Top seeded 174 lber Austin Murphy (photos courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
2022 SoCon Championships Preview
15 total allocations/13 total allocations in 2021
What if I told you the best team race of the weekend may not take place in the Big Ten or the Big 12? Since it isn't in the midwest, maybe at the University of Virginia with the ACC? Nope, correct right, but wrong tournament. Try the Southern Conference, otherwise known as the SoCon. In what has become one of the best rivalries in college wrestling, Appalachian State and Campbell will duke it out for conference supremacy. The Mountaineers got the best of the Camels this year in dual action, but Campbell has won the last three straight SoCon tournaments. With so much talk about Campbell and Appalachian State, we might be overlooking traditional power, Chattanooga. The Mocs have a team that will fare well in the tournament and likely crown multiple champions. If they can pull an upset or two, Chattanooga could be in the mix and not "just" play spoiler.
Below is our weight-by-weight preview of the action, along with predictions for top-four finishers at all ten weights, and a team race projection. Wrestlers bolded are ones that we have pegged to receive the automatic qualifying bids available in their respective weight class.
When: March 5th, 2022
Where: Boone, North Carolina
How to Watch: ESPN+
Right off that bat, we've got an interesting weight class here and one that we need to monitor over the weekend. With three ranked wrestlers, two of whom have prior NCAA experience, and only two automatic qualifying spots, something has to give. A perfect mark in the SoCon and a #24 ranking nationally has Fabian Gutierrez (Chattanooga) as the top seed and in the driver's seat towards claiming a trip to Detroit. Gutierrez has a pair of wins over the second-seed #25 Caleb Smith (Appalachian State). One came in dual meet competition and the other where Gutierrez finished sixth (and Smith fifth due to a medical forfeit) at the Southern Scuffle.
In his first year as a starter for the Mountaineers, Smith seized the job early with a title at the Keystone Classic. There he defeated Penn's #23 Ryan Miller, which was one of his best quality victories of the year. The most significant win for Smith came against #29 Korbin Meink (Campbell) in the final bout of Appalachian State's dual with the Camels. A takedown in sudden victory clinched the win for his team. A rematch with Meink in the semis is looming. Meink is a two-time SoCon champion looking to add a third title to his collection. While he fell in their 2021-22 dual meet, Meink's 2020 title came at Gutierrez's expense.
There's a clear drop-off between the top-three and the rest of the field. Aeyden Concepcion (Gardner-Webb) gets the fourth seed and has a pair of conference wins under his belt. The same can be said for fifth-seeded Malik Hardy (The Citadel), though he is one of Concepcion's victims.
Hopefully, nothing too crazy happens at the other qualifiers and an at-large berth is handed out here.
1st) Fabian Gutierrez (Chattanooga)
2nd) Korbin Meink (Campbell)
3rd) Caleb Smith (Appalachian State)
4th) Aedyn Concepcion (Gardner-Webb)
Tennessee native #18 Brayden Palmer spent his first two years of college at Clarion, but has returned home to Chattanooga and flourished for the Mocs in 2021-22. Palmer sports a 22-6 record and turned heads by grabbing third place at the Southern Scuffle. At the Scuffle, Palmer downed three wrestlers with prior NCAA experience. Since then, he's gone 10-2 with wins over three ranked opponents. Now, Palmer doesn't have a perfect conference record, as he was defeated the second week of the year by Kyle Gorant (Davidson); however, that was before he gained much-needed confidence at the Scuffle. One of Palmers, opponents at the Scuffle and in dual action, was #30 Codi Russell (Appalachian State), a two-time SoCon champion (once at 125 and once at 133). During their last meeting, Russell managed to close the gap, a bit, losing by a mere point, after falling by five at the Scuffle.
Next in line is Todd Carter (Gardner-Webb), who has beaten everyone in the league, not named Palmer or Russell. Carter is one of GWU's more improved wrestlers, as he was 6-13 as a true freshman last year and is currently 11-8. He comes into the postseason riding a four-match winning streak. An 8-3 win over Gorant gives Carter the third seed. Gorant has five conference wins in his favor this year, including one over Dom Zaccone (Campbell). That leaves Zaccone as the fifth seed and likely sets the stage for a rematch.
1st) Brayden Palmer (Chattanooga)
2nd) Codi Russell (Appalachian State)
3rd) Dom Zaccone (Campbell)
4th) Todd Carter (Gardner-Webb)
With only one allocation available at 141 lbs, expect the action to be intense here as there are a couple of wrestlers that are worthy of a trip to nationals. Since there are limited (by their standards) bids available in the Big Ten at this weight, that might negatively impact the wrestlers here.
The top seed is #29 Shannon Hanna (Campbell), who was perfect in SoCon action this year. Beyond that, his win over Danny Moran (Lehigh) was instrumental in Campbell's dual victory over the Mountain Hawks in week one. Hanna is looking to build upon his runner-up finish in the conference in 2021. He'll face a stiff challenge from Heath Gonyer (Appalachian State). The two met in the school's heated dual and Hanna prevailed in sudden victory. Gonyer has stepped into the starting role and flourished after an injury to 2021 conference champ Anthony Brito. His loss in extra time to Hanna was his only post-Scuffle.
Also rolling into the postseason is Trevon Majette (Gardner-Webb), who is riding a six-match winning streak. Like Hanna, Majette is a former Old Dominion wrestler, though they were not teammates. Majette gets the three seed over Franco Valdes (Chattanooga), likely due to a better regular-season record, as the pair did not meet this season. Last year they met and Valdes prevailed via major decision.
Typically, App State tends to have a surprise champion or two at this event, so I think Gonyer reversed the dual result in the final against Hanna.
1st) Heath Gonyer (Appalachian State)
2nd) Shannon Hanna (Campbell)
3rd) Franco Valdes (Chattanooga)
4th) Trevon Majette (Gardner-Webb)
The headline weight class in the SoCon is 149 lbs which features a pair of top-ten wrestlers in #4 Jonathan Millner (Appalachian State) and #9 Josh Heil (Campbell). Millner is the highest-ranked SoCon wrestler at any weight and is the lone, returning NCAA All-American in the conference. In his first appearance of the year, Millner fell to a returning AA (Kyle Parco - Arizona State), but since has reeled off 14 consecutive wins. That streak spanned a title at the Keystone Classic and a 6-0 win over MAC favorite, #23 Alex Madrigal (George Mason). Millner is looking to continue his dominance over the conference, as he hasn't lost to a SoCon foe since the 2018-19 season. Heil is looking to get on the NCAA podium for the first time after qualifying four times and being named an NWCA First-Team All-American in 2020. His best performance this year came at the MatMen Open, capturing a title with a win over #5 Austin Gomez (Wisconsin). Heil will try to get in the win column over Millner as he's currently 0-2 against the Mountaineer.
Behind the big two at 149 is freshman Noah Castillo (Chattanooga), who may be more talking about, in terms of receiving an at-large berth, if we were in a more "normal" year without sixth-year seniors. Castillo has acquitted himself well against Millner/Heil and has generally dominated the rest of the league. He comes in fresh off a win over Indiana's national qualifier Graham Rooks in the season finale.
Another solid, under-the-radar season at this weight has been turned in by Gavin Damasco (Davidson). Damasco picked up a win in the Campbell dual (over Chris Rivera) and has only lost to Millner in SoCon action. He did prevail in a nail-biter over the #7 seed Ethan Willis (The Citadel), so there could be plenty of competition for that fourth spot, along with Brandon Bright (Gardner-Webb) and Reid Stewart (Presbyterian).
1st) Jonathan Millner (Appalachian State)
2nd) Josh Heil (Campbell)
3rd) Noah Castillo (Chattanooga)
4th) Gavin Damasco (Davidson)
Even though there are a pair of SoCon wrestlers in the national rankings with #27 Dazjon Casto (The Citadel) and #28 Cody Bond (Appalachian State), only Casto locked up an allocation for the conference. Casto had a big out-of-conference win over #14 Justin Thomas (Oklahoma) at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational and has a 16-6 record overall. Both he and Bond are unbeaten in SoCon competition this year, as they did not hit in dual action. At the Scuffle, Bond pinned Casto's teammate, Aidan Lenz. The 2021 SoCon champion, Bond, has been dominant against the rest of the league. None of his SoCon opponents held him to less than a major decision.
A wild card here is JoJo Aragona (Campbell), less than three years removed from being considered one of the top-ten recruits in the country. Aragona transferred from Rutgers mid-year and only saw action in two duals, one a win over Bryce Sanderlin (Davidson) and the other a major decision loss to Bond. With more time in the Campbell room, Aragona may make Bond's life difficult in the semis.
After Aragona is a pair of wrestlers with winning records in Lincoln Heck (Chattanooga) and Sanderlin. Heck was only limited to 14 matches this year, but posted a couple of good results, defeating Wade Unger (Duke) and Derek Gilcher (Indiana). Sanderlin has been very consistent for the Wildcats and owns a win over the Mocs previous starter Weston Wichman.
1st) Cody Bond (Appalachian State)
2nd) Dazjon Casto (The Citadel)
3rd) Lincoln Heck (Chattanooga)
4th) JoJo Aragona (Campbell)
There's a bit of a problem at 165 lbs since there are four past NCAA qualifiers vying for two automatic bids. Drew Nicholson (Chattanooga) is the returning conference champion at this weight and is undefeated in conference competition. Nicholson did not earn an allocation for the conference and is outside of the national rankings based on a few out-of-conference losses, but his best win over the year came against #19 Will Formato (Appalachian State). Last year, Formato was unbeaten in the conference (with a win over Nicholson), but needed to get an at-large berth for nationals. This season, Formato is 19-5 with a pair of wins over Thomas Bullard (NC State). He'll want to get that win back.
After the top two seeds are Rodrick Mosley (Gardner-Webb) and Selwyn Porter (The Citadel). Both have qualified for nationals in the past. Mosley has a pair of agonizingly close losses to both of the top two seeds this year, both in tiebreakers. Against Porter, he was able to get by with a win in sudden victory. Porter was a Navy Classic finalist this year and had bonus point wins versus the rest of the conference.
If there's anyone that could break into the top-four, it could be sixth-seeded Troy Nation (Campbell). His record isn't flashy, at 6-4, but he's wrestled a strong schedule and owns a win over Lehigh's national qualifier Brian Meyer (Lehigh).
1st) Will Formato (Appalachian State)
2nd) Drew Nicholson (Chattanooga)
3rd) Rodrick Mosley (Gardner-Webb)
4th) Selwyn Porter (The Citadel)
Here is another problematic weight class as #24 Austin Murphy (Campbell) and #28 Thomas Flitz (Appalachian State) are nationally ranked, but neither earned an allocation for the conference. There is just one automatic/champions bid available. Murphy is the defending SoCon champion at 174 lbs and defeated Flitz in the finals. Like this year, there was only one automatic spot available for the conference; however, Flitz was given an at-large berth. In their recent dual, Flitz turned the tables and pulled out a 2-1 win over Murphy, which allows for him to receive the top-seed here. Earlier this week, as ACC seeds were revealed, most revisited Flitz's dual victory over the tournament's top-seed #8 Clay Lautt (North Carolina).
Next in line is Carial Tarter (Chattanooga), the third seed. Tarter has losses to the two top seeds, but a clean conference resume, otherwise. In fact, he hung close with Murphy, losing 3-1, and likely will have another shot in the semifinals. The fourth and fifth seeds belong to Evan Schenk (Gardner-Webb) and Jon Hoover (VMI), respectively. Hoover actually has a head-to-head win over Schenk, but the Running Bulldog has a slightly better overall body of work.
1st) Austin Murphy (Campbell)
2nd) Thomas Flitz (Appalachian State)
3rd) Carial Tarter (Chattanooga)
4th) Jon Hoover (VMI)
The 184 lb SoCon champ from a year ago, #26 Caleb Hopkins (Campbell), is back and the favorite to repeat. In his first national tournament, Hopkins went 1-2 with a win over the Big Ten's Zac Braunagel (Illinois). He comes in with a perfect 5-0 record against SoCon opponents and was 14-4 overall. All four of those losses came to quality competition from the ACC. Now Hopkins did get pushed in the Camels dual with App State by Barrett Blakely, who will be the fourth seed here. That could make for an interesting semifinal and a match that could be extremely important in the team race.
The second seed belongs to Thomas Sell (Chattanooga), who pulled out a win in sudden victory over Blakely and pinned 2021 NCAA qualifier Jha'Quan Anderson (Gardner-Webb). That was one of six falls on the year for Sell. Anderson did not see Murphy this year, but has a 5-3 win over Blakely. Another entrant that could do some damage here is Gavin Henry (Davidson). Henry did not meet Blakely, but did grab a win against his teammate Brett Mordecai.
1st) Caleb Hopkins (Campbell)
2nd) Thomas Sell (Chattanooga)
3rd) Jha'Quan Anderson (Gardner-Webb)
4th) Gavin Henry (Davidson)
Once again, we have two past national qualifiers in a weight where only one NCAA allocation is up for grabs. The top seed belongs to two-time SoCon champion Chris Kober (Campbell). Kober split time with Levi Hopkins for the bulk of the year, but has emerged as the man for head coach Scotti Sentes' team. In fact, Kober defeated Hopkins 7-1 for seventh place at the MatMen Open. In the massive dual with Appalachian State, Kober was pushed to extra time by Wyatt Miller, before prevailing 3-1. Miller is the sixth seed, so it's unlikely the two meet again.
Seeded second is two-time national qualifier Matthew Waddell (Chattanooga). Waddell spent the first four-plus years of his career at 184 lbs, before moving up in mid-January. That change ended up being productive as Waddell went 7-1 at the higher weight. He had struggled to a 7-9 record at 184. Waddell lost a close one to Hopkins, but was generally dominant against the rest of the league. In order to get a rematch with Hopkins, he'd have to go through the third seed Tyler Mousaw (VMI). While Waddell was able to pin Mousaw, it's the Mousaw who typically does the pinning. Since arriving at VMI, Mousaw has eight falls in his 23 wins.
Kober also has Anthony Perrine (Gardner-Webb) and Finlay Holston (Davidson) on his side as the fourth and fifth seeds. Both have winning records and neither is an easy out.
1st) Matthew Waddell (Chattanooga)
2nd) Chris Kober (Campbell)
3rd) Tyler Mousaw (VMI)
4th) Anthony Perrine (Gardner-Webb)
We finish with a pair of allocations available for the big men, although three may be an optimal number. A SoCon runner-up in 2021, #25 Taye Ghadiali (Campbell) has built off of that momentum and more this season. He only has a pair of losses, both to top-15 opponents, and a handful of quality wins. Ghadiali has wins over two of NC State's triumvirate of talented heavys, with Tyrie Houghton and 2021 ACC champ, Deonte Wilson. Ghadiali also has a decisive victory over the opponent that defeated him for the conference title in 2021, #29 Michael McAleavey (The Citadel). McAleavey had an excellent year, himself, placing top-eight at both the CKLV Invitational and the Scuffle. At the Scuffle, he split matches with the "other" NC State 285 lber, Owen Trephan.
There are some quality heavyweight here after the two ranked wrestlers with third-seeded Michael Burchell (Appalachian State) and Mitchell Trigg (Davidson), the fourth seed. Burchell was 17-9 this year, but didn't get to match up with McAleavey. He did face Trigg and prevailed via fall. Trigg wrestled McAleavey to a one-point bout and shutout Campbell's Luke Davis, 6-0, in dual meet competition.
1st) Taye Ghadiali (Campbell)
2nd) Michael McAleavey (The Citadel)
3rd) Michael Burchell (Appalachian State)
4th) Mitchell Trigg (Davidson)
2) Appalachian State
5) The Citadel