Lehigh All-American Josh Humphreys (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
The 2023 NCAA Wrestling season ended last weekend. History was made, crazy upsets happened, and many fell short of their goals. Fortunately, and unfortunately, many EIWA wrestlers fell into all three categories. It was incredible to see the highest of highs and lowest of lows all under one roof, within seconds of each other - sometimes by the same person! In honor of the seven EIWA All-Americans, below is a list of 7 things to recap from the wild weekend in the Midwest!
#1 - First, congrats to the 3 NCAA Champions from the EIWA. Patrick Glory, of Princeton, returned to the NCAA finals coming away with gold this time around. The entire country assumed we'd see Glory take on Spencer Lee in the finals. But, due to the "Pin Heard 'Round the World," this was not the matchup we saw. Glory beat Ramos of Purdue - giving Princeton their first NCAA champ in 72 years. Talk about history! Remember when he almost moved up a weight class during the year? I'm assuming the right decision was made to stay down at 125 lbs…. Glory's eligibility is done with but expect to see him on the freestyle circuit and try to make the U.S. team for the next Olympic cycle.
Vito Arujau, of Cornell, won the Most Outstanding Wrestler Award after winning the 133lbs title, knocking off 2X defending champ Roman Bravo-Young of Penn State. Vito's road to the final included avenging a loss to Virginia Tech's Latona (who was the only wrestler this year to beat Vito). Vito's dominant semifinal win over 3X runner-up, Daton Fix, probably shocked many. He won via major decision, and nearly majored RBY in the finals. What an incredible performance by the man who many claimed had very little chance at winning this weight. Vito has another NCAA year left. With an upcoming Olympic training cycle, we may not see him compete for the Big Red, as he has bigger aspirations in this sport. I am expecting an Olympic redshirt from him next season, but that's just a hunch I have.
Finally, Yianni Diakomihalis, of Cornell, made history by winning his fourth NCAA title - joining a rare class of elite wrestlers. As previously mentioned, he is the 5th person to ever achieve this feat. The last person to do this was Kyle Dake, of Cornell. Yianni's quest for a 4th title was somewhat under the radar due to the over-the-top coverage of Spencer Lee's quest. Thankfully, he was the last match of the night, and we were able to celebrate his triumphant feat in extraordinary fashion on, both, ESPN and inside the arena. When asked how his performance went, Yianni said "What I did this weekend, is FAR, FAR from how I need to compete to be an Olympic and World Champ." This is Yianni in a nutshell. The pursuit of perfection is constant. He's already back in the lab training freestyle and loving every second of not needing those annoying headgear anymore (per his Twitter).
A few tidbits I'd like to add. The last time the EIWA had 3 NCAA champs was in 2012. Cornell ended up having 3 champs that year, earning a 4th place team finish. Secondly, in the year 2013, Yianni Diakomihalis won a New York state title at 99 lbs. His finals opponent - Vito Arujau. 10 years later, they both won an NCAA title repping Cornell University. Some stories just write themselves!
#2 - The rest of the All-Americans deserve some love too! First up, in weight order, is Josh Humphreys of Lehigh earning 3rd at 157lbs. He lost a heartbreaker in the semis to the champ, O'Connor of North Carolina. He was O'Connor's closest bout of the weekend, if that means anything. His future is still up in the air, as he will be applying for a medical redshirt. I think we'll see him back for the Mountain Hawks.
Quincy Monday was an animal this weekend, taking 3rd at a LOADED 165lb weight class. He fell in the semis to David Carr by a score of 6-5 due to a hard third-period ride. He dropped down and beat two returning All-Americans in Hamiti of Wisconsin and Amine of Michigan. Quincy was all smiles, all weekend - deservedly so. The legacy he will leave behind at Princeton goes so much further than what he achieved on the mat. His wrestling future is still in the air, somewhat. I'd expect him to do some freestyle to see where he fits on the Olympic ladder, so to speak. He did mention he wants to put his Ivy League education to good use. Quincy is more than just a great wrestler.
Chris Foca, of Cornell, was your third-place finisher at 174 lbs. He dropped his semifinal to the all-time great Starocci of Penn State. His win for 3rd over Mekhi Lewis was a great way to end the year, as Lewis was a former NCAA champ. Foca went all "FocaStyle" in the winner's bracket, pinning two opponents, including fifth-seeded Plott of Oklahoma State. He was an integral part of Cornell's 3rd-place finish as a team. He'll be back, but so is Starocci (possibly?). I'm sure we'll see Foca on the freestyle scene in the near future as well.
The last All-American for the EIWA was Cornell's Jacob Cardenas at 197 lbs. Talk about battling back through the consi's. He lost in the R16 on Thursday night, then rallied off three straight wins to become an All-American. Cardenas turned it on this postseason, winning EIWAs and coming to Tulsa with a podium finish. I loved seeing him bounce back after a Thursday night loss to Sloan of SDSU - who eventually lost in the final to Bonaccorsi of Pitt. Cardenas has jumped levels this year and I expect him to do the same this offseason. I'm looking forward to his battles with Beard of Lehigh in the next few seasons. Cardenas will be another Big Red wrestler doing freestyle this off-season.
#3 - Since I started my coverage at the beginning of the 2021-2022 season, the EIWA has been awful in the bloodround matches at NCAAs. How awful? Last season, they amassed a 1-7 record in the round of 12. This year's record was 1-6. Coincidentally, the only wrestlers to win these matches were from Cornell. Loew at 184 lbs last season, and Cardenas this year at 197 lbs. Cornell's Brett Ungar found himself in the blood round at 125lbs this year, losing to 2X All-American Cardinale of West Virginia in a close 3-2 bout.
At 141lbs, Lehigh's Malyke Hines lost to McNeil of North Carolina. Hines came into the tournament as the 22nd seed, knocking off Jack of NC State and Kazimir of Columbia in the consi's. Having built himself into the weight class this year, Hines will be tough next season. Julian Ramirez was in the blood round as well. The 165lbs wrestler from Cornell was upset in the first round and went on a run, which stopped short of AA status thanks to Shane Griffith of Stanford. It's never a good draw to have an NCAA champ in this do-or-die round. Ramirez has now lost in this round twice in his two years of competition.
Drexel's Brian Bonino was one of the lowest seeds to advance to this round in the entire tournament. He defeated eighth-seed Finesilver of Michigan in the winner's bracket. In the consi's, he took down the EIWA champ, Samuelson of Lehigh. His loss in the Round of 12 was to Romero of Ohio State who ended up in third, making a heck of a run.
Lehigh's Michael Beard struggled to close out both matches he lost. This seems to be an ongoing problem with Beard. If he can learn to maximize his abilities he'll be in the mix for an NCAA title. I'm excited for him to return next year and be near the top of the podium.
The final blood round loss came at heavyweight. Harvard's Yara Slavikouski fell to Davison of Northwestern in overtime. I fully expect Yara back next year, but he'll most likely be wrestling for a team in another conference, as his Ivy League eligibility is now done with. He is currently in the transfer portal looking for a new home. My guess would be a BigTen school (possibly a higher-end academic school looking for a heavyweight to replace their graduating senior NCAA champion????)
#4 - The Ivies are on top of the EIWA, and there are no signs of slowing down. The five Ivy League Teams with qualifiers made up 29 of the conference's 54 qualifiers. Penn led the way with eight qualifiers, Cornell had seven, Columbia had six, Princeton and Harvard each had four. With these teams only getting stronger, and the inevitable rise of Brown, the Ivy League has come a very long way in the last decade. All of these squads are climbing the ranks of the conference. It's even more impressive to see two different Ivies represented in the finals for the second year in a row! Plus, Cornell walking away with a third-place team trophy is icing on the cake. Princeton ended in 13th place. I've mentioned it before, keep an eye out for this Columbia team. They are quietly getting better. Look for them to improve on their 6 qualifiers next season, and possibly getting someone on that podium. They will be a tough team to beat in the upcoming years.
#5 - The non-Ivies had a nice tournament as well. Led by Lehigh's T-20th place finish, we need to go all the way to 43rd place for the second non-Ivy team, Drexel. To me, this says a majority of EIWA teams scored minimal points, and the points they did score came in the consi's. I've seen arguments that the conference gets too many allocations - this would be an argument I could listen to, solely based on these team scores. But being the largest conference in the country, they've earned that right. Obviously, Lehigh has always been at the top of this category. As of late, teams like Army and Navy have been producing wrestlers that are winning at the NCAA tournament. Drexel has now had a R12 wrestler two straight years. Binghamton had Lou DePrez in a similar situation last year as well. Obviously, winning a few matches as a team is not the goal - I know that, and so do the coaching staffs and wrestlers. As balanced as many of the non-Ivy teams in the EIWA are, sometimes they lack the "stud(s)" that produce points at NCAAs. This is basically a bunch of rambling to say - let's not get too pessimistic about the conference, based on these team scores. The conference is in a very healthy spot and I'll die on that hill.
#6 - There were a few wrestlers who stood out to me as "overachievers" (for lack of a better word) based on seeds, and maybe over the entirety of their season. The main one that sticks out is Drexel's Brian Bonino. His huge upset, as the 25th seed, in the first round over 8th seeded Finesilver of Michigan put him on a good path. He battled back, ending in the top 12 in the nation. This was after spending much of the season ranked in the high-20s, once he broke into the rankings. Another standout to me was Lehigh's Malyke Hines. Moving up from 133 lbs last season, he began the season a little slow and took some questionable losses. He managed to turn it on at the end of the year. He began NCAAs as the 22nd seed, and ended up losing in the blood round to McNeil of UNC. His win over the fifth seed, Jack of NC State, was a huge win.
Is it cheating to say Vito "overachieved"? Many counted him out as a finalist, let alone a champ at that weight - which has been manned by RBY of Penn State for the past two seasons. I think it's fair to say Vito surpassed expectations with how he won over Fix and RBY, as the final scores were not even all that close. The way he dominated was very impressive. The same argument could be made for Glory, as his closest match was a 4-1 win over a dangerous Matt Ramos in the final.
#7 - My overall thoughts of NCAAs have me torn. Even though the number of All-Americans for the conference was down again this year, it was a great experience and atmosphere to witness in person. Being behind the scenes and down on the floor is something I wish all fans could experience. You observe the roller coaster of emotions. My heart breaks watching wrestlers end their NCAA careers at this tournament without achieving their lifelong goals. It can get a little emotional for me with no real skin in the game. On the flip side, I also get emotional seeing wrestlers at the highest of highs - whether that's winning one match, being an All-American, or an NCAA Champion. Being a former wrestler at this level, I have been on both sides of those situations. Being a former coach, I can relate to the passion and dedication these staffs invest in their athletes. Sometimes wins and losses can mean more to the coaches and/or parents involved than we could ever imagine, as we saw in the unfortunate viral clip of Spencer Lee's mom after his loss. I am sure, one day, I will know that feeling. Until then, I'll keep staying involved on the media side as much as possible.
In conclusion, I just wanted to thank everyone who has reached out to me and for the kind words I've received this year. It does go a long way knowing that people in different roles are reading my material. It has been an honor to follow the journey of the EIWA's athletes, coaches, fans, and everyone else who is along for the ride! Another season is in the books. The 2023-2024 season will be here before you know it!