After Saturday the Senior World team is intact and we’ll have 11 wrestlers making their Senior World debuts in Belgrade, Serbia in September. Here’s a little bit more about these first-timers and their path to the world team.
Zane Richards (57 kg Men’s Freestyle)
The veteran made his first world team SIX years after his final collegiate bout for the University of Illinois. Prior to his 2023 US Open championship, Richards best finish at the Open came in 2019 when he was third. He earned his slot on the world team the hard way, downing one of the domestic favorites, Nick Suriano, in the Open finals, 3-3 on the strength of a late takedown. Then he took out 2021 world champion Thomas Gilman in two straight bouts. In both bouts, Richards used a score around the :30 mark to win each bout against Gilman.
Richards was a four-time NCAA qualifier and two-time All-American for Illinois. In 2016, he made the Big Ten finals for the only time.
Vito Arujau (61 kg Men’s Freestyle)
NCAA champion Vito Arujau continued his tear through 2023 with a berth on the world team. Arujau made college wrestling fans take notice with one-sided wins over Daton Fix and Roman Bravo-Young in Tulsa at NCAA’s. He continued to roll with a quick tech fall over Austin DeSanto in the US Open finals, earning a spot in Final X. Arujau wound up taking on fellow Cornell national champion Nahshon Garrett in Newark.
A four-point takedown late in the first period of the opening match paced Arujau against Garrett. In the second match, the two engaged in the highest-scoring match at any of the previous Final X’s (13-10) Though Arujau got on the board first, Garrett led 8-4 after one period. Arujau poured it on in the second and got his hand raised.
While this is Arujau’s first Senior team, he does have plenty of international experience with world silver medals at the Cadet and Junior level, along with an appearance on the 2022 U23 team, as well.
Nick Lee (65 kg Men’s Freestyle)
It seemed like Nick Lee’s chances for the 2023 World Team were done after the US Open semifinals when he appeared to lose to fellow Nittany Lion Wrestling Club teammate Beau Bartlett. Their 10-10 match actually belonged to Lee although Bartlett got his hand raised. From there, Lee had a second-period comeback against Joey McKenna, which gave him a US Open title and allowed him to face returning world silver medalist Yianni Diakomihalis.
Lee and Diakomihalis were no strangers as the pair met in the Olympic Trials and the two-time champ from Penn State was the winner. That continued to be the case on Saturday as Lee swept the series with a pair of highly entertaining, action-packed wins (7-6, 8-8).
The United States has had a decent track record with first-timer world teamer’s having success since the rest of the world doesn’t have a “book” on them yet. I could see this being the case with Lee and he beat a world medalist in Diakomihalis, so that says something.
Chance Marsteller (79 kg Men’s Freestyle)
It was a comeback story for the ages as Chance Marsteller knocked off seven-time World/Olympic champion Jordan Burroughs in three matches Saturday night. One of the best high schooler’s ever to come out of wrestling-rich Pennsylvania, Marsteller initially went to Oklahoma State before transferring to Lock Haven and AA’ing twice. Along the way, Marsteller suffered from various addictions. Since getting sober, Marsteller has led a thriving kids club and has become the wrestler that most envisioned while he was 15 or 16.
Last year, we got a taste of Marsteller’s potential with a win over Burroughs, though he ultimately fell in their three-match series. This time, Marsteller could have won the opening bout, but was called for a controversial singlet pull late in the third period. After winning the second match, there was another questionable sequence in the latter stages of the deciding bout. Burroughs doubled Marsteller out of bounds for an apparent four points; however, upon review, it was deemed to be four in Marsteller’s favor. He’d go on to win, 8-3.
Some may question Marsteller's medal capabilities, compared to Burroughs; however, Burroughs is the returning world champion at the weight. Marsteller has some good international wins under his belt, so he should be a serious medal threat.
Zahid Valencia (92 kg Men’s Freestyle)
It seemed like it was “wait till next year” for Zahid Valencia after losing in the US Open finals to Aaron Brooks. After his loss, Valencia moved up from 86 kg to wrestle in the World Team Trials at 92 kg, which he won convincingly defeating Tanner Sloan and Kollin Moore in the process.
I was concerned about how the undersized Valencia would do against the horsepower of US Open champion Mike Macchiavello, someone who’s put together solid results up at 97 kg. That didn’t prove to be a problem as Valencia scored in the first :30 of both bouts and ran up seven-point first-period leads in both instances.
The two-time NCAA champion from Arizona State has performed well overseas this year (at 86 kg), taking bronze at the Ranking Series event in Croatia and silver at the event in Egypt.
Jennifer Page (59 kg Women’s Freestyle)
It was a similar story for Jennifer Page who fell in the US Open finals to Adaugo Nwachukwo, but then dropped down to 59 kg for the World Team Trials. Though she had a tough bracket at the WTT’s, featuring two past Final X participants and a world team member (Maya Nelson), Page didn’t have a match closer than seven points.
Page was perhaps even more impressive at Final X as she turned in a pair of 11-0 tech’s against Open champion Michaela Beck. This shouldn’t be that surprising considering Page took a match off Kayla Miracle last year in their special post-Final X wrestle-off. Granted, Miracle was trying to get back from an injury; however, there aren’t many women in the world who have beaten Miracle under any circumstances these past few years.
Page was fifth at Junior World’s in 2012 and went on to wrestle collegiately at Oklahoma City. She’s moved on to the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club and taken her game to another level, even battling through multiple knee injuries. If the weight isn’t a problem, I could see Page being a problem for the rest of the world.
Macey Kilty (65 kg Women’s Freestyle)
We finally got to see a healthy Macey Kilty throughout a Trials process and she responded with two-straight wins over returning World bronze medalist Mallory Velte. Kilty defeated Emma Bruntil in the US Open finals, which led to Bruntil moving up for a run at Final X (and ultimately, winning a spot).
In match one against Velte, Kilty pulled ahead with a late takedown, then pinned Velte with ten seconds remaining in the contest. In the second match, the two were again embroiled in a tight one and Kilty secured a takedown, then transitioned to a lace to extend her lead. She’d win 6-5.
Kilty has a staggering five age-group world medals to her name. She was a Cadet world champion in 2018 and has made the world finals on four occasions. With a pair of wins over Velte and her experience, it’s safe to say Kilty will be a factor at the world level this year.
Emma Bruntil (68 kg Women’s Freestyle)
Like Valencia and Rogers, Emma Bruntil fell in the US Open finals and immediately made her mind up to give it another shot, at a different weight class, in the WTT’s. Bruntil moved up and crushed past Final X participant Alex Glaude for the right to compete in Newark.
That put Bruntil in Final X opposite 2021 World bronze medalist Forrest Molinari. As anyone who follows women’s wrestling may have expected, this was the most physical of any of the women’s series’ and it was the only one that went the full three matches.
Bruntil has been a part of the last two U23 World Team’s so she won’t be phased by international competition. She’s also moved to the USOPTC after leaving McKendree. Barring an upset at 57 kg, she’ll be the only first-timer on the women’s side competing in an Olympic weight, so qualifying the weight is of the utmost importance.
Brady Koontz (55 kg Greco-Roman)
The third time's the charm for Brady Koontz, who has lost in two previous appearances at Final X. That didn’t mean his Saturday wasn’t stress-filled. Wrestling in the very first official Final X matchup of the event, Koontz was teched by Dalton Duffield and found himself with his back against the wall. Koontz never wavered and grinded out a pair of wins (4-1, 7-4) to earn his first shot on the world stage at the Senior level.
Koontz is no stranger to the international scene, as he’s made world team’s at the U23, Junior and Cadet levels. In addition, he captured Pan-American gold last year.
Xavier Johnson (63 kg Greco-Roman)
X gonna give it to ya! My award for favorite walk-out song of the day went to Xavier Johnson, who used DMX’s play on his first name to get hyped up for his second Final X appearance. It worked as he put together two tech falls over US Open champion Hayden Tuma to make the world team.
Johnson got to the US Open semifinals before forfeiting out due to an injury, before his match with top-seeded Sammy Jones. The two would end up hitting in the finals of the WTT’s and Johnson prevailed 7-4 over the two-time world team member. This is his first world team experience at any age group.
Zac Braunagel (87 kg Greco-Roman)
The only current Big Ten wrestler on the 2023 World Team? That’s right, it’s Zac Braunagel! It was the 2023 US Open where we got a hint that Braunagel may be ready to make an impact right away. That’s where he pinned 2022 Final X participant Timothy Young for third place. At the WTT’s, Braunagel teched Young to make the finals. He’s advanced to Newark after taking out Richard Carlson.
At Final X, Braunagel was crushed by Vera, 11-0. In their second match, Vera led by six in the first period, but Braunagel clawed his way back in. Vera was repeatedly cautioned, to the point where he was cautioned out of the second match. An injury contributed to Vera’s second-period fade and led him to forfeit out of the third bout, conceding the spot to Braunagel.
Coming from a strong youth Greco scene and training with one of the best coaches in the country (Bryan Medlin), it’s not a huge surprise that Braunagel has developed so quickly in Greco. He was a Junior world teamer in 2021 and won a Junior national title in Fargo.