season. Over the summer, he reached Final X before falling against eventual world champion David Taylor. Reenan has started the year 6-0 with a signature win coming over No. 6 Ryan Preisch (Lehigh) at the Journeymen Collegiate Classic. In his last action, he pinned Alan Clothier (Appalachian State) in a little over a minute.

    This match could end up going in multiple directions. Venz's top game is a difference maker, and he could likely ride or turn Reenan. However, Reenan might end up having an advantage on the feet. If he is able to score a takedown in the first period, it would force Venz to try to catch up and take the Cornhusker out of his game.

    Prediction: Reenan (NC State) dec. Venz (Nebraksa)

    197: Martin Mueller (South Dakota State) vs. No. 20 Corey Griego (Oregon State)
    Where/When: South Dakota State at Oregon State on Sunday, Dec. 16

    Mueller was an NCAA qualifier at 184 pounds last season, but he has struggled since moving up in weight. Mueller has gone only 4-4 and lost to No. 7 (Division III) Kobe Woods (Wartburg). Obviously this is not the season he envisioned after moving up to 197, but a win over Griego could get him back on track.

    Griego has had some struggles in his own right this season. He has gone 3-2 and is just barely hanging onto his ranking. He dropped a pair of matches at the Cliff Keen Invitational against Wyatt Koelling (Missouri) and Sawyer Root (The Citadel).

    Neither wrestler has been unable to get any momentum going this season. It is a long season, there is plenty of time to turning it around. A win here could put one of these wrestlers on the path to success. It is likely to be a close and low scoring match, but look for Griego to control the pace and take home the victory.

    Prediction: Griego (Oregon State) dec. Mueller (South Dakota State)

    285: No. 11 Jake Gunning (Buffalo) vs. No. 12 Zach Elam (Missouri)
    Where/When: Buffalo at Missouri on Sunday, Dec. 16

    Gunning is looking for his third straight trip to the NCAA tournament following this season. He dropped his first bout of the year, but he has since won eight straight matches including sudden victory wins over Ben Sullivan (Army) and No. 15 Matt Voss (George Mason).

    Elam joined Missouri this offseason as a top-50 recruit with a silver medal at the 2018 Junior World Championships. He is the latest to try to solve Missouri's seemingly continuous issues at heavyweight. Even though he is only a true freshman and wrestled last season at 220 pounds in high school, he has been able to start 13-1 this year. He already has multiple ranked wins including over No. 17 Chase Singletary (Ohio State), No. 16 Joey Goodhart (Drexel) and No. 13 Demetrius Thomas (Pittsburgh).

    Gunning is at his best when he is using his movement and athleticism to outwork larger heavyweights. That likely will not be an asset against Elam, who shares a lot of the same traits. This could turn out to be much more exciting than the average heavyweight match, but in the end, Elam should be able to will the takedown battle and the match.

    Prediction: Elam (Missouri) dec. Gunning (Buffalo)

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