Brock Hardy in Nebraska's recent dual with Northwestern (photo courtesy of Mark Lundy; LutteLens.com)
Every year in every sport, media outlets put out preseason rankings. In wrestling, late October seems to be the most popular time. Coaches have some idea of the lineup they're putting out, guys who have eligibility have typically decided whether or not they want to return, and analysts can use this and other information to create the most complete picture of the field possible.
The early rankings are mostly built off previous year finishes, with a mix of redshirts coming in and guys who slide in when others graduate. However, even the best rankings are unable to predict the many upsets and surprises that happen each season. In a season that has had several #1's take losses, the rankings have changed dramatically.
While not all of the changes are at the top, there are some intriguing ones at each weight. Here are the wrestlers that have made some of the biggest jumps since the preseason. I also included some true freshmen and wrestlers who were initially unranked and that made the top 16 at the end of the article. The unranked aspect is hard to quantify as much and true freshmen can't truly be ranked in the preseason, so that is why they are separate.
125: #3 Liam Cronin, Nebraska (11-2)
Cronin started the year at #20 after a medical redshirt in 2022. A two-time qualifier, this is his seventh year overall and third at Nebraska after starting his career at Indiana. He had an early season loss to now #33 Ethan Berginc of Army, but has since bounced back with wins over #5 Pat McKee, #4 Michael DeAugustino, #14 Brandon Kaylor (OSU), #20 Eddie Ventresca (VT), and #26 Tanner Jordan.
He's currently on an 11-match win streak with seven bonus point wins. The rest of his schedule doesn't ease up with matches against #1 Spencer Lee, #6 Eric Barnett, #10 Matt Ramos, #9 Malik Heinselman, #11 Dean Peterson, and #7 Brandon Courtney. Cronin has been a big part of a surging Nebraska team and is looking like a serious factor in March.
133: #6 Connor McGonagle, Lehigh (8-1)
McGonagle started the year ranked #29 after qualifying for NCAA's twice at 141 lbs. He went 0-2 both years and had a below 0.500 record overall. This year, however, he's broken out. His one loss on the season so far came to #2 Daton Fix in his third match of the year. The win that catapulted him in the rankings was a 5-3 decision over #7 Micky Phillipi. He also has wins over #25 Kai Orine, #30 Wyatt Henson, and #19 Jason Shaner. His remaining schedule also includes #8 Michael Colaiocco and #4 Michael McGee. With his current results, McGonagle looks like he should have a much improved NCAA's this season.
141: #5 Brock Hardy, Nebraska (19-2)
Nebraska showed its strength here as another wrestler rocketed up this year's rankings. After graduating in 2018, Hardy took a two-year LDS mission where he was completely off the mat. He came back in 2021 and had a 10-3 combined record coming into this year, but hadn't hit the starting lineup. His biggest win was a 2021 win over Michael Blockhus at 149 lbs, so he came into the 141 rankings this season at #28.
The 2023 ranking looked to be appropriate after starting the year 1-2, but he had a breakout win at the Journeymen Classic and hasn't looked back, winning 18 in a row. That includes 12 bonus-point wins and victories over #6 Ryan Jack, #8 Cael Happel, #9 Clay Carlson, #22 Jesse Vasquez, and #11 Jake Bergeland. He looks like a title contender this year, and with #2 Real Woods coming up has a chance to become a favorite.
149: #6 Paniro Johnson, Iowa State (9-2)
Paniro Johnson is technically a "true freshman" but took a grayshirt year with the Cyclone RTC where he was 19-6 against college opponents. A common thread was that he was good but had significant gas tank issues. Well as he started to break out, a story came out about how the coaching staff eventually stepped in and helped him see a doctor where he was diagnosed with sickle cell anemia, which he is now being treated for. Thanks to the diligence of his coaches, cardio no longer looks to be an issue.
With all that, he started the year at #24. That changed quickly after his first match as a starter. He took out #2 Austin Gomez 9-4, then a month later beat #7 Max Murin. His only two losses this year both came in overtime to #1 Yianni Diakomihalis and #5 Kyle Parco. While Yianni is the favorite, Paniro showed that he isn't to be overlooked.
157: #14 Trevor Chumbley, Northwestern (17-4)
After spending three years behind a combination of Ryan Deakin and Yahya Thomas, Chumbley started the 2023 season tied for the #33 spot at 157. He quickly made some noise by winning the Michigan State Open, including a win over now #22 Paddy Gallagher. He did it again with a Midlands title including a win over #18 Garrett Model.
Chumbley cracked the top ten at one point this season with a win over now #16 Brayton Lee. He's taken losses to #21 Cobe Siebrecht and #1 Peyton Robb recently, but has shown that he is an All-American contender in a wide-open weight class.
165: #11 Danny Braunagel, Illinois (16-5)
After qualifying his first two years as a starter, Braunagel had a rough 2022 going 12-9 and not qualifying. With that, he started the year at #27 but started to climb the rankings after a win over now #19 Gerrit Nijenhuis at the Michigan State Open.
Since then, he has beaten #31 Holden Heller, #23 Maxx Mayfield, #15 Justin McCoy, and #12 Peyton Hall. The fourth-year starter is looking at not only qualifying for a third time, but improving on his 0-2 2021 NCAA's.
174: #4 Chris Foca, Cornell (16-1)
Surprisingly, Foca made the biggest jump in the rankings at 174 after jumping seven spots from #11. Foca wasn't healthy at the end of the 2022 season, but showed that he could compete with the best after one-point losses to #1 Carter Starocci and #2 Mekhi Lewis.
This year, he had another one-point loss to Lewis, but has also scored wins over #8 Ethan Smith, #17 Cade Devos, #25 Julian Broderson, and #26 Aaron Olmos. He's undefeated in duals, won the Bearcat Open, and finished third at CKLV. If he can stay healthy this year he is looking like a significant factor and potential title threat.
184: #17 Reece Heller, Pittsburgh (15-2)
After spending multiple years at Hofstra, the Heller brothers transferred to Pitt together and made the starting lineup. Reece started the year at #27 at 184 after spending time at 149, 165, and 174 at Hofstra. He started to climb the rankings with dual wins over #19 Tate Samuelson and #26 Dylan Connell.
His real breakout was when he won Midlands, with wins over Connell and #30 Anthony Carman. Still just a sophomore, Heller looks to be a mainstay in Pittsburgh's lineup and should be in line to qualify for his first NCAA's.
197: #16 Jaxon Smith, Maryland (13-5)
After a 23-6 redshirt season and making the U20 world team, the hype was on Jaxon Smith. He didn't quite have the folkstyle wins to place him high yet, so he debuted at #28. He got a big win at the Tiger Style Invite with a pin over #11 Zac Braunagel that put him just outside the top ten.
He's taken some losses since then that have dropped him in the rankings. However, Maryland is an ascending team and Coach Clemsen has shown that he can develop talent. In a chaotic 197 weight class, no one should be too surprised to see him make the podium in March.
285: #13 Tyrell Gordon, Northern Iowa
It took four years, but in 2022 Gordon cracked the lineup as an undersized heavyweight for the Panthers. He went 11-17, but qualified for NCAA's and went 1-2. He spent some time in the weight room over the offseason and looks to be much closer to a mid-sized heavyweight. He started the year at #21, but wins over #14 AJ Nevills and #16 Tate Orndorff at CKLV changed that. Since then, his only losses are to #8 Zach Elam and #12 Owen Trephan, both in overtime. If Gordon can continue to get experience, he is someone that could surprise people later in the year.
True Freshmen Wrestlers Now in the Top 16
133: #9 Jesse Mendez, Ohio State
141: #12 Tom Crook, Virginia Tech
141: #16 Vince Cornella, Cornell
149: #9 Caleb Henson, Virginia Tech
149: #15 Jackson Arrington, NC State
157: #9 Daniel Cardenas, Stanford
184: #13 Brian Soldano, Rutgers
285: #5 Dayton Pitzer, Pittsburgh
Unranked Wrestlers Now in the Top 16
125: #11 Dean Peterson, Rutgers
125: #13 Brett Ungar, Cornell
141: #14 Danny Pucino, Illinois
184: #16 Lenny Pinto, Nebraska
285: #12 Owen Trephan, NC State