Nebraska head coach Mark Manning (Photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
We finally made it! It's the week of the NCAA Wrestling Championships, and we couldn't be more excited. At last, we can watch the best in the country do battle to find out who truly is the best of the best. However, we feel it's also important to reflect on the regular season. The athletes work too hard to not be celebrated for these achievements. It wasn't for nothing that we watched these warriors put their bodies and minds through the grind of the B1G season. We trust that they all had these awards in mind when training and competing. Who are we to deprive them of this moment in the sun? Without further adieu, let's get to the 2022-2023 B1G awards. (Thank you, Robbie Wendell, for the categories!)
Redshirt of the Year
Kevin: Drake Ayala, Iowa
Drake Ayala has been patiently waiting for the chance to represent the Hawkeyes as the starter at 125 pounds. I mean, he did it last year as a true freshman where he made the NCAA tournament and showed some great signs for what the future holds, but that was just a holding spot as we waited for a healthy Spencer Lee to return. When Drake did compete this season, he did very well against everyone not named Spencer Lee. His teammate did pin him earlier this season, but that's to be expected, considering Spencer has pinned the very best in the country several times this year. Nobody wants to be the guy who follows the legend, but Drake certainly appears to have the talent and mentality that you'd need to accept that challenge.
Lauren: Nic Bouzakis, Ohio State
Thanks to the NCAA's new rule, allowing freshmen to compete in five events without burning their redshirts, we got a look at some true freshmen in dual action that we may otherwise not have - and they picked up valuable experience. Ohio State was able to use this rule to its advantage to give Nic Bouzakis some starts while fellow true freshman Jesse Mendez was out with injury. Bouzakis stepped up when called upon, going 4-0 in Mendez's absence, including a 10-6 win over Kyle Biscoglia in the Buckeyes' 19-13 loss to Northern Iowa, which kept them in the match with a chance to win or tie at the end. Bouzakis had an 11-1 record as a redshirt, his lone loss coming when he wrestled up at 141. He had eight bonus-point wins, including three consecutive falls to close out the season.
Coach of the Year
Kevin: Tom Brands, Iowa
Tom Brands has done a masterful job this season. Sure his team is ranked second, which is not the goal for the Hawkeyes, but I am so impressed with how they appear to be peaking at the right time. There are some issues with 184 and 197, where Assad and Warner are battling some injuries which are hindering their performance, but you can't coach away injury issues. Other than that though, the rest of their team has looked great. Spencer Lee remains awesome, Patrick Kennedy placed second in the B1G at one of the most competitive weights in the country, Nelson Brands placing fifth at 174 was impressive, and Cassioppi is clearly better than all but two HWYs in the country. They would need a lot to go right to win the NCAA title, but they are bringing all 10 of their athletes, which gives them a chance. The fact that it's even worth discussing is impressive enough, and for me gets him the award.
Lauren: Mark Manning, Nebraska
After graduating four All-Americans in Eric Schultz, Christian Lance, Taylor Venz and Chad Red, and redshirting another in NCAA runner-up Ridge Lovett, it seemed like 2022-23 might be a rebuilding year for the Huskers. After losing two of their first three duals, including 20-16 to North Dakota State, it was looking like there might be credence to that thought.
But then, Nebraska started to turn things around. It won its third straight Cliff Keen title, with Peyton Robb, Brock Hardy and Mikey Labriola as champs. It got its revenge on the Dakotas by topping South Dakota State, 22-17, and finished the regular season 12-3 - its only other loss coming to Iowa. Robb and Labriola finished their regular seasons undefeated and Liam Cronin emerged as one of the biggest surprise stories in the conference.
The Huskers then placed a program-best five wrestlers in the Big Ten finals and crowned their first champ since Robert Kokesh in 2015, finishing third with 104.6 team points.
A lot of different factors had to have gone into Nebraska's season turnaround, but it would have been a lot more difficult without Mark Manning's leadership from the top and the coaching staff he's assembled with Bryan Snyder, Kokesh and Tervel Dlagnev. Oh, and Manning also surpassed his 300th-win milestone this season.
Nebraska will enter the NCAA Championships with seven wrestlers, four top-five seeds and a chance to bring home a trophy.
Kevin: Mason Parris, Michigan
So technically Spencer Lee has the most Bonus Point wins, but here's the thing about Spencer Lee, he can't win all the awards. He'll get his well-deserved recognition coming up. Mason Parris was my Fantasy Wrestling first-round pick. I took him over Kerkvliet, and at the moment felt like it was probably the wrong move, but I needed to stick with my dude Mason. I'm certainly glad that I did, because he has been destroying the field. He is currently working with a 64% bonus point rate at one of the most competitive weights in the most competitive conference in the country. In fact for his career, Mason has a 55% bonus percentage. Can you imagine wrestling in college and getting bonus points in more than half of your matches? Michigan fans have been spoiled with our Heavyweights over the last decade, with Mason and Adam Coon before him (also we'll have Ira Jenkins next, who should be super fun also), and I certainly hope he can finally get the NCAA Title that has eluded the Wolverines. I trust he'll also get some bonus point wins along the way.
Lauren: Spencer Lee, Iowa
I mean … It's hard to argue with this one. Spencer Lee has an insane bonus rate of 88.24%, with eight pins, four technical falls and three major decisions in his 17 matches this season (thanks, WrestleStat, for doing the math!). One of his most memorable bonus-point wins of the season was his pin in 38 seconds of Nebraska's Liam Cronin, the third-ranked wrestler at that time. The week prior, he had decked Northwestern's then-No.3 Michael DeAugustino in 2:01. With an RPI of .7297 and a 100% win percentage, Lee is on track to win his third Hodge Trophy and his fourth NCAA title this season.
Freshman of the Year
Kevin: Jaxon Smith, Maryland
I had some high expectations for Jaxon Smith this year, but even I wouldn't have guessed that he'd place third at 197 at the conference tournament. He started strong with some solid wins over Zac Braunagel at the Tiger Style Invite, Luke Surber at the Southern Scuffle, and Jacob Koser of Navy, before getting hurt and missing much of the B1G regular season. He has still managed to get 21 wins on the year, has helped the Terrapins collect dual wins over Oklahoma, and Pittsburgh, and was a huge part of their first B1G dual win over Purdue. He heads to Tulsa with the 11 seed and will have a solid chance at an All-American finish, which is pretty good for a Freshman in a weight class full of grown men.
Lauren: Levi Haines, Penn State
There were a lot of talented freshmen in this year's class, but it's hard to not go with the true freshman Big Ten champ here - Levi Haines. Penn State's plan at the beginning of the season was for Haines to redshirt. But he said after his sudden-victory win over the previously undefeated Peyton Robb for the conference title, that having his hand raised on the big stage is always where he had envisioned himself being at this point. Before getting to that Big Ten final, Haines had to first earn his spot in the starting lineup, which he did by taking full advantage of the matches he got under the NCAA's new freshman redshirt rule. After putting up 16 points on returning NCAA qualifier Gerrett Model and knocking off All-American Will Lewan in sudden victory the next week of competition, there wasn't much doubt his redshirt would be officially burned against Iowa. Ever since, he's done his best to make sure his coaches don't regret their decision - a major decision over Paddy Gallagher, six wins over NCAA qualifiers after that Iowa dual, and, of course, a Big Ten crown. Entering NCAAs as the No. 2 seed with a 23-1 record, this freshman has certainly made the most of his opportunities this year.
Kevin: Matt Finesilver, Michigan
Matt Finesilver's mustache is great. This is the second year that the Wolverines have brought in a stud-mustached transfer with tremendous success. I have mentioned this before, but simply transferring into the B1G is not as easy as he has made it look. Matt was a three-time NCAA Qualifier for the Blue Devils, and I was always impressed with what he could do while competing in the ACC, but if you told me before the season started that he would place third in the B1G conference tournament I wouldn't have believed it. As it turns out though, that's exactly what he did, and I feel like the mustache has a lot to do with it. A warning to all of those out there considering transferring into the B1G, don't dare do it without a mustache.
Lauren: Brian Soldano, Rutgers
It's admittedly hard to compete with Matt Finesilver in this category, but Brian Soldano is giving it a good run. The best part about Soldano's facial hair is that it has evolved over the season. He started out the season with just the mustache, but he has since grown it out into almost a full beard. What does the evolution of Soldano's facial hair mean? Is this a "playoff beard"-like superstition? These are all good questions that hopefully get asked in Tulsa. He'll enter NCAAs as the No. 18 seed at 184 pounds, but as the top seed, in my mind, when it comes to quality facial hair.
Newcomer of the Year
Kevin: Aaron Nagao, Minnesota
Remember at the beginning of the year when we put out a breakout wrestler list for the conference? Did you read that one? Well if you didn't, let me remind you of who I had said would break out at 133. It was Aaron Nagao of the Golden Gophers. He had some injuries this year which kept him out of the lineup at times, but when the pressure was on, he was able to come through with some big wins in Ann Arbor to make the B1G finals. He wrestled pretty well against the odds on favorite and 2x defending NCAA Champion Roman Bravo Young of Penn State, and is positioned well to have a rematch with him in the quarterfinals if the seeds hold.
Lauren: Real Woods, Iowa
He's not exactly new to NCAA wrestling, but Real Woods is new to the Big Ten this season after transferring to Iowa from Stanford - and he made an immediate impact in his new conference. Woods was a huge get for the Hawkeyes, filling the lineup spot vacated by NCAA finalist Jaydin Eierman and entering into a weight class at 141 pounds that just graduated two-time national champ Nick Lee, runnerup Kizhan Clarke, and five-time All-American Sebastian Rivera. He's so far understood the assignment, posting a 16-0 record, winning the Big Ten title and earning the top seed at 141 pounds for NCAAs. It will be interesting to see if he can deliver this week in Tulsa.
Singlet of the Year
Kevin: Michigan at Battle at Bragg
It seems like it was a long time ago, but it was only November 11th. Michigan traveled to Fayetteville, N.C. to wrestle the Camels of Campbell at Fort Bragg. This was an awesome event even before I saw the singlets. The two teams battled in a hangar next to Army planes. It was unlike any environment I'd ever seen before. Also, halfway through the dual they had to close the doors because the rain was blowing into the hanger and onto the mat. Completely wild situation, but they handled it with grace. Anyway, both Michigan and Campbell rocked some spectacular camouflage singlets. They genuinely made me wish that Michigan would just bust these out every so often. I want one.
Michigan 125 lber Kurt McHenry (Photo courtesy of Chris Downey/Campbell Athletics)
Lauren: Michigan at Battle at Bragg
The blue, camo-print singlets were definitely cool enough on their own. But now picture wrestlers wearing them in pouring down rain in an airplane hangar at Ft. Bragg, with an Army airplane in the background and smoke coming up from the floor. Now you have a full picture of the most badass singlets and well-produced duals a Big Ten team wrestled in this season. Credit to Campbell and UNC for making that weekend of Battle at Bragg and Doubles on the Diamond happen.
B1G Dual of the Year
Kevin: The 'Border Battle' between Minnesota and Wisconsin
Minnesota versus Wisconsin, or the border battle as it's affectionately known, was an awesome way to finish out the season. Sure, I could have gone with Iowa and Penn State, but I felt like I knew who was going to win that going in, and turns out I was right. Minnesota and Wisconsin I had no idea, and then each match delivered some exciting action. The dual was back and forth, with Minnesota starting off strong with Michael Blockhus getting the pin, but Model and Hamiti were able to battle back and tie up the score at 6. Minnesota used two big wins from O'Reilly and Skillings at 174 and 184 before the Badgers went on a run. They won three matches in a row with Amos, Hillger, and Eric Barnett getting wins. Each of those three wins was by one point, so again, awesome competition against some closely ranked opponents. Minnesota needed the last two wins to get the win here, and they did just that. Aaron Nagao was able to get a 5-1 win over transfer Taylor Lamont, and then Jake Bergeland was able to eke out a 1-0 win over Joseph Zargo to finish off the dual on the road. This was an exciting dual to watch, and one that I will do my best not to miss in the future.
Lauren: Indiana over Maryland on tiebreaker criteria, 17-16
What makes a dual the "best" is obviously highly subjective. There were numerous different ways to go with this category, but I ended up going with the meet that stuck out most in my mind when looking back on the season - and that was a little Monday night dual between Maryland and Indiana. With no other wrestling on that night, my attention was fully focused on this dual. The stakes were high for both teams. Maryland, the host, was looking for its first conference win since 2016 and Indiana was looking for its first conference win since beating Maryland the year prior and had its sights on earning multiple conference wins this season. At no point throughout the dual did you feel confident that one team or the other was going to win. And when the dual ended tied 16-16, it was hard to know who had criteria, and both teams waited several minutes in anticipation until it could be determined.
The climax of the dual came at heavyweight, which was the sixth bout of the night. Maryland senior Jaron Smith held off Jacob Bullock, who had just come off a big upset win against Ohio State, despite a last-second reversal, for a crucial 3-2 victory. The teams then traded the next two bouts, and it all came down to the Rooks and the Miller brothers. Kal Miller took the first one, 6-4, in sudden victory over Cayden Rooks. Graham Rooks then avenged his brother's loss with a 5-3 win over Ethen Miller to force tiebreaker criteria.
There was excitement and tension throughout - a great Monday night wrestling treat.
Kevin: Chase Saldate, Michigan State
In 2022, Chase Saldate placed 8th in the B1G tournament, was the 21 seed at the NCAA tournament, and went 0-2 in Detroit. In 2023, Chase Saldate made the semi-finals of the B1G tournament, and almost beat the number one seed, before ultimately placing fourth. He is now the 11 seed in the NCAA tournament and if he can make the quarterfinals, then he will have a chance at beating Peyton Robb to make the semifinals. DRAMATIC improvement in what is a toss-up weight. I picked him as my breakout wrestler at this weight earlier this year as well, and I trust he'll make his way onto the podium in Tulsa.
Lauren: Derek Gilcher, Indiana
This category was one of the most difficult to choose, as there were so many deserving recipients of this title. A lot of the candidates came from the same team - Indiana. The Hoosiers' accomplishments as a team - most dual wins and conference wins since 2016-17, most wins over DI opponents since 2010-11, most NCAA qualifiers since 2018 - weren't due to one or two wrestlers, but rather marked improvements up and down the lineup. Derek Gilcher is one who stands out. The sophomore improved to 24-13 from 13-7 last year, with an eighth-place finish at Big Tens and an automatic qualification for NCAAs. He beat six ranked opponents this season, including a pin of Wisconsin's Garrett Model at Big Tens, fellow "Most Improved" wrestler Chase Saldate, of Michigan State, at Reno, and a major decision at Big Tens over once-ranked Mikey Carr. Several of Gilcher's teammates also make strong cases for this title. Heavyweight Jacob Bullock made the decision to transform his body over the offseason, coach Angel Escobedo said, and went from 11-11 last season to 21-6 and his first NCAA qualification. Graham Rooks improved from 12-12 to 28-8 and was a Big Ten semifinalist - ultimately finishing in fifth place, a career-best. Another wrestler who deserves to be mentioned here is former Hoosier Liam Cronin. The now-Husker has had past success but missed most of last season due to injury. He came back for a final season after dealing with the injury, the transfer, COVID disruption and off-the-mat adversity to have the best season of his career at 20-4 and the No. 3 seed at NCAAs at 125 pounds.
The Nathan Traxler Best Hair Award
Kevin: Cam Caffey, Michigan State
This award could have gone to several people. Trent Hillger is certainly an honorable mention, and his flowing Thor-esque mane will be missed. Jacob Warner grew his hair out specifically in an effort to win this award, or at least that's what many people are saying. However, when we talk about best hair, there's only one person who can win this. Cam Caffey will always win best hair until he's no longer wrestling in college. That being said, this is his last season in the Spartans singlet, so this is my last chance at appreciating his awesome afro. It's been big, small, blonde, I feel like there was some green in there before. It's just been great from the moment we saw it. Cam Caffey has had a great career and I hope he's healthy enough to make one last run at the podium this year.
Lauren: Brock Hardy and Peyton Robb, Nebraska
It turns out that the best hair trend this year was not having any. Whether it's Gandhi, The Rock, or, as one TikTok user pointed out in Ann Arbor, most of the Big Ten wrestling coaching staff members, some of the most successful people in the world have been bald. And after the season they've had, add Brock Hardy and Peyton Robb to that list. The pair, who both started out their Nebraska wrestling careers with hair, have since leveled up in major ways. I'm not saying it's because they shaved their heads, but I'm also not saying it's not … With support from volunteer assistant Tervel Dlagnev, the smooth domes gave the whole Cornhusker team a unique vibe - a cross between a Zen master, pro wrestler and Marine, if you will. It's fair to say that not everybody can pull off the look, but Nebraska brought bald back in a big way.
Wrestler of the Year
Kevin: Spencer Lee, Iowa
Spencer Lee is the Wrestler of the Year. Think about this, he hasn't lost a match in 4 years, despite having destroyed his knees a couple times along the way. He pinned whoever was ranked third in the country at 125 three weeks in a row (Matt Ramos of Purdue, Michael DeAugustino of Northwestern, and Liam Cronin of Nebraska). As an encore, he pinned Eric Barnett, who was ranked 6th at the time as well. Technically Spencer Lee should have won the BONUS Machine award also, considering he has scored bonus points in 88% of his matches this season (he's bonused 81% of his opponents in college, which is just insane). Spencer looks healthy, aggressive, he's got his gas tank back, and he's ready to finally catch them all.
Lauren: Spencer Lee, Iowa
I wanted to go with something different and creative here. But ultimately, it's difficult - and kind of crazy - to choose anyone but Spencer Lee for this honor. Lee wins when it comes to statistics (as detailed above), he wins when it comes to style (his pin of Matt Ramos after almost being pinned himself comes to mind), he wins when it comes to legacy (vying for his fourth NCAA title and third Hodge Trophy) and he wins when it comes to resilience and heart, having overcome double ACL surgery last winter. There were other strong candidates for this award, such as Penn State's Roman Bravo-Young. But Spencer Lee is a unicorn, and has already left an undeniable mark on college wrestling - no matter what happens at NCAAs.