Tony Cassioppi (left) and Gable Steveson in the 2021 NCAA semifinals (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
InterMat's Big Ten Spotlight Matchup
285 lbs: #1 Gable Steveson (Minnesota) vs. #6 Tony Cassioppi (Iowa)
How to Watch: January 7th, Big Ten Network (9pm EST)
You may not have realized it yet, but we're in the midst of a golden era of heavyweights in college wrestling. Eight different 285 lbers have represented the United States of American at an age-group World Championship event and returned with a medal of some sort. Five of them are world champions.
Friday night, on the Big Ten Network, two of those champions are set to clash as traditional superpowers #1 Iowa and #13 Minnesota do battle. These storied programs have combined to win eight NCAA team titles since the year 2000, with only three other programs (Ohio State, Oklahoma State, Penn State) winning during that span. The most recent team championship winner was Iowa, who still looms as the returning champions and are top-ranked in a dual format. The Hawkeyes are looking to make a statement, in this, the first match since the announcement that two-time Hodge Trophy winner, Spencer Lee, would miss the remainder of the 2021-22 season.
A traditional dual meet starts at 125 lbs and works its way up weight-by-weight to bigger competitors. Having a great heavyweight is like having the proverbial "ace in the hole." Competitive duals end up coming down the final match and knowing you have a significant advantage at 285 lbs is a bit of a security blanket. Both coaching staffs for Iowa and Minnesota typically start duals with the feeling that their respective big man will chip in with at least a win, but is often good for bonus points.
Friday will be different, as both teams typically have a presence from a dominant big man. The homesteading Hawkeyes will send out #6 Tony Cassioppi; while the Gophers will counter will top-ranked #1 Gable Steveson.
With Spencer Lee out of the picture this year, the biggest star in college wrestling is the man Lee shared the 2021 Hodge Trophy with, Steveson. Within a six-month period, Steveson won his first NCAA title, followed by a Pan-American Championship and an Olympic gold medal. In doing so, Steveson unseated two of the world's most dominant heavyweights, Taha Akgul (Turkey) and Geno Petriashvili (Georgia). The two had previously accounted for every gold medal won at 125 kg at a World or Olympic event since 2014. Not only did Steveson win, but he did so with style. He thrashed Akgul in the semifinals, before staging a surreal comeback against Petriashvili in the gold medal bout.
Since Tokyo and the Olympics, Steveson has signed an NIL deal with the WWE and is a central figure in their "Next in Line" program. He's made no secret of his desire to join WWE and many thought he'd strike while the iron was hot and try his hand at "sports entertainment" after winning Olympic gold. The changes to NIL have made it possible for Steveson to capitalize on his likeness, while returning to Minneapolis to try and win another NCAA title, while competing alongside his Gopher teammates.
So far this season, Steveson has only appeared in two matches. However, both contests featured ranked opponents #24 AJ Nevills (South Dakota State) and #31 Luke Surber (Oklahoma State). The Gopher superstar majored Surber (20-7) and teched Nevills (22-6). He heads into Friday with a 36-match winning streak and a 70-2 career mark.
Despite the hefty credentials on Steveson's behalf, don't expect Tony Cassioppi to back down. The Hawkeye big man was an NCAA third-place finisher in 2021 and has a 38-7 career record, himself. Cassioppi, a double Pan-American Junior champion in 2017 and 2018, stepped up to the U23 level this fall and became a world champion. Cassioppi clinched his gold medal with a fall in the world finals, his second of the tournament. Throughout his career, Cassioppi has proven to be one of the more dangerous pinners in his weight class. Last season, he had five in only 13 wins after posting seven as a freshman.
Cassioppi is coming off a Collegiate Duals tournament that saw him paired off with two past All-Americans in pool competition, before beating an upstart Tyrie Houghton (NC State) and clinching a team win over #5 NC State.
Cassioppi and Steveson are no strangers; they have squared off four times at the collegiate level. In 2019-20, Cassioppi managed to hold Steveson to regular decision wins in both their dual meet and the Big Ten Tournament. Last year, Steveson extended his margin of victory to nine points in dual competition and ten in the NCAA semifinals. Will the Olympic champion continue to assert his dominance against the great heavyweight from Iowa or can Cassioppi start to cut into his lead?
The rest of the card:
125 - Jesse Ybarra/Drake Ayala (Iowa) vs. #7 Patrick McKee (Minnesota)
How will the Hawkeyes officially start life after Lee (at least for 2021-22)? Ybarra has gotten the call in dual competition and is 5-1, while blue-chip true freshman Ayala just placed third at the Southern Scuffle. Both of his losses this year, have come to…..Patrick McKee. The 2021 NCAA third-place finisher McKee is 13-1 and was a champ at the Scuffle.
133 - #3 Austin DeSanto (Iowa) vs. #24 Jake Gliva/Aaron Nagao (Minnesota)
Austin DeSanto has been a consistent cog in the Iowa lineup, winning all ten of his 2021-22 matches, with bonus points in eight of those outings. Jake Gliva appeared to have sewn up the starting role with a 9-4 start, but Aaron Nagao made a surprising run to the Scuffle finals last weekend.
141 - #2 Jaydin Eierman (Iowa) vs. #19 Jake Bergeland (Minnesota)
The Collegiate Duals saw Jaydin Eierman pushed twice in three matches and both were relatively unexpected. Does he return to his dominant ways at home? Bergeland has been a steadying influence at a weight that appeared unsettled for Minnesota, as the season began.
149 - #12 Max Murin (Iowa) vs. #25 Michael Blockhus (Minnesota)
If Minnesota pulls the upset, team-wise, it likely happens because of a big win here from Michael Blockhus. The Iowa-native returns to his home state and is looking to knock off veteran Max Murin. Conversely, the home crowd could propel Murin to turn in his best performance.
157 - #12 Kaleb Young (Iowa) vs. #4 Brayton Lee (Minnesota)
Kaleb Young is looking to get back on the winning track after a 1-2 showing at the Collegiate Duals. Unfortunately, he has a formidable competitor awaiting in All-American Brayton Lee. Although Lee is ranked higher and unbeaten, he did drop two of three to Young in 2021.
165 - #1 Alex Marinelli (Iowa) vs. #19 Andrew Sparks/Cael Carlson (Minnesota)
133/141 and 165 are spots where Iowa could conceivably tally bonus points, which could come in handy with Steveson looming at 285 lbs. Alex Marinelli currently sits atop a weight class that may be the deepest, in terms of legit title contenders. He'll have to contend with the tandem of either Sparks or Carlson. Sparks only saw action in one match at the Scuffle, while Carlson defeated a returning Big 12 champion on his way to third place.
174 - #2 Michael Kemerer/Brennan Swafford (Iowa) vs. #23 Bailee O'Reilly/Jared Krattiger (Minnesota)
The delayed return of NCAA finalist Michael Kemerer and an injury to Nelson Brands have forced Tom Brands to take Brennan Swafford out of redshirt. Swafford has been solid at 12-6 and was sixth at the Scuffle. This will be his Carver-Hawkeye debut. One of the wrestlers to defeat Swafford at the Scuffle was Bailee O'Reilly, who was a 5-2 winner and finished in third. He or Jared Krattiger should get the call here. Signs out of Iowa indicate we could see Kemerer make his season debut.
184 - #18 Abe Assad (Iowa) vs. #28 Isaiah Salazar/Sam Skillings (Minnesota)
The Collegiate Duals were where Abe Assad got back into dual competition for Iowa for the first time since February of 2020. Assad shined as a true freshman and was the 11th seed at the NCAA Championships. Minnesota is expected to counter with second-year freshmen Sam Skillings. He is 2-1 this season. #28 Isaiah Salazar defaulted out of the Scuffle, in sixth-place and was not listed on the Gophers probables.
197 - #5 Jacob Warner (Iowa) vs. #30 Michial Foy (Minnesota)
Before getting to the main event, we have a match that will probably be closer than it appears on paper. Jacob Warner continues to be a possible title contender at a deep 197 lbs weight class. The two-time NCAA All-American is 6-1 this season picked up a clutch win that helped put the Hawkeyes in position to defeat #5 NC State. Michial Foy is a Harper College transfer that has grabbed hold of an uncertain weight for Minnesota. In only his second dual, Foy upset a then, top-ten opponent in South Dakota State's Tanner Sloan.