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Beyond the Brackets: The NCAA Tournament

Jaydin Eierman and Stevan Micic in 2022 NCAA Championship consolations (Photos courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com


You watched the tournament. You had multiple TV's and devices set up to watch all eight mats. You filled out brackets, one with lots of upsets; another that was more conservative. You rooted on your favorite team and wrestlers, while cheering against their rivals. You were in a fantasy league, a pick 'em, and had pools with your friends. Face it, you did everything you were supposed to follow the NCAA Championships. Even so, there are plenty of things that go unnoticed at a tournament that spans three days, features eight mats and 330 total participants.

Today, we're going beyond the brackets to talk about some of the "other" things that went down at Little Caesars Arena. Not just the wins and losses, the podium finishes and the upsets. This seemed like an important topic because the 2022 tournament was the first that most fans have been to since 2019. There may have been some portions of the entire tournament experience that people have forgotten about.

An Unforgiving Nature

The tournament starts with 330 wrestlers and, of those 330, only a few are "just happy to be there." Most have the highest of goals in mind and don't care who's standing in their way. That was evident early on day one as 2021 champion Austin O'Connor was pushed into extra time by the SoCon winner Dazjon Casto. The 22nd seeded Casto pulled off the upset, using a gigantic blast double to take O'Connor to the mat for the winning score. Just like that, O'Connor's hopes of a second title were dashed.

There were rumors that O'Connor was coming into the tournament with a severe knee injury. A huge knee brace and an overall lack of mobility confirmed that to be the case. But, O'Connor didn't pack it in. He had his sights set on the next best thing. Despite constant winces and a noticeable limp, O'Connor still managed to fight back through the brackets, through opponent-after-opponent that was ready to say they defeated an NCAA champion. In the round of 12, O'Connor somehow pulled off a last-second comeback to stun #7 Josh Humphreys and lock up his third career podium berth.

Amazingly enough, O'Connor's first match after clinching All-American status was supposed to be against defending champion David Carr. While O'Connor won the 149 lb crown last year, Carr won the 157 lb title. Both were undefeated during the shortened 2021 campaign. Carr's unbeaten streak came to an end in the Round of 16 as he was edged by Oregon State's Hunter Willits. So, one of the dream matches of the preseason, one between the returning champions, was set to take place in the consolation quarterfinals. That's the NCAA Tournament for you. It never materialized as O'Connor medically forfeited out of the tournament, which was probably a good decision.

While O'Connor was able to fight through the pain and grab wins, not everyone was so fortunate. The second-seeded 141 lber Jaydin Eierman was also dealing with a serious knee issue. Eierman didn't wrestle in the Big Ten finals because of it. In his second match, against #15 seeded Kizhan Clarke, Eierman was taken out in sudden victory. After a gritty win over Dylan D'Emilio, Eierman was paired with Stevan Micic.

Incredibly, two wrestlers from the Class of 2015 (Micic) and 2016 (Eierman), that had combined to All-American seven times previously, both were NCAA finalists, were set to square off in the consolation Round of 16. Eierman valiantly tried to give it a shot, but had to default out of the match after dealing with Micic's leg attacks. As Eierman defaulted out of the last bout of his NCAA career, he was embraced by Micic. Simultaneously, the crowd rose with an ovation for Eierman. It didn't matter your school affiliation; it hurt to see a wrestler of Eierman's caliber have to call it quits. While we don't know what was said between these two mainstays of college wrestling, you knew that Micic felt for his opponent. At the beginning of the season, both never would have imagined they would meet so early in the consolations. Maybe an NCAA semifinal or final.

That's the beauty and the unforgiving nature of the NCAA Tournament. It's not wrestled on anyone else's schedule. If you're not ready or able to win, someone else is. The eight guys on the podium; they're not always the most talented wrestlers in the country. They're the ones that survived.

2022 NCAA eighth-place finisher Austin O'Connor (Photos courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com

Wedding and Funerals

If you've attended enough big-time wrestling tournaments, you'll realize that emotions are aplenty. There's no such thing as a "perfect" tournament, from a team standpoint. For every Keegan O'Toole, two other teammates felt they could've placed higher. Or six other Missouri teammates that had realistic dreams of getting on the podium. Even with five NCAA champions, do you think Cael Sanderson slept like a baby Saturday night? He most likely was thinking of what could've been done to help the "other guys" to a better finish. What about Nebraska's coaching staff? Friday night, one of the rocks of their program, Chad Red Jr, lost out of nowhere via fall in the bloodround. He was that close to becoming a four-time NCAA All-American (and 5x AA). Right around the same time, Ridge Lovett emerged from a barnburner with Bryce Andonian (Virginia Tech) to lock up a berth in the finals as the 10th seed.

Heartbreak and jubilation, almost simultaneously. Tears of joy, followed by some of the most gut-wrenching tears possible.

Using the Nebraska example, their rollercoaster didn't stop after the Lovett win. Blooround victories by Peyton Robb and Mikey Labriola were followed by Taylor Venz's loss. The fifth-year senior was an All-American in 2018, but has lost in the bloodround three times since! Right after that, another pair of fifth-year seniors, Eric Schultz and Christian Lance, broke through and earned a spot on the podium for the first time. For the three-time Big Ten runner-up Schultz, it was a long time coming. He was seeded second last season and suffered an upset in the opening round and never recovered. Lance was a transfer from DII Fort Hays State. Most outside the Nebraska wrestling room never would've predicted he'd place at the DI tournament.

You have to admire these coaches that can pick up the pieces as their student-athletes, ones they may have known for five years, see their worlds come crashing down behind the curtains in the tunnel; then thirty seconds later, they have to give a few last-second words of encouragement, as another student-athlete is ready to take the mat and fulfill his dreams.

Part of me wishes that the general public could see exactly what goes on behind the scenes in the underreaches of the arena, but part of me doesn't. It's not for the faint of heart.

Thursday at the tournament, there's a lot of excitement. Fist bumps, small talk, and hugs are aplenty. Everyone is happy to be at the tournament and eager to get underway. Friday, specifically Friday night, is the polar opposite. Thousand-yard stares are commonplace. General pacing and nervous habits take over. Friday night is all business. In a few hours, seeing sweat-drenched wrestlers staining brand-new suits with the biggest hug you've ever seen will be the norm. One of the common expressions you'll hear during these embraces is "we did it." The athlete knows that he wasn't alone during those early-morning individual workouts or late-night weight cuts. He had a coach(es) or practice partner that was right beside him, ones he couldn't have done it without.

On the other side of the coin, there are some of the worst emotions you can imagine. Uncontrollable crying, punching walls and objects, lots of curse words, or just…silence. Bless the coaches, teammates, trainers, managers, that try something, anything to try and make the hurt go away. In reality, there's nothing "right" to say other than to let the athlete know, you care.


Fan Interaction

We got kind of dark for a bit, talking about the negative emotions associated with the tournament, but how about some more lighthearted content. I, like many others, wish that wrestling was the most popular and most watched sport in the world. But, as the Notorious BIG once said, "Mo' Money, Mo' Problems." With 70,000 fans in a football stadium, there's very little chance for a kid to have a personal moment involving their favorite player. And frankly, some of the football players can get jaded with the amount of attention and adulation they receive.

The NCAA Wrestling Tournament is an excellent opportunity for kids to have a moment with their favorite stars. Especially, at the end of the tournament, in the All-American round. I saw countless wrestlers wrap up their seasons or careers, then immediately hit the railing to sign autographs for a few kids. I'm sure there were plenty of others who had a similar experience, but I witnessed Sebastian Rivera walk by and toss his headgear to a group of kids with "Block R's" on their shirts. Another video captured him giving his shoes to a lucky kid. After the heavyweight final, it seemed like some of the ushers may have been lax and there were all kinds of kids getting autographs, selfies, and a quick interaction with newly minted NCAA champions. Who knows what kind of impact a meeting with a favorite wrestler might have on these young kids?

Another great part about the NCAA Championships is that you're just as likely to run into a star on the Senior level in the concourse or in your hotel. Olympic hopefuls are still invested in their alma maters or the current RTC they train with. More often than not, despite some disdain for folkstyle, they show up and act like the rest of the 18,000 fans in the arena.

Everyone repeats the "grow wrestling" mantra and we all want to see our sport evolve to a more mainstream audience; however, I don't want to see these types of interactions go away or become fewer and far between.

David Carr with Aaron Brooks after the 2022 NCAA Finals (Photos courtesy of Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)

Camaraderie

This is a two-part section, as there is a remarkable amount of camaraderie from the spectators, but also from the wrestlers themselves. Having the opportunity to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2019, this was one aspect that I slightly overlooked in my excitement for Detroit. It's fun being in an elevator full of wrestling fans and hearing some good-natured trash talk or admiration for each other's wrestlers. Going to restaurants and bars full of people that would rather talk Kizhan Clarke than UNC basketball is refreshing.

As I sat on the plane returning from Detroit and the guy across the aisle struck up a conversation with me that started with, "What was the best match you saw all weekend." Of course, the trio of Austin Gomez, Bryce Andonian, and Ridge Lovett were mentioned and we went from there. It took all of two minutes to realize this man and his friend were from the next town over from my hometown. We got into the "do you know" game that I'm sure you've done when meeting a new wrestling fan/friend and after they asked about one particular person, I replied, "Yeah, I was the best man at his wedding." Just like that, we have new friends for life. We bonded over the simple fact that I was wearing a wrestling shirt coming back from the city that hosted the NCAA Tournament.

The NCAA Tournament is almost like a family reunion for me. On one hand, I get to see some of my best friends. Some of my closest relationships, professionally and personally, have been made with people that traveled to the tournament and do so every year. On the other hand, there are plenty of people that I don't keep in contact with as much as I should, but that doesn't matter for three or four days in Detroit.

Now for the wrestlers themselves, this comradery is a beautiful thing. One superstar that stood out to me was David Carr. Bounced from the championship side early, Carr didn't sulk and pout and throw in the towel. He proceeded to grind out a bunch of wins on the backside and was the first guy to congratulate his teammates on big wins. As Yonger Bastida won in the Round of 12, Carr actually came on the corner of the mat to celebrate with him. All I could think of was, "Please don't take a team point from him." Carr's friendship didn't end with his Iowa State teammates; it also extended to Penn State's Aaron Brooks, a close friend, whom he celebrated with matside after his win over Myles Amine in the finals. While wrestling can be such an individual sport, it's cool to see a star like Carr celebrating the accomplishments of his friends/teammates.

One of the best interviews of the entire tournament was with Hayden Hidlay after his final collegiate match. He so eloquently talked about his own career, but focused more on supporting his brother, Trent, as he fought for fifth place. It's hard not to tear up as Hayden says he'd, "take 100 losses just to see him win."

The night before that interview, I noticed Hayden, moments after his dreams of becoming an NCAA champion were destroyed by Carter Starocci, standing at the entrance to the tunnel. He was still in his singlet like a six-year-old running around your local kid's tournament, yelling instructions to his brother, also in the semifinals, living and dying with every movement, score or near-score.

As we discussed earlier, the NCAA Tournament isn't fair. It doesn't care if you're the best brother or best friend in the world. Hayden lost in the NCAA semis and then watched his little brother do the same, just a commercial break later.

This is a tournament that saw NCAA champions and a top-seed lose on Thursday. An under-the-radar, graduate transfer and law student from North Carolina made the finals. Hometown favorite Myles Amine, finally broke through the semifinal barrier…only to fall to Aaron Brooks. The nation fell in love with the resiliency of Patrick McKee, as he left a trail of talented victims behind him in another furious run through the consolations. We said goodbye to longtime fixtures of the college wrestling circuit. One, Ryan Deakin, went out on his own terms, as he imagined thousands of times before, while others, like Eierman, were not so lucky. Fate unceremoniously brought their collegiate careers to a screeching halt. Depending on what colors you wear, you either celebrated or rolled your eyes at another remarkable performance in the finals for Penn State. Though you don't have any attachment to them, you marveled at the job done by programs like Northwestern and Oregon State.

That's why they wrestle the matches and the tournament isn't decided on bracket-release Wednesday. In all of its excitement, technical excellence, the happy tears, the sad tears, the upsets, the star-marking process, it's all the NCAA Tournament. Some of it is beautiful and makes it the greatest sporting event on this planet, while other parts we'd rather live without.

Comments

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gsyswerda (3) about 8 months ago
I can't remember the last time I read such a moving, well-written synopsis of the parts of the tournament few of us get a chance to see. Thank you for taking the time to put these thoughts and observations together for us.
Gilgamesh (4) about 8 months ago
Only Earl Smith can bring together so much emotion and distill it into poetry. Thank you!
Matt112 (4) about 8 months ago
What an article!
jimharshawjr (4) about 8 months ago
My goodness, this article captures everything I've felt as a student-athlete, coach, and now fan in the past 25 years attending the tournament. Thank you for writing this, Earl.
Bohanlon (3) about 8 months ago
Wow. I registered just to leave a comment. This article was brilliant. College wrestling is among the last pure sports, in my humble opinion. And Earl Smith captured the essence of our sport perfectly! Amazing.
Pete Hallman (3) about 8 months ago
Excellent job with this - your work is top shelf. Thanks!
DannyClarke (3) about 8 months ago
Long time listener, many time caller. This is an all time intermat write up. Really captured the weekend and what the tournaments all about.
Coachsig (2) about 8 months ago
This is an amazing article that captures the feelings of so many in our wrestling world! The camaraderie is amazing in our sport! Thank you for this well written article!
revrobnelson (2) about 8 months ago
Nailed it! Thank you Earl
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Willythedog (1) about 8 months ago
Thank you for writing such a wonderful article.
You did an amazing tournament justice by writing this.
Thank you again!
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