This college wrestling season brought a series of wild early upsets against former national champions.
Yianni Diakomihalis, Shane Griffith, Mekhi Lewis, Aaron Brooks and Max Dean all took losses. These results seemed shocking, but how unprecedented is it really for a champ lose during the regular season? And what impact, if any, do those losses have on an athlete's potential to win another title? I examined the stats for the last five years to find out.
Here is the TL/DR version:
- Staying undefeated in the regular season after winning a title is rare
- A loss in the regular season doesn't mean a wrestler won't win a national title
- Three current former champs have a chance to maintain an undefeated record
Here's how I did it: First, I created a list of every national champion who won a title in 2017-2022 and then came back to wrestle at least one more season. If that wrestler took a regular-season loss at any point in their career following their national title, the athlete was added to the tracker. Injury defaults counted as losses, but medical forfeits did not count. The athlete's weight class in the tracker represents the weight at which that athlete won his title and/or the weight class in which that athlete took his post-title regular season loss. The regular-season losses that occurred this season (2022-2023) are bolded.
Since 2017, five defending champs who lost in the regular season came back to win a title that same year: Jason Nolf (2018), Vincenzo Joseph (2018), Kyle Synder (2018), Spencer Lee (2019) and Zahid Valencia (2019). Excluding current athletes and 2020 athletes, only one former champ (Dean Heil) did not win another title after taking a regular-season loss following his first championship. The track record of athletes finding their rhythm and regaining their status on the top of the podium is strong.
Now, the data
(depending on device, you might need to scroll the table using the bar at the bottom)
|NAME, WEIGHT||SCHOOL||TITLE YEAR(S)||REGULAR-season LOSSES AFTER TITLE SEASON|
|Dean Heil (141)||Oklahoma State||2016, 2017||
|Jason Nolf (157)||Penn State||2017, 2018, 2019||
|Vincenzo Joseph (165)||Penn State||2017, 2018||
|Mark Hall (174)||Penn State||2017||
|Kyle Snyder (285)||Ohio State||2016, 2017, 2018||
|Spencer Lee (125)||Iowa||2018, 2019, 2021||
|Seth Gross (133)||South Dakota State, Wisconsin||2018||
|Yianni Diakomihalis (141, 149)||Cornell||2018, 2019, 2021||
|Mekhi Lewis (165, 174)||Virginia Tech||2019||
|Zahid Valencia (174)||Arizona State||2018, 2019||
|Austin O'Connor (149, 157)||North Carolina||2021||
|Shane Griffith (165)||Stanford||2021||
|Aaron Brooks (184)||Penn State||2021, 2022||
|Max Dean (197)||Penn State||2022||
A regular-season loss doesn't mean much
The number of wrestlers who took regular-season losses and then came back to win a title suggests that a hiccup once or twice during the year does not mean anything. In fact, none of the athletes in this list lost in the NCAA tournament to someone who beat them in the regular season. I think all these losses did was prepare the wrestler better for similar opponents who could have posed a threat.
Let's take Spencer Lee, for example. The Iowa star lost twice during the regular season in 2018-2019. His loss by fall against Nick Piccininni in particular shocked the wrestling community and fired up the Oklahoma State fan base as their lightweight became a title threat once again. But then Lee stopped Piccininni in the NCAA tournament by major decision before shutting out his finals opponent, Jack Mueller, 5-0, leaving no doubt that he was the best man at the weight.
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Did Spencer Lee's losses impact his performance in March? No. If anything, they motivated the Hawkeye and helped him address places for improvement in his already exceptional wrestling style. Lee's a winner, and he found a way to win, three different years.
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The next best example is none other than Olympic gold medalist Kyle Synder.
Ohio State's Snyder took five losses in his career, but only lost one after winning his first title in 2016. That lone loss occurred just over a month before Snyder was set to chase his third national title, a goal which he would accomplish, beating the same wrestler in the finals who beat him in the dual: Adam Coon.
Snyder and Coon maintained a healthy rivalry in college wrestling, though Coon only got the better of Snyder in that one bout. All of their matches were close, as Snyder beat Coon in sudden victory that same year in the Big Ten finals and only edged out his opponent 3-2 in the national finals. Coon might be one of the best wrestlers to never win a title, but he at least pushed the Olympic champ and made a name for himself as a dangerous heavyweight in his era.
Much like Spencer Lee and Kyle Snyder, a number of Penn State superstars in the last five years (perhaps more than you might have expected) took regular-season losses before rebounding to compete for more titles.
Jason Nolf is the most notable name on this list, as Nolf was a three-time champ with a career bonus rate of 82.61% who bonused 92.59% of his opponents during his first title run. Nolf's "loss" in 2018 — the only loss he took in his final three seasons as a Nittany Lion — was an injury default. While this result counts against Nolf's record and there's no way to predict how the match might have played out if Nolf hadn't been hurt, the Nittany Lion champ was leading 5-4 on the time of the injury, and he teched Van Brill in both 2017 and 2019. Nolf's loss is an outlier from some of the others on this list, but is still interesting to consider in the broader trend of national champion regular seasons.
Nolf's teammates Mark Hall and Vincenzo Joseph also each only took one career regular-season loss following their national titles, and both of those losses came against Iowa in Carver-Hawkeye Arena, with Joseph's loss coming in 2018 and Hall's coming in 2020.
Joseph's bout, a nail-bitter against Alex Marinelli, marked the first of four matches he would wrestle against the Hawkeye and the only one of which Joseph would lose on Marinelli's home turf. Joseph outplaced Marinelli at every NCAA tournament they competed in together, but, on that day in 2018, Marinelli got the better of the defending champ.
Hall, much like Joseph, had a tremendous career, winning a title in 2017 and finishing runner-up the next two years. His only dual-meet loss came against Iowa's Michael Kemerer, 11-6, just two months before his senior season would be cut short due to COVID. He and Joseph both missed out on the chance to chase more titles, but their careers with the Blue and White are exemplary, and their regular-season losses are minor notes in careers marked by standout success.
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Penn State's Aaron Brooks and Max Dean can look to these alumni leaders as they aim to add to their trophy cases this March with more titles. Despite their few losses this season, Dean and Brooks are still ranked in the top five, and, much like the Nittany Lions who came before them, they'll still be title contenders, if not favorites, in just a few months.
There are a number of Penn State wrestlers though who did stay undefeated in the regular seasons following their titles, and they deserve recognition as well.
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Penn State's Zain Retherford and Bo Nickal are two of the most accomplished wrestlers in Nittany Lion history, and neither lost a college match in the last three and two years of their careers, respectively.
Retherford won his first title in 2016 against Brandon Sorensen during a tournament in which he bonused all five opponents that he wrestled. The Nittany Lion then added to his title count the following year, joining four of his teammates including Nolf, Nickal, Hall and Joseph as a national champion. This group of athletes continued to excel the following year with Nickal, Nolf, Joseph and Retherford all winning again.
Zain Retherford: A champion the last three years. UNDEFEATED the last three years. #NCAAWrestling pic.twitter.com/hFkV3sCmXu— NCAA Wrestling (@NCAAWrestling) March 18, 2018
When Retherford graduated in 2018, he left behind a legacy that seemed impossible to repeat, but Nickal and Nolf took on the challenge.
Nickal, in particular, posted a 90% bonus rate his senior season, pinning No. 2 Kollin Moore of Ohio State in the dual and crushing everyone else who dared to take a shot against the champ. He and Nolf seemed to only build on each success as they led Penn State to another team title and competed against each other for the 2019 Hodge Trophy. Nickal ultimately won the famous wrestling award, cementing his name further into the Penn State history books.
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That 2019 season also included another Penn State champ, one who would attempt to return in 2020 but would ultimately retire from college wrestling due to injury: Anthony Cassar.
The journey of Cassar is one that could be chronicled in a movie, as the New Jersey native spent four seasons with the Nittany Lions before bumping up to heavyweight for his senior season, earning a spot in the starting lineup, and taking over his new weight class. Cassar wrestled three matches in the season after he won his title, and he remained victorious in all of those bouts, putting him on the list of Penn State wrestlers who stayed undefeated in the regular season after winning their titles.
Nick Lee rounds out the Penn State wrestlers in this category, as he won a title in 2021 and then navigated a similarly deep 141-pound weight class in 2022 to capture the crown again. After finishing fifth in his previous two NCAA tournaments, the second half of Nick Lee's collegiate career was unbelievably perfect without a single loss.
Penn State, though, despite having a longer list of champs who stayed undefeated post-NCAA championship, is not the only team with an athlete in this category. Lehigh's Darian Cruz won his title at 125 pounds as a junior in 2016 and came back to the following season to finish fifth, but his only losses his senior season came at the NCAA tournament to All-American Ethan Lizak and 2019 NCAA champ Nick Suriano.
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Speaking of Suriano, the Rutgers and Michigan national champion may have bounced around two different schools and changed weights, but he never lost a regular- season match after winning his title in 2019. Granted, Suriano did wrestle an abbreviated schedule his senior season for the Wolverines, but undefeated is undefeated, and Suriano is in rare company with his unblemished post-title record.
This year, 11 former NCAA champs returned to college wrestling. Bravo-Young, Diakomihalis, Keegan O'Toole, Carter Starocci, Aaron Brooks and Max Dean all won titles in 2022, while Spencer Lee, Austin O'Connor, Shane Griffith and David Carr won their most recent titles in 2021. Mekhi Lewis took home gold in 2019. Of this list of 11 athletes, six are undefeated on the year, but only three — O'Toole, Bravo-Young and Starocci — have not lost once in the regular season since winning their first titles.
O'Toole has the toughest schedule ahead in terms of wrestlers who could end his undefeated streak, as he's expected to meet Iowa State's 2021 NCAA champion David Carr on Feb. 15 in his last dual before Big 12s.
His two duals before Carr won't be too easy either, as he'll have to get past No. 19 Gerrit Nijenhuis of Oklahoma and No. 22 Wyatt Sheets of Oklahoma State, but O'Toole will be expected to push past these guys comfortably just like he's done with so many other ranked opponents this year. In his 10 matches so far this year, O'Toole has wins over No. 11 Danny Braunagel, No. 12 Peyton Hall, No. 20 Connor Brady and No. 27 Evan Barczak. He also notched a 15-8 decision against No. 15 Mikey Caliendo, the same wrestler who just beat Griffith. O'Toole is tough, and he's on track to be in a position to defend his title well, as of now.
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Penn State teammates Bravo-Young and Starocci can feel similarly confident, though on paper Bravo-Young's path in particular is no easy feat. The two-time champ will likely face No. 5 Dylan Ragusin of Michigan, All-American No. 11 Rayvon Foley of Michigan State, and No. 15 Jesse Mendez of Ohio State before the start of the Big Ten tournament, while Starocci's toughest test will be No. 8 Ethan Smith of the Buckeyes. Bravo-Young, however, has such a degree of separation, even over some of these top-20 opponents. In his three matches with Ragusin in particular, Bravo-Young has outscored the Wolverine by a combined 21-3, and he's been a bonus machine this year as well against all of his recent opponents.
Predicting these kind of upsets, though, will always a bold move. Few wrestling fans would have expected Iowa State's Marcus Coleman to top Penn State's Aaron Brooks, and even fewer expected three-time champ Yianni Diakomihalis to start his season 0-1. Staying undefeated is a hard to do, obviously, and defending champs walk around with the extra pressure of trying to defend their title. If O'Toole, Bravo-Young and Starocci make it another year with undefeated regular seasons following their first titles in 2022 and 2021, respectively, they'll be part of a reified group of greats in the sport.