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Dark Horses at the NCAA Championships (2012-22)

#15 seeded Ronnie Perry in the 2018 NCAA Semifinals (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)


Every year there are a number of wrestlers that fans look to be potential dark horses to make the podium. While there are sometimes easy choices, such as Cody Brewer in 2015, most of them can be surprising and take some interesting circumstances to get there. I went back and looked at the past ten tournaments and charted every wrestler that became an All-American as a 13 seed or lower. There were a total of 98 wrestlers, which means on average there are nearly ten wrestlers a year that upset the bracket.

For some context, of the 98 total wrestlers to accomplish this feat, there are six that did it multiple times. Cody Brewer in 2014/2015, Zeke Moisey in 2015/2018, Conor Youtsey in 2015/2016, Willie Miklus in 2015/2016, Chip Ness in 2018/2019, and Chad Red in 2018/2019.

Also, there were some changes to the seeding criteria over the years that I wanted to mention. Up until 2013, the committee seeded the top 12 wrestlers. Then, from 2014-2018, they seeded the top 16. Finally, starting in 2019, all 33 wrestlers were seeded, which is still the system in place right now. On average, the number of dark horses from the 2014-2018 period was much higher than the other periods at 12.4%. With 2019 and 2022 hovering around 5%, (also noting that 2020 NCAA's were canceled and 2021 was a unique year with a shortened season), it appears that the system of seeding all 33 wrestlers makes the path to dark horse finish much harder. 2018 was the most volatile year overall, with surprise AA's at 9 of 10 weights. Below are the totals and percentages for each year.

I also wanted to look at the variance in these All-American upsets across the 10 different weight classes. This result actually surprised me somewhat. I expected a lot less of these upsets at the heavier weights compared to the lighter weights. Heavyweight itself had the lowest number of successful dark horses, but 133lbs had the second-lowest number of dark horses. Heavyweight actually had seven years without any surprise All-Americans, with everyone on the podium being seeded 12 or higher. 125lbs, 141lbs, and 149lbs were the most volatile, with all three having more than 13 dark horses make the podium. The most consistently surprising weight was 141lbs, with at least one significant upset every year. There were also a few seasons with surprising pockets of these dark horses. For example, in 2015 at 184lbs half of the AA's were lower than a 13 seed.

Another variable I wanted to explore was the eligibility/year in school of the wrestlers. The eligibility spread was surprisingly even outside of freshmen. Juniors had the most success in making these upsets. This really shows that making the podium as a freshman is rare, especially when combining it with the redshirt data. Only six true freshmen made the podium as a 13 seed or lower in 10 years. That doesn't change a ton with a redshirt, however, as only 13 freshmen were able to AA after their redshirt year. Career long though redshirts had much more success, with 83% of dark horses having taken a redshirt at some point in their career.

Next, I wanted to explore which conferences had the most of these dark horses. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the Big 10 had the most dark horse All-Americans. The Big 12 was close though, with both conferences having a significant lead over the rest. The ACC, in third with 14, was closely followed by the MAC and EIWA both having eight each. There were nine wrestlers that made it from conferences that no longer exist. Additionally, Eastern Michigan, Old Dominion, and Fresno State all had a surprise All-American before their programs were cut.

It is hard to tell if any of this data points to a magic formula that can predict success for underdogs in future tournaments. Many of the statistics could be predicted such as the conferences that had the most and the eligibility year as well. These may just point to common trends in the success we see from both experience and more competitive conferences. However, seeing the breakdown by weight and tournament year begs the question if there are trends in the data that point to a way more of these upsets could occur in the future. Because of some continued COVID effects on the 2022 season, I am curious to see which wrestlers in lower seeds end up making the podium in 2023. Having all 33 wrestlers seeded by the committee seems to really make an impact on the data and the number of dark horse guys able to accomplish AA status. I plan to look at more of this data closer to tournament time to try and find some dark horse AA's for 2023.

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