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Shannon Scovel | krikya18.com | November 22, 2023

The 5 biggest things we learned from the 2023 NWCA All-Star Classic

Aaron Brooks vs. Parker Keckesisen - 2023 NCAA Wrestling Championship (184 lbs)

All-Stars shined bright on Tuesday night in State College, Pennsylvania as 30 athletes across 15 weights in men’s folkstyle and women’s freestyle took center stage for the NWCA All-Star Classic. Each bout had its own storyline, but here are five overall takeaways from these matches between standout top-10 wrestlers. 

Penn State goes 4 for 5 to headline All-Star Classic

The No. 1 Nittany Lions put on a show for their home crowd, earning victories at 149 pounds from Shayne Van Ness and at 174, 184 and 285 pounds from Carter Starocci, Aaron Brooks and Greg Kerkvliet, respectively, by bonus. This is a team that is not just expecting to win another NCAA title in March but to bury anyone that gets in its way. 

PENN STATE WRESTLING: How the Nittany Lions won their 2023 NCAA wrestling title 

Van Ness’ win over Arizona State’s Kyle Parco kicked off the Nittany Lions’ winning ways, as he topped the Sun Devil for the second time in his career, notching a 5-1 victory just six months after beating Parco 7-2 at NCAAs. Penn State’s Van Ness is currently ranked No. 2 in the country behind Nebraska’s Ridge Lovett, though Van Ness will get his shot at the 2022 NCAA finalist Lovett on Jan. 12 when they open their Big Ten season against the Huskers. In the meantime, he’ll have matches against Lehigh, Hofstra, Oregon State and Indiana, though his only ranked opponent among those teams is expected to be No. 8 Graham Rooks of the Hoosiers on January 5. 

Van Ness took seven losses this year, but none of those athletes who beat him — Yianni Diakomihalis, Paniro Johnson, Max Murin, Austin Gomez or Sammy Sasso — are in the field this year. Van Ness has never wrestled No. 1 Lovett in folkstyle in his college career, but based on his All-Star performance, he’s primed and ready for that match when it comes. 

The win at 149 pounds served as a good start for the Blue and White, but Carter Starocci at 174 pounds fired up the Penn State faithful and took dominance to a whole new level in the next Penn State bout, as he handled No. 2 Mekhi Lewis 11-0 as a result of a punishing second-period rideout and a turn plus and a takedown, riding time points and stall calls in the third period. Lewis, who took Starocci to overtime rideouts two years ago, looked outmatched (and injured) in his match and will need to make serious adjustments if he expects to compete with the reigning Nittany Lion champ in the months to come. Starocci is now 100% bonus on the year with his other two wins coming by fall and tech fall against Luke Rada of Harvard and Nick Incontrera, and he’s, obviously, on early Hodge Watch. 

Starocci’s closest matches last year came against Bailee O’Reilly of Minnesota and Nelson Brands of Iowa, matches Starocci won 5-1 and 2-1, but neither O’Reilly nor Brands are slated to compete this year. It’s Starocci vs. the Field at 174 pounds, and he’s shown that he’s not afraid to put it on the line and dominate against the best in class every time he’s given the chance.  

Penn State’s only loss of the night came at 184 pounds as Cal Poly transfer Bernie Truax lost a weird match against Northern Iowa’s Parker Keckeisen after being hit for three stall calls. These two athletes traded takedowns in the bout, with Truax scoring first in the opening period and Keckeisen gritting out a short-time takedown in the third to win the match, 7-5, despite being hit for a locked hands call in the final seconds. Keckeisen’s a fighter, and he showed that for a full seven minutes against the new Nittany Lion. He’ll hold down his No. 1 ranking and look ahead to the Cliff Keen Invitational, where he’ll look to pick up more ranked wins and continue his own Hodge campaign. Keckeisen’s offense will be his secret weapon this season, as he’s quick, smart and athletic on the mat in a way that allows him to outmaneuver other big guys at 184 pounds. Northern Iowa has not had a national champion since Drew Foster won this same weight for the Panthers in 2019, and Keckeisen is looking like a guy who could bring some championship hardware back to Cedar Falls. 

While Keckeisen delivered a blow to Penn State at 184 pounds, the Nittany Lions rebounded at 197 pounds as Aaron Brooks rolled through NCAA finalist Tanner Sloan, 11-2. The bump in weight seems to only have made Brooks more dangerous, and he, along with teammate Carter Starocci, will chase his fourth national title as the clear favorite. 

The match of the night belonged to Greg Kerkvliet at 185 pounds. In one of the most highly anticipated botus of the evening, Kerkvliet took on 2023 U23 world champion, 2023 All-American and two-time NCAA Most Dominant Wrestler Award Winner Wyatt Hendrickson in what was ultimately a one-sided fight that ended up in a 18-2 tech fall for the Nittany Lion in the second period. The Nittany Lions' NCAA finalist came out to a roaring start with a takedown and backpoints early in the first 20 seconds of the match in a move that looked like one Hendrickson himself is known for. The Air Force big man was nearly flattened on his back but rolled out of it, tweaking his knee in the process. A second takedown with just a minute left in the first period combined with an earlier escape following Hendrickson’s injury time gave Kerkvliet an 11-1 lead after the first period following a last-second escape from Hendrickson. 

The Nittany Lion continued his scoring ways in the second period, earning an early escape, notching a takedown, and then another to finish with an 18-2 technical fall. The performance was dominant and definitive, and if Kerkvliet can continue to run the table in such a deep weight class for the rest of the season, he’ll be a runaway favorite to take home his first individual title in March. 

Matt Ramos silences the critics 

Remember when Matt Ramos pinned Spencer Lee at last year’s NCAA semifinals? That’s the Ramos you should expect moving forward. 

Despite two early season losses, one to high schooler Marcus Blaze and another to ACC champion Jakob Camacho, Purdue’s Ramos showed why he’s still a title contender, as he beat No. 1 Anthony Noto handily 10-2 in the All-Star dual. 

To Noto’s credit, he warded off Ramos’ top game early in the second period, boldly choosing down against the Boilermaker after a scoreless first period. Ramos, though, once in neutral, converted for a three-point takedown, his first of two takedowns of the night, to take the lead before Noto escaped to keep himself in the match 3-2. The breakout moment for Ramos came in the third as he took Noto down and nearly put the Bald Eagle on his back, picking up four backpoints in the process. 

This is Ramos’ game. 

He’s wild, free and funky, and he’s not afraid to throw big moves. He’s showed that Tuesday night, and he’ll have the chance to continues to demonstrate it all year long. 

Purdue is set to travel to Cliff Keen at the end of the month before launching into Big Ten competition, where Ramos could see No. 5 Dean Peterson on Jan. 14, No. 17 Drake Ayala on Jan. 19, No. 12 Caleb Smith on Jan. 21, No. 9 Eric Barnett on Feb. 4 and No. 6 Patrick McKee on Feb. 11. 

Ramos’ win over Noto was considered an upset on paper, given Ramos’ two earlier season losses, though Ramos did outplace Noto in last year’s NCAA tournament. His win, though, sent a message that the Boilermaker has the talent to move up the ranks.

Another All-Star who outperformed his rank is none other than new Oklahoma State Cowboy and recent NIU transfer Izzak Olejnik, who outmatched 2023 Big Ten champion Dean Hamiti at 165 pounds. Olejnik went 31-5 last year to finish eighth at NCAAs after taking a 7-3 loss to Hamiti in the first round of All-American wrestlebacks and then dropping to Mikey Caliendo to round out his tournament. 

Olejnik has been on an upward trajectory throughout his college career, finishing 5-4 as a redshirt, before going 19-10 in his first year as a starter, then 16-4, then 26-6 and, of course, losing just 5 of his 36 matches last year. Someone that wrestles that often is someone always ready to battle, and that’s what Olejnik did against Hamiti. It’s what the Cowboys will now expect him to do all year as he chases another podium finish for the Orange and Black in a deep weight class. 

Connor McGonagle’s success shows Lehigh’s depth at 133 pounds 

While Olejnik settles in with his new team, veteran Connor McGonagle continues a competitive roster battle with his own teammate, Ryan Crookham at 133 pounds for Lehigh. This roster battle, however, just became a little more complicated after McGonagle’s win against two-time All-American Sam Latona in the All-Star Classic.

McGonagle, a junior for the Mountain Hawks, posted a 12-3 record last season in his third year as a starter before injury ended his season ahead of the NCAA tournament. He started this season ranked in the top-five nationally and was considered an All-American contender, but an early season loss to teammate Ryan Crookham at the Journeyman Classic caused questions. Would Crookham be the starter for Lehigh? Crookham took matters into his own hands and attempted to answer that question with an emphatic yes when he beat 2023 NCAA champion and 2023 senior world champion Vito Arujau in that same Journeyman Classic tournament. Following these results, Crookham replaced McGonagle on InterMat’s rankings and looked to be the guy for Lehigh at the weight. 

In an interview with Flo, McGonagle described this situation, particularly his loss to Crookham in his first match back, as “heartbreaking.” His chance to compete for All-American honors could potentially be in jeopardy.

But McGonalge did exactly what someone in that situation should do to prove a point. He outscored Latona in a gritty sudden victory reversal to become an All-Star Classic champ. If Crookham was in the title conversation after his win over Arujau, Latona has a case to make as well, as he beat Arujau early last year. And now McGonagle beat Arujau. Transitive properties aren’t always that simple, but if McGonagle was looking for a big, ranked rebound win after his loss to Crookahm, he found it. 

One match after McGonagle, North Carolina’s Lachlan McNeil also earned a notable win over Josh Koderhandt of Navy to become the eighth Tar Heel to become an All-Star champ and the first since 1995. 

Nolan Hertel, Alexis Janiak, Adaugo Nwachukwu earn historic wins for Wisconsin-La Crosse, Aurora and William Penn 

Lehigh. Virginia Tech. Penn State. These are programs who have been well-represented at the All-Star Classic in the past, programs that have fielded winning athletes used to this kind of stage and recognition. But three programs — Wisconsin La Crosse, Aurora, and William Penn — earned their first NWCA wins last night courtesy of Nolan Hertel, Alexis Janiak and Adaugo Nwachukwu. 

Hertel, a 2023 DIII champion from Marshfield, Wisconsin, became the first DIII NWCA All-Star champ when he topped St. Cloud State’s Nick Novak, 3-1. A junior for the Eagles, Hertel is 5-0 in the year with 100% bonus and looks to be well on his way to chasing a second national title. His only two losses last year came against Wartburg’s David Hollingsworth and Augsburg’s Tyler Shilson, neither of whom are back in the field this year. His win over Novak shows that Hertel is primed and ready to compete against whomever is put in his path, regardless of division. For Novak, the loss will not count against him, as all of these matches are for exhibition purposes, but it will give him a chance to identify some gaps and fine-tune his approach as he too chases another title this season. 

With his win, Hertel gave Wisconsin La Crosse's its first NWCA All-Star win, and Adaugo Nwachukwu did the same, this time for William Penn. A 2022 NWCA All-Star winner while representing Iowa Weslyan, Nwachukwu repeated her feat this year under a new affiliation, topping Yele Aycock of North Central 11-7 while representing the Statesmen. Nwachukwu has had a busy fall too, competing for both the U20 and U23 world teams and finishing 7th and 10th, respectively. She's become a key name on the college wrestling season as a former NAIA champ and will look to continue her reign this season after a hot start that saw her 

Alexis Janiak rounded out the first-time winners this year, as she blanked Zarah Savidge of Life 10-0 in just 31 seconds. A sophomore at Aurora, Janiak won the CCIW tournament last year at 130 pounds and earn Most Outstanding honors. Her All-Star win at the same weight against the No. 1 ranked NAIA wrestler in the country suggests Janiak is back, ready to fight for conference, and national honors, again. Aurora, as a program, will wrestle North Central next on Dec. 11 before returning home to take on Eureka College on Dec. 15.

Samara Chavez also notably became the second winner in her program's history, as she notched a victory over Sydney Petzinger at 116 pounds by fall. 

No. 1 Hawks have an All-Star in Marlynne Deede

Speaking of history, the No. 1 Iowa Hawkeyes continued their trailblazing women’s wrestling season with another accolade as senior Marlynne Deede made history for Iowa and won her All-Star bout against Latifah McBryde of Life University, 8-3. Deede, a transfer from Augsburg, has been stellar for the Hawks in the first three duals of the season — in addition to the All-Star bout — earning a forfeit and two pins against Presbyterian, Lindenwood and Sacred Heart. 

Though more experienced than McBryde on the collegiate scene, Deede’s win is notable, as McBryde was a formidable opponent and has been collecting honors of her own since she arrived at Life University. Tabbed NAIA Freshman of the Year by InterMat for her runner-up performance at national, McBryde will now continue her sophomore season for the Running Eagles, while Deede looks to maintain her undefeated season with the Hawks and prepare to another Olympic Trials run in 2024.