Illinois 197 lber Zac Braunagel (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
As we've reached the conference dual portion of the season, we've realized we might need to switch up this column because "5 things" is not nearly enough to cover all of the action of the weekend.
Maryland and Indiana wrestled a highly entertaining dual Monday night that came down to the final two bouts - the Rooks Brothers vs. the Miller Brothers. Maryland's Kal Miller won the first bout in sudden victory, then Graham Rooks avenged his brother's loss and the dual was decided on match-point criteria, which went to Indiana, 17-16.
Jesse Mendez made an impressive return to Ohio State's lineup this weekend, pouring on the points for a 20-6 major decision over Indiana freshman Henry Porter. Sammy Sasso was also on fire in that 26-13 dual win, pinning Graham Rooks in just 53 seconds.
For its part, Indiana also had some noteworthy performances. Derek Gilcher had a strong weekend at 157 pounds, upending Ohio State's Paddy Gallagher, 5-4, then taking out Maryland's Michael North on the road - two ranked wins. Heavyweight Jacob Bullock earned a ranked win of his own, a 7-2 decision over Ohio State's No. 15 Tate Orndorff. He then went on to fall 3-2 to Maryland's Jaron Smith, handing the eighth-year senior his first conference win of the season.
Levi Haines was the big story for Penn State, as the true freshman who has still not officially burned his redshirt earned a dominant 16-6 major decision over Wisconsin's No. 16 Garrett Model in his Big Ten dual meet debut.
Iowa's top-ranked Spencer Lee and Purdue's Matt Ramos provided one of the more entertaining - yet short - bouts of the weekend, as the sophomore put the three-time NCAA champion in an early 8-1 hole midway through the first period. But Lee responded the way a three-time NCAA does by putting Ramos on his back and securing the pin with just seven seconds remaining in the initial period.
So, yeah, a lot happened. And these are the highlights we DIDN'T include in our "5 things." Here are the rest:
Illinois proves it can be competitive with the best in the BIG
Last year's Big Ten dual season wasn't too kind to Illinois. The Illini went 1-7, tying with Indiana for 12th in the conference. The 2022-23 season is still early, but coach Mike Poeta's squad has already made a statement.
The Illini went 1-1 over the weekend, taking No. 2 Iowa all the way to the final bout at Carver-Hawkeye, falling 25-19, then knocking off No. 11 Wisconsin, 18-17, at home on Alumni Night. With Zac Braunagel really coming into his own at 197 pounds, the steady presence of Edmond Ruth and Lucas Byrd, underclassmen Danny Pucino and Dylan Connell emerging and the surprise return of veteran Mikey Carr, the Illini boast a robust lineup that should be competitive with most teams on its conference slate this season.
Carr's return was one of the biggest surprises of the weekend. The two-time NCAA qualifier and 2018 Big Ten runner-up had missed all of last season due to injury and wasn't even on Illinois' roster prior to this weekend. He looked solid in his return to the mat, putting away Iowa's Cobe Siebrecht, 12-7. He didn't wrestle against Wisconsin.
Another one of the biggest storylines for Illinois over the weekend was the continued emergence of Zac Braunagel as a national podium contender at 197 pounds. The junior built off his Midlands championship-winning weekend with two top-15 wins, topping last year's NCAA runner-up Jacob Warner, of Iowa, 3-1, with a takedown in the waning seconds of the bout, and a 4-3 win over Wisconsin's Braxton Amos, his second over the Badger in two weeks. Now at 15-3 on the season, Braunagel should be favored in most of his remaining Big Ten bouts, and have an opportunity to avenge an earlier loss when his team hosts Maryland on Jan. 22.
Pucino was critical to his team's success from a dual standpoint. His pin in 5:40 of Felix Lettini gave Illinois a four-point lead over Wisconsin with one bout remaining. With the only pin in the dual, Pucino forced the Badgers into a position where they needed a technical fall or pin to win, which they were unable to get. His 20-8 major decision over Iowa's Drew Bennett on Friday gave his team the lead after three bouts and put them on pace to keep the Hawkeyes on edge until the final match.
The Illini had plenty of other highlights over the weekend - Byrd's Carver-Hawkeye-silencing pin of Cullan Schriever and Ruth's 2-1 win in the first tiebreaker period over Nelson Brands come to mind - that set them up nicely for continued success as they look ahead to next weekend's home dual with Purdue and Northwestern and Maryland after that.
Northwestern's middleweights delivered a big win vs. Minnesota
Northwestern started its Big Ten season off with a strong 18-11 win over Minnesota on Saturday - marking the Wildcats' first victory over the Golden Gophers since 1996 and first ranked win of the season.
Northwestern won six of 10 bouts - 125 pounds was a double forfeit - including two upsets - per InterMat rankings - and three wins over top-15 opponents, marking an exceptional weekend for Northwestern's middleweights, in particular.
No. 13 Frankie Tal-Shahar had one of the biggest wins of the dual for the Wildcats - a 2-1 decision over No. 8 Jake Bergeland at 141 pounds, thanks to a buzzer-beater takedown in the first period. This victory was big not only for the dual - giving Northwestern back the lead it wouldn't relinquish - or individual rankings, but also personally for Tal-Shahar, who lost three times to Bergeland last season, including a 5-3 loss that knocked him into the consolation bracket at NCAAs.
No. 6 Yahya Thomas followed up that excitement with yet another nailbiter, riding out the second tiebreaker OT period with an emphatic mat return to win 2-1 over No. 14 Michael Blockhus. This was the third consecutive 1-point decision for the graduate senior, who keeps finding ways to win at 12-1 on the season.
Northwestern went into the final bout - 157 - with a 4-point lead. No. 9 Trevor Chumbley sealed the win for the Wildcats, with a takedown in the final seconds of the third period to top No. 13 Brayton Lee, 8-4. These three key wins were also bookended by important victories. Maxx Mayfield started the dual off at 165 pounds by beating No. 21 Andrew Sparks, 6-4. Chris Cannon earned the W at 133, with a takedown and four nearfall points at the end of the second period to erase a 3-0 deficit and roll to a 7-3 victory over Aaron Nagao. Lucas Davison had the Wildcats' sixth win, a 4-1 decision at heavyweight.
The momentum from this dual will be big for Northwestern as it prepares for a tough road weekend with duals at Iowa and Nebraska.
This is SPARTA!!!
It's actually not. It's a segment of an article, but it was a fun reference nonetheless. The Spartans of East Lansing are 7-0 for the first time in 49 years. I haven't reflected on the last 49 years of their schedules to see if they were as easy or difficult as this season was projected to be, but the consistent theme is that this team has performed well. Tristan Lujan at 125 has only one loss on the season to Mastrogiovanni of Oklahoma State, which is certainly a respectable loss. Cam Caffey has looked excellent. Saldate has been consistent, and Rayvon has looked good outside of the Reno Tournament. Despite his struggles there, the team placed second in Reno, which is a testament to their solid depth. In general, the team looks generally better, which is what you'd hope for.
They will look to continue this early season success as they start their B1G schedule with Michigan at home in East Lansing this Friday. Some initial notable matches will be at 125 with Lujan against either Medley or McHenry, at 133 with a fun battle between Ragusin and Foley, and at 157 with Saldate and Lewan. Foley told me in an interview last season after a win over Ragusin in Ann Arbor that he feels that winning in Ann Arbor is a big deal to him (what might be helpful here is knowing that Rayvon Foley is from Ann Arbor. In fact he's Ann Arbor Pioneer's best wrestler. Fun fact.). I'm sure he'll want to return the favor by beating Ragusin again, but this time in East Lansing. Another matchup to watch for is at 184 with Finesilver and Malczewski. This is the first big match that Malczewski will have this year, but the guy is a stud and I still feel is an All-American quality guy. So is Finesilver. In the end, though, I expect the biggest battle between these two will be Finesilver's mustache against Malczewski's great hair.
Wolverines are the Champions of the West
That's part of their fight song, which is why it makes it such a fun title for this segment. The Michigan Wolverines traveled to California to take on Cal Poly Friday night followed by a trip to Bakersfield to take on the Roadrunners on Sunday. The dual with CSUB was 39-0 for Michigan, there were some close matches, but ultimately it was a solid trip for the Wolverines. At 197, there was some drama when Brendin Yatooma used a last-second takedown and back points to maintain the shutout.
The dual with Cal Poly was a little more competitive and included some upset wins on both sides. Saenz for the Mustangs beat Cole Mattin at 141 in a match where Mattin couldn't seem to get to his offense. It was out of sorts to see a guy who has been so aggressive with attacks to this point this season not be able to convert, but I've seen him wrestle enough to know that he'll figure this out. Chance Lamer got a chance to take on his brother's team (Brawley and Legend both wrestle for Cal Poly), and did so by beating an All-American in Dom Demas. Granted Demas had to injury default out, but Chance had been battling back after giving up an early takedown. We certainly hope Dom is back and we can see a rematch of what was shaping up to be a truly entertaining dual.
In the end, the Wolverines did what you would expect, and won handily. Next, as mentioned above, Michigan will take on Michigan State this weekend, as well as the Wisconsin Badgers (mentioned below). This Badgers team is coming off a two-loss weekend (also mentioned below), so expect them to come into Ann Arbor looking to avoid that 0-3 conference record to begin the B1G dual season.
Highs and Lows: Badgers
This week the Wisconsin Badgers took two L's. The first was to number one ranked Penn State. That was to be expected, as Penn State has a loaded team with half of their lineup either ranked first, or with a legitimate shot at winning a national title this season. Where Wisconsin had some high points was with Dean Hamiti (165) and Eric Barnett (125), both of whom won each of their respective matches.
Braxton Amos mirrored the team this weekend by going 0-2 as well. He lost to last year's NCAA Champ in Max Dean, as well as took another loss to Zac Braunagel. I tend to look on the bright side of things, so I'm happy that he didn't hurt his knee in the match with Dean, where it looked like it could have been worse than it was, ultimately costing the team a point when Coach Bono walked onto the mat to check on his wrestler. It was the right move and I'm sure he'd do it again.
Also, it's always good to get into deep waters early in the season. Having gone through these wars with Braunagel, and tough matches with Dean, will ultimately help him in March.
The loss to Illinois was a little surprising, but that will happen sometimes. They won where they were expected to win and lost where they were expected to lose. Getting Austin Gomez back into the lineup and Zargo back down to 141 will ultimately help this team get back to where they need to be. Here's the thing about the B1G though, it doesn't get much easier. They travel next to Ann Arbor on Sunday to take on the Wolverines. That will likely include some fun matches at 165 with Hamiti and Amine and at Heavyweight with Parris and Hilger. On Wisconsin!