Returning NCAA champions shine at 2022 NWCA All-Star Wrestling Classic

The return of the National Wrestling Coaches Association (NWCA) All-Star Classic brought wrestling fans a top-notch series of matches on Nov. 22 featuring a number of NCAA champions, NCWWC champions, All-Americans, NCWWC champions and elite national qualifiers in a showcase event that lived up to the hype.

Headlined by the rematch of No. 1 Carter Starocci and No. 2 Mekhi Lewis at 174 pounds, 30 total wrestlers brought their best to the mat in Austin, Texas and helped answer a couple of key questions about possible title contenders at each of the national weights.

Here are the biggest things we learned from this stellar lineup of matches: 

Tigers, Nittany Lions excel, wining all of their bouts

All of the returning NCAA champions in the 2022 NWCA All-Star field notched wins against their top-level opponents on Tuesday night, asserting their dominance and holding on to their undefeated seasons. While results in November don’t always indicate final results in March, all of the 2022 NCAA champions who competed in the All-Star Classic showed that they are ready for another push towards gold in March. Their championship All-American teammates also stepped up, with all three Penn State wrestlers winning bouts and both Missouri Tiger athletes taking home Ws. 

Missouri’s Keegan O’Toole set a tone of the Tigers in particular with his impressive 7-1 win over the always funky Dean Hamiti of the Wisconsin Badgers. O’Toole went to work quickly, scoring the first takedown in the first period and adding to his point total with ease in the following two 2-minute periods. He notched a reversal in the second and then picked up another takedown in the third, as his final point came by way of riding time. O’Toole leads a stacked 165 pounds, but his performance against Big Ten freshman of the year Dean Hamiti showed that he’s the class of the weight until proven otherwise. 

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O’Toole’s teammate Rocky Elam also had a stellar evening, topping Iowa’s NCAA finalist Jacob Warner with an overtime takedown to win his bout 8-6.

Elam has finished fifth and fourth respectively in his two NCAA tournament appearances, but he’ll certainly have his eyes on the finals run after his win over last year’s runner-up.

The next big test for Elam will likely come later in the spring, as the Tigers are set to dual Iowa State on Feb. 15, and Elam could meet No. 6 Yonger Bastida for what may potentially be one of multiple meetings this year, between the dual, the Big 12 tournament and possibly the NCAA tournament.

For now though, the Tiger All-American can feel confident about his position as a title contender and assured that he has the talent and skill necessary to compete with the best once again. 

While Missouri stood out with two champions, the Penn State Nittany Lions once again outperformed all of the competition, both from an individual perspective and a team perspective.

Aaron Brooks, Greg Kerkvliet and Carter Starocci all won their bouts at 184, 174 and 285 respectively, allowing their wrestlers to hold on to their rankings.

Kerkvliet, the only of the three Penn State wrestlers not to come into this event with a top ranking, beat Iowa’s Tony Cassioppi — a longtime Big Ten foe — 8-5 on two takedowns, a reversal, an escape and riding time. This result reverses the previous two results from their meetings, as Cassioppi had not lost to the Penn State All-American prior to this meeting.

Heavyweight is a particularly fun weight class this year, given that Olympic gold medalist Gable Steveson is not expected to return now that he left his shoes on the mat at last year’s NCAA tournament to signal his retirement. Without Steveson, any number of top big men could compete for the top spot, with Kerkvliet putting himself in good position with the win over Cassioppi and 2022 NCAA tournament finalist Cohlton Schultz also in the mix.

Michigan NCAA finalist from 2021 Mason Parris is also on the early list of contenders, demonstrating the depth both on the Big Ten scene and the national level. Cassioppi also can’t be counted out, despite the loss. Iowa’s heavyweight has been racking up bonus points by fall in these early duals, and he doesn’t quit. The edge belongs to Kerkvliet now, but the season is just getting started. 

Penn State has become known for its upperweights in recent years, and this year’s All-Star Classic in particular highlighted just how strong this team is at the end of the lineup. In addition to Kerkvliet, 184-pound national champion Aaron Brooks also handled All-American Parker Keckeisen from Northern Iowa 12-8, driving the pace the entire match and remaining unfazed by a wrestler who came in hoping to dethrone the champ. Brooks scored easily and often, and the separation between him the rest of the field became clear after this match. Much like Cassioppi, Keckeisen is far from out of this fight, but he’ll need to make some real adjustments in the next few months to close the gap. 

At 174 pounds, the match between 2022 NCAA champion Carter Starocci and 2019 NCAA champion Mekhi Lewis was far closer, with neither wrestler earning a takedown. Starocci put himself on the board first with an escape in the second period and then rode out Lewis for the win in the third. A third-period rideout in a dual like this can be demoralizing, but Lewis can walk off the mat knowing that Starocci didn’t take him down once. For Lewis to reverse this result, he’ll need to take down Starocci himself, and he’s done it before. If these two meet again in the NCAA tournament this year, Starocci will have the edge on paper, but the match will likely be close once again, given the defensive expertise of both athletes. 

Lewis’ loss was Virginia Tech’s second of the night as 157-pounder Bryce Andonian also dropped his bout to Michigan’s Will Lewan 3-1 with the Wolverine slowing down Andonian to wrestle his match.

In addition to Lewan, the Big Ten had wrestlers earn wins at 125 and 133 pounds. Pat McKee put on an electrifying show with his pin over Iowa State’s Kysen Terukina, and Lucas Byrd of Illinois notched a workmanlike 3-2 win over Michael McGee of Arizona State. 

Monday remains a top title threat at 157 pounds

Penn State’s Carter Starocci and Mekhi Lewis might have been the headliners of the 2022 NWCA All-Star Classic, but Princeton’s Quincy Monday and Iowa State’s David Carr might have been part of the coolest match of the event. The sons of wrestling legends (and rivals) Kenny Monday and Nate Carr, Quincy Monday and David Carr renewed their fathers’ rivalry in an exhibition match at 165 pounds, a new weight for both of them. Carr won the 157 pound title at 2021 and took third in 2022, while Monday was forced to sit out the 2021 season due to Ivy League rules but ultimately finished second the following year. Carr is expected to be up at 165 pounds this year as he builds into 74kg ahead of the Olympic Cycle in 2024 while Monday will be dropping back down to 157 pounds for the remainder of this season. Monday took the match at 165 pounds for the opportunity to compete against Carr, and the match proved to be particularly interesting, revealing a lot about where both wrestlers are at right now. 

While Carr may have been favored in this bout because of his size, Monday battled tough. His ability to keep the match close with a guy that is essentially a weight class above him showed just how technically skilled and strong he is. Neither wrestler earned a takedown, and the 2-1 match was decided by a riding time point that Carr earned in the third period before Monday escaped. Even in a loss though, Monday comes out looking like a potential national champion. Credit belongs to both of these men for toeing the line and carrying on their families legacy. 

141 and 149 pounds will be chaos this year

The unpredictable nature of 149 pounds was known going into this year’s All-Star Classic bout between No. 2 Austin Gomez and No. 3 Sammy Sasso, and last night’s results highlighted just how interesting and exciting this weight really will be.

Wisconsin’s Gomez — fresh off a win against No. 1 Yianni Diakomihalis on Saturday — showcased his high-powered offense once again in his 10-9 win over Sasso, and his persistence and savviness of the mat stood out throughout this seven-minute performance.

Sasso came out firing, an expected approach for the Buckeye All-American who took an upset loss last weekend against Caleb Henson of Virginia Tech, and he held a solid 4-2 lead at the end of the second period following a smart takedown off of a scramble. Sasso had control at this point in the match. He was countering Gomez’ strength and wrestling tough. Gomez, however, had a deeper gas tank, and his grit and endurance in the third would be the difference-maker in this match. 

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Trailing 5-2 following an early Sasso escape to start the third period, Gomez went to work. He scored. Then he scored again. Then he scored again. This was a man on a mission. Three takedowns in less than two minutes helped Gomez elevate himself past Sasso and secure the W in this high-scoring, fast-paced bout. This match showed that Gomez win against Diakomihalis was anything just a fluke. Despite his season-opening loss to Paniro Johnson of Iowa State, the Badger leader is back on track and making big moves. Is he the best guy in the weight class? Can Sasso make adjustments and make his own run for the top spot in the weight in March? These are the questions that remain answered, but the All-Star Classic showed that the separation between athletes in this weight is small, and the intensity is high.  

Similar to 149 pounds, 141 pounds remains very much up in the air, as Northern Colorado’s Andrew Alirez, a last-minute replacement in the All-Star dual for injured Hawkeye All-American Real Woods, stopped Pitt’s No. 1 Cole Matthews in a 4-2 sudden victory bout. Matthews has been known to wrestle these kinds of close matches throughout his career, and he typically finds ways to win them. On Tuesday though, this match belonged to Alirez. The Northern Colorado junior put himself on the board first with the early second-period reversal, but Matthews escaped, keeping the score tight and resuming the battle from neutral. Alirez came to fight, and while he did not secure any additional points in the second period, his pace set the tone as the third period came and went.

Overtime, then, belonged to Alirez as he worked through a scramble to start the extra period and then found his spot, taking down Matthews for the win.

Alirez came into the dual ranked No. 4, and while the All-Star Classic was simply an exhibition, the experience of earning a win over someone like Matthews will be a huge confidence booster for the Northern Colorado star and could still see him make a jump in the rankings. 

Kimber, Makoyed and Nwachukwu dominate with shutouts 

The four women’s matches added such value to the 2022 NWCA All-Star Classic, and as this event continues, more women matches should be included to equal the men’s. All eight of the athletes competing in this bouts showed force and offense, with three of the four winners shutting out their opponents.

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Sydnee Kimber, a stellar senior from McKendee, kicked off the action for the women in her bout against Missouri Valley’s Kelani Corbett at 191 pounds, and her effort showed why she went undefeated last year and has been so dominant. After notching two takedowns in the first period, Kimber continued pushing forward, notching a second takedown in the final period to take the match without giving up a point. 

Adaugo Nwachukwu of Iowa Wesleyan followed a similar game plan against Kimber’s McKendree teammate Alara Boyd, earning the first takedown in the first period and then picking up two pushout points to lead 4-0 early in the second period. She then secured up her last two points on a takedown before fending off Boyd in the last 30 seconds, delivering McKendree its first loss of the night. 

The final shoutout win on the women’s side belonged to Yelena Makoyed of North Central as she made quick work of Jessie Lee of Life in the first period. Makoyed scored two takedowns, two turns and a gut wrench to end the match after just 1:51. 

 

The most intense women’s match of the night came between Emily Shilson and Peyton Prussin, two well-known names in the field and two women who certainly proved how elite they are in this 8-4 battle. 

Prussin came into this match fearless, initiating the attack on the UWW champion who has won gold in the U17, U20 and U23 divisions.

Shilson’s defense, however, proved too much, as she held off Prussin during the initial scramble, only to give up four points at the end of the period for a throw.

Down 4-0 despite being the favorite heading into the match, Shilson did Shilson things. She scored a takedown and racked up points on a leg lace to earn four points of her own, but continued to fight.

Time ticked down. The match remained tied. With just four seconds left in the match, Shilson found another four points on a throw and walked away with the W.

This match put a spotlight on these women in such a critical way and highlighted that more of these matches are needed in All-Star events. Every athlete that stepped up to compete in this event created energy and excitement around the sport. Wrestling action continues, but these results certainly offered a fun glimpse at national-caliber bouts. 

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