The West Liberty team at the 2021 NCAA DII National Championships (Photo/West Liberty athletics)
Is it just me, or is it difficult to come up with a great title for an article? Don't get me wrong, sometimes they write themselves, but I just could not come up with something catchy this time. And frankly, this is an important look at the premier dual tournament in the country. The NWCA National Duals tournament is just 262 short days away and it's time to get excited about it. I remember waking up on my wife's birthday last year and wondering why she was not celebrating by bringing me breakfast in bed. Instead, I found her weeping in the kitchen, her entire morning routine in shambles because of a breaking news story. I joined her on our beautiful vinyl plank floor, wailing at an unjust wrestling god as I, too, learned that the NWCA 2021 Multi-Division National Duals Championship had been canceled.
I may be embellishing this story a little, but I am sure that I uttered expletives that had my wife yelling â€œear muffsâ€ at my five-year-old daughter when I heard the news. The 2021 season was just one â€œcanceledâ€ release after another for wrestling fans and this one hurt. There was a silver lining to the season, though, as the NCAA tournament did take place and the athletes were given a chance to compete. More than that, they were also provided an extra year of eligibility that turned the entire season into a â€œdo-over.â€ Which is the route that it looks like the coaches committee initially took in regards to selecting the teams for the 2022 Division II dual tournament.
In theory, inviting all of the teams that were extended welcomes to the 2021 National Dual tournament seems the fairest route. It was through no fault of their own that the opportunity to participate in this great showcase was taken from them. On the merit of their 2019 seasons, they had earned the right to travel to Louisville and battle for the title. The field was stacked with the return of the national champion St. Cloud State and runner-up McKendree. The University of Central Oklahoma, Nebraska-Kearney, Pitt-Johnstown, Notre Dame College, Upper Iowa, and Tiffin all earned their spot based on how they finished the 2019 season in Cleveland, which earned them automatic entry. The application process to fill the bracket was opened and another eight teams made the cut. Gannon, Lindenwood, Mercyhurst, Newberry, Colorado-Mesa, Kutztown, Indianapolis, and Maryville were all in. The bracket was sure to be loaded and the wrestling was going to be a madhouse of talent. Of those programs, only Kutztown University sat out all of 2020, joining much of the PSAC in not competing. Pitt-Johnstown competed in their Super Regional despite skipping the rest of the season, while the rest of the programs wrestled the abbreviated schedule allowed by the pandemic. The fact is that they were robbed of their chance to wrestle each other in the showcase that is National Duals. To right a wrong, they deserved a chance to compete.
Here is where things get a little murky, though. If those are the 16 teams that make the tournament in 2022, it leaves out some excellent programs. You may notice that three squads are missing from that list that just finished in the top-10 of the 2021 NCAA Men's National Wrestling Tournament. Just like those other programs, their athletes have the opportunity to return and compete after the â€œfreeâ€ year. Those teams are just as loaded and deserving of a trip to Louisville to battle for a national dual title. If we extend the â€œmissingâ€ list out to the top-16 finishing teams at the 2021 tournament, six teams are missing from the NWCA tournament right now. But thankfully, there is hope on the horizon.
It appears that the powers that be have recognized how just weird or ridiculous it would be to have a â€œnational championshipâ€ without the best possible teams in attendance. After taking time to reflect and search for solutions, the application process has opened for teams not currently invited. What does that mean for us? MORE WRESTLING! That is correct; the field is going to be expanded. Right now, it is not set in stone how much, but with six top-16 teams still available, the bracket could be as large as 24.
Who is out right now and why they could/should be in (in alphabetical order).
*spoiler alert they all deserve to be in
Ashland University -7th
Ashland had an excellent finish in their first season under new head coach Colt Sponseller, returning to the top-10 and finishing 17 team points ahead of, already in, Colorado-Mesa University. The Eagles could return five All-Americans and six total national qualifiers. Not to mention, they will finally add the talented Drew Weichers to the starting roster after his transfer from Mount Olive. He could jump into the lineup next to Chance Esmont, the redshirt junior who just missed out on qualifying for the national tournament in 2021. Their lineup features an All-American in the lead-off spot, Christian Wellman, who finished fourth. He defeated Josh Portillo, Paxton Rosen, and Isaiah DeLaCerda all in the wrestlebacks to battle back to the consolation finals after losing in the first round. At 149, Carson Speelman reached the quarterfinals before falling to Noah Hermosillo. He fought back and was able to avenge that defeat in the 5th place match earning All-American honors. Daniel Beemer made the 174 semifinals before losing to eventual national champion Abner Romero. His third-place finish shows that he is a contender again next year for a national title. The Eagles have an All-American anchoring their lineup, Tristen Weirich, who is now a three-time AA after his sixth-place finish. This is a great lineup and arguably a top-five dual team. There is no possible way to keep them out.
Colorado School of Mines - 14th
Head coach Austin DeVoe had his Orediggers on the cusp of a top-10 team finish in 2021. They finished just two points shy of breaking through! The Orediggers managed the feat with just two national qualifiers after a tough Super Regional tournament. Big man Weston Hunt fell in the NCAA finals to Kam Teacher, but added falls in two matches along the way. Anderson Salisbury entered the 184 weight class undefeated and after a tough battle through the tournament, managed an eighth-place finish and All-American honors. With their return, much like Findlay, they have a start to a strong dual lineup. Ryan Fidel (174) just missed out on qualifying for the national tournament with the ridiculous changes to the process. He will return and be a force. I also expect 2020 national qualifier, Nolan Funk, to bounce back after a rough 2021. That puts a lot of firepower on the top part of this lineup with studs from 174 through heavyweight. They also have 2019 Round of 12 athlete Skyler Lykins (165) and 2019 qualifier Noah Ottum (149). Sophomore Noah Carter (157) just missed out on his trip to St Louis, and if you look at the athletes they could send out from 149 through heavyweight, this is a team that could do serious damage at a national dual tournament. They have to be in.
Fairmont State University - 16th
It was a historical year for Fairmont State University and head coach Colin Johnston. In just their second season as a program, they crowned a Super Regional champion, and then the icing on the cake, Lukas Martin, won the 149-pound national championship. The sophomore transfer from West Virginia shocked the weight class after beating three of the best to earn his crown. With his return, the Falcons will still need more help to be ready to compete as a full dual lineup. Last season they finished 2-2 with wins over Glenville State and Wheeling. A close loss to West Liberty and a bit of a drubbing at the hands of Davis & Elkins showed that there is work still to be done. Who else in the lineup can make waves? Keep an eye on freshman Noah Kiszka; he put together a 5-1 season with a loss to Caleb Morris that ended his hopes of a trip to St Louis. Cade Moisey should return at 174, while TJ Boyd earned some quality wins at heavyweight. This lineup needs help down low though, hopefully recruiting went well because they need a strong 125 and 133. Nothing drums up interest in a program like its first national champion. And we all know this region has plenty of quality athletes. Looking at the potential rosters of other teams already invited, I say, â€œthey are in.â€
Findlay University - 12th
We knew that Findlay was going to have a solid wrestling team in 2021. They returned national qualifiers Zach Collins (125) and Branson Proudlock (141). And they were getting back their senior All-American leader James Wimer (157). Proudlock earned himself All-American honors in 2021, finishing eighth, while James Wimer surprised no one by finishing as the 2021 national champion. This lineup will feature the three amigos if Wimer takes advantage of the extra year, and those three athletes are a great building block for a good dual team. Head coach Shawn Nelson has some holes to fill in this Roughneck lineup overall, but the cupboard is far from bare. Much like Fairmont State, they have a core to build around and I say, â€œin.â€
Minnesota State University Mankato - 10th
The Mavericks finished 10th this season under the leadership of head coach Jim Makovsky. All three athletes who qualified for the NCAA national tournament finished as All-Americans. Trevor Turiff fell in the 174 national finals to Abner Romero, and if the senior returns, it will be a legitimate national title threat. Seniors Trenton McManus (125) and Kyle Rathman (149) both found their way to the podium as well. McManus finished eighth while Rathman came in at seventh. You have to think that all three of these seniors have a tough decision to make, but if they return, this Mavs lineup is going to be fire. There is help for them though, Brock Luthens (133) returns as well as Kolbe O'Brien (141) and Cooper Siebrecht (157). All three were major contributors during the shortened season, notching very good wins. If they can find a solution at 165 and 184, this lineup gets even stronger. They could return senior Matt Blome at 197 and if he can return to freshman form, he is a national qualifier level talent. Not traditionally a team that heads to this national dual tournament lately, I would love to see them in Louisville. I am crossing my fingers and saying, â€œin.â€
West Liberty University - 4th
Easily the most notable and glaring omission under the original team list, the Hilltoppers are coming off a historic season under second-year head coach Danny Irwin. The highest finish in program history came after the addition of two former Wheeling Jesuit national champions to an already solid young lineup. West Liberty finished fourth, just a half a point behind Lindenwood University in an exciting team race that came down to the 184-pound match finish. West Liberty left the building with four All-Americans, three of them finalists. No school crowned more national champions than the Hilltoppers with two and only St. Cloud State had more athletes reach the finals. This lineup will return all four All-Americans, including national champion Cole Laya (125) and two-time champion Tyler Warner (133). Connor Craig (184) could return after his runner-up finish, and the 2019 national champion remains a title threat. They also bring back All-American big man Francesco Borsellino who finished seventh. National qualifiers Chase Morgan (165) and Logan Kemp (197) are essential parts of the lineup and for the senior Kemp, when healthy, he's one of the best in the country. Ty McGeary (174) showed why he was such a great transfer grab as well; he notched big wins and only a loss to All-American Dan Beemer at the Super Regional kept him from reaching the national tournament. There are a few holes in this lineup that need athletes to step up in 2022 to give them a real shot at ending St. Cloud's win streak, but Irwin always seems to find an athlete or two in the transfer portal. West Liberty is a better tournament than a dual team, but there is no way they are not deserving of a trip to the NWCA tournament in Louisville. If they are not â€œin,â€ I am crying foul.
This tournament is where St. Cloud State's winning streak could come to an end. It nearly happened in 2020 when Central Oklahoma University pushed them to the limit, but 2022 will present the Huskies with a host of challengers. Their undoing could come at the hands of one of these teams trying to make the tournament, but only if they are given a chance. I look forward to making my way to Kentucky for the first time and watching some great wrestling while there.