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2021 March Matness Preview

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Senior 174-pounder, Daniel Bullard
Andy Mead/ACC

It’s finally here - my favorite week of the year! It only took two years to become a reality, but it will surely be worth the wait. College wrestling programs from all across the country will descend upon St. Louis to compete in the most anticipated event on a wrestling fan’s calendar. Three days full of action, where dream matchups come to life, and the hardest-working student athletes in the nation seek to fulfill their lifelong dreams. There’s no celebration quite like when a guy becomes an All-American. And 80 out of 330 guys will get that honor this weekend.

It’s pure chaos - just like the basketball tournament, there are sure to be upsets, but here we get 20 brackets (winners & consolation for each weight) instead of just one. So the only things that are guaranteed are drama and Pat Popolizio getting his team a top-20 finish. He has done so in each of his seasons at NC State with the exception of his first. This year, however, only managing top-20 would certainly be a disappointment. He has a team that should contend for a trophy (top-4 finish).

Nobody is catching Iowa for the Championship, they have too many horses, one being Spencer Lee who is the surest of sure things at 125 and will be the biggest point-scorer of the tournament with all of the pins he racks up. And Penn State seem a pretty sure runner-up. But behind those two, there are 5-7 teams vying for those two remaining trophy spots. Based on seeding, NC State is positioned the best of the bunch - if seeds were to hold, the Pack would see a 3rd Place finish. This would be the best placement in program history and the highest-ever for an ACC team.

Now, “if seeds were to hold” is probably the biggest “if” that can be stated here. There will surely be guys who do better than expected, and of course guys who won’t meet their potential, so the team still has to go out and do it. But based on some of the draws we have in the brackets, I think we’re a serious contender to make the podium.

At 125, Jakob Camacho has drawn the 6-seed, which has to be seen as a win considering he is opposite side of Spencer Lee. Anyone on the top-half of the bracket is essentially guaranteed not to make the finals, but with Camacho being on the bottom he’s got a shot. His path* to the finals would include #27 Gage Curry, #11 Dylan Ragusin, #3 Brandon Courtney, and #2 Sam Latona. I really like his potential quarterfinal matchup with Courtney, who I think is the weakest of the top-4 seeds at this weight, but that would require a win over Ragusin of Michigan, who is a very popular darkhorse pick. That will be a dangerous matchup, but if Camacho can advance past the Wolverine, I really like his shot at a third match with Latona with a spot in the finals on the line. At the beginning of the season, I predicted that one of these two ACC rivals would be Lee’s finals opponent, and I still see it going that way.

*All projected paths are assuming the higher seeded guy advances.

Trombley draws into the 133-pound bracket as the 12-seed. This means a likely second-round matchup against 5-seed Phillippi of Pitt, who is a familiar opponent. Trombley is 0-2 against Micky in his career and would certainly be an underdog should they meet. However, both of their previous meetings were low-scoring affairs, so it’s possible he could reverse fortunes in St. Louis. Regardless of the result in that potential match, Trombley has a decent shot at making the podium at this weight. There are five guys (Fix, RBY, Myers, DeSanto, & Phillippi) who seem to be inevitably poised for AA finishes, but beyond that this isn’t an especially deep weight class. As I see it, those last three AA placements are up for grabs and Trombley could make a run for one with the right draws on the backside.

Tariq’s undefeated season earned him the 4-seed at 141. This marks the highest seed of his career - he was unseeded the year he went on that run for 3rd. Now that he has the benefit of an easier draw, it’s hard to see Tariq missing the podium. His path would be through #29 Chase Zollmann, #13 DJ Lloren, #5 Dom Demas, and then #1 Jaydin Eierman in the semifinals. Eierman is the prohibitive favorite after winning Big 10s a couple weeks ago, out-placing the 2-seed Nick Lee and 3-seed Sebastian Rivera. Tariq’s quarterfinal match with Demas will be an interesting one - the Oklahoma Sooner is an explosive, compact wrestler. I think we see a more patient, controlled Tariq like we’ve seen all season as the best approach to that potential matchup. Avoid Demas’ big throws and trips and Tariq could get that matchup with Eierman in the semis and secure his All-America honors. From there, everything is gravy. Eierman is a tough matchup for anyone and I would have to favor him, but if we see electric Tariq who is always attacking and looking to score points, we could be in for an upset.

At 157, Hayden Hidlay has a cake-walk to the semifinals. Michigan State’s true freshman Chase Saldate is an interesting opponent in the second round, and has a bright future ahead of him, but I don’t see him challenging Hayden at this point. There are plenty of legit guys, but if we’re being honest this is a three-dog race. Deakin, Hidlay, and possibly Carr, are in a tier of their own - and because Hayden didn’t get the 1-seed, he will likely see David Carr in the semis. These two have never met before in folkstyle, but Hayden did win a freestyle match between them this past fall at Senior Nationals. I like the Mug Dog in that one and to advance to the finals for the rubber match against Ryan Deakin of Northwestern. This is one of the most anticipated matches you can make in college wrestling - they are 1-1 against each other in folkstyle: Hayden won a convincing 8-2 decision in the 2019 NCAA consolation semifinals, and Deakin avenged it with a 6-2 win in the finals of last year’s CKLV. Since then, Deakin has been utterly dominant and there has been a lot of dismissal of anyone being a challenge to him, but I think that is shenanigans. The people must’ve forgot, and HH is gonna remind them with a leap from the top rope. I like Hayden to take it all in St. Louis before coming back in 2022 for his second.

Thomas Bullard may have the most challenging path for any Wolfpack wrestler. His opening match comes against Formato of App State, who he lost to to start the year. If he claims his revenge, he gets rewarded with #1 Alex Marinelli of Iowa. This will make for a long journey back to AA status in the consolation bracket, but Thomas can make it happen. If he wins his opening match, he’s likely looking at a Blood Round (winner earns AA status) match against #6 O’Toole or #3 Wentzel. If he loses, he will have to battle back through guys like #7 Smith or #10 Wittlake and then a Blood Round match against possibly #12 Keating. Either way will be tough, but I think I’d take a match against Wentzel over the Smith/Wittlake/Keating path.

At 174, Daniel Bullard has drawn the 8-seed. His path would likely be #25 Surratt, #8 Washington, and #1 Kemerer of Iowa. I think it’s unlikely that anyone knocks-off the Hawkeye this year, but that second round matchup against DJ Washington is one to circle for Daniel. A win there puts him directly into the Blood Round against someone like #6 McNally or #14 Hastings, both of which are favorable matchups in my opinion. If he loses second round to Washington, he would need to win two matches just to make it to the Blood Round over guys like #23 Mantanona & #16 Lautt, before facing a #11 Murphy or #6 McNally for All-American honors. Either way, I think Bullard has a pretty good path to the podium, but I’d rather only need three wins instead of four.

There are some pretty striking similarities between the Pack’s draws at 157 & 184. Like his older brother, Trent sits at the 2-seed, and really couldn’t have asked for a better draw. He should walk to the semis. Like 157, I only see a few guys with a chance to win it all: Brooks, Hidlay, DePrez, and Bolen. In my opinion, the two biggest threats to Trent are Brooks & Bolen, and they both ended up on the opposite side of the bracket. Meaning, they will likely hit in the other semifinal and cannibalize each other. That leaves Trent to battle with DePrez of Binghamton in his semi. They are 1-1 against each other from last year, both one point matches. But, Trent has undoubtedly made a jump from last season and I think he separates himself this time. It would be awesome to see Hidlay-Bolen III in the finals, but I have a feeling it will be Aaron Brooks of Penn State, which would be an incredible match. Worst case scenario, Trent drops the semifinal match to DePrez, but I can’t see him finishing below 4th in this bracket. As you can see, Hoagie is ready.

At 197, Reenan was able to get into the tournament with an at-large selection and he draws the 28-seed. That means he gets #5 Jacob Warner right away in his first match, which I actually like. I personally view Warner as a little bit overrated and think Nick can go with him for sure. This is a great opportunity for Reenan to steal that #5 seed, which could see him with a fortuitous path to an All-American finish. If he can’t knock-off the Hawkeye, it will be a long journey back in the consolation bracket. If Nick wrestles to his potential, he can blow this bracket up and earn some incredibly valuable team points.

At heavyweight, Chef D’s undefeated season and conference championship only earned him the 10-seed. That means a first-round matchup with #23 Michael McAleavey (the previous #23 Robert Heald was scratched, so all seeds below moved up one spot) who he beat last season at the Southern Scuffle. A win there would result in a massive second-round matchup versus #7 Ethan Laird of Rider. This match is huge because moving to the quarterfinals puts you one win away from All-American honors; a loss drops you to the consolations where you need three more wins for a podium spot. This will be a bout to circle, as it has a lot of team race implications for us. If Deonte were to push through to the quarterfinals, he will almost certainly drop his next match to #2 Mason Parris, who is a massive favorite to make the finals. This loss drops him to the Blood Round where he likely faces #12 Christian Lance for AA honors. If he drops the round before to Laird, he has to battle back before likely facing #4 Cohlton Schultz of Arizona State in the Blood Round. I’ll take a match against Lance over Schultz any day.

In all, I really like our chances at a team trophy. I think we have three legitimate Finalist contenders in Camacho & the Hidlays along with three or four additional All-American threats in Trombley, Tariq, Daniel Bullard, & Deonte. That should be enough for 4th Place at least.

On an individual note, I am putting my predictions for the finals below. Feel free to comment yours!

  • 125: Spencer Lee (Iowa) over Sam Latona (Virginia Tech)
  • 133: Daton Fix (Oklahoma State) over Roman Bravo-Young (Penn State)
  • 141: Jaydin Eierman (Iowa) over Sebastian Rivera (Rutgers)
  • 149: Austin O’Connor (UNC) over Sammy Sasso (Ohio State)
  • 157: Hayden Hidlay (NC State) over Ryan Deakin (Northwestern)
  • 165: Alex Marinelli (Iowa) over Keegan O’Toole (Missouri)
  • 174: Michael Kemerer (Iowa) over Carter Starocci (Penn State)
  • 184: Aaron Brooks (Penn State) over Trent Hidlay (NC State)
  • 197: AJ Ferrari (Oklahoma State) over Nino Bonaccorsi (Pittsburgh)
  • 285: Gable Steveson (Minnesota) over Mason Parris (Michigan)

The action begins Thursday morning at 11AM and concludes with the finals on Saturday night at 7PM. ESPN will be carrying all of the matches via their app, where you can stream each individual mat. The full schedule is below.

Go Pack!