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MI Grappler NCAA Middleweight Preview

By Steve Widzinski & JJ Johnson, 03/19/14, 1:30PM EDT


HS Analyst Steve Widzinski picks the brain of College Analyst JJ Johnson on 149-165

Part II - 149-165lbs

Steve Widzinski: This tournament marks the final loop in the rollercoaster of a career Eric Grajales has experienced while competing at the University of Michigan. The 3X NCAA Qualifier has yet to earn All-American honors, but seems capable of beating just about anyone at anytime. However, the flip side of that coin is that the same applies to losing. 

Already this season he has beaten 5 of the top 16 seeds including #’s 2 & 5, but he’s also dropped 10 matches. 3 of those losses came to unseeded wrestlers, one of who did not even qualify for NCAA’s. The end result is a #9 seed, but to be honest with a guy like Grajales I’m not sure how much it really matters where he is placed on the bracket.

What do you think of the Grajales draw? Could he upset #1 Drake Houdashelt (Mizzou) in the quarters? Does he even make the quarters? What are the odds he doesn’t place at all???

PS – Matt Frisch (Citadel/Oxford) is now 2-for-2 qualifying for NCAA’s. He’s stuck wrestling #2 Nick Dardanes (Minnesota) off the bat, but what do you make of his chances to do some damage in wrestlebacks?

JJ Johnson: I’m gonna try to give you my best guess on all of those Grajales scenarios, but first let’s assess his season as a whole. Any time I judge his seasons, I try to look from Christmas on- that’s when I feel like he wrestles in full form. He’s 14-5 in that span this year, including wins over the B1G Champ, Tsirtsis of Northwestern, and the 2 seed, Dardanes of Minnesota. More importantly, he hasn’t lost to anyone who isn’t seeded during that timeframe. He enters as the 9 seed, and his match with the 8 seed, Edinboro’s David Habat in the second round will be a very difficult one, but I think he’ll win it.

What are the odds he upsets the #1 seed, Houdashelt of Mizzou, in the quarters? Houdashelt has some big wins but wrestles a lot of close matches, and his only loss on the year is to unranked Claxton from Ohio U. It’s possible, but realistically, anything is possible for Grajales. I’m too unsure to say if he will or not.

Will he place? I’d say it’s more likely that he does than he doesn’t. If I had to pick where he ends up, I’m thinking in the 5-8 range. I have Kendric Maple, last year’s champ at 141 winning the tournament, but there are literally eight or nine guys who have equal shots at standing atop the award stand Saturday night. And Grajales has just as good a shot as anyone.

And yes, former Oxford State Champ Matt Frisch is back in the tournament! He does have the 2 seed off the bat, but that’s nothing new for him, he had 2nd seeded Derek St. John last season too. St. John, of course, went on to win the tournament. Talk about brutal draws. I think he’ll improve on his performance from last year and win his first wrestleback match, and potentially a second match, but that’s likely where his tournament will end. He’s got two more good years left and you can expect to see him making some noise at NCAA’s in the future.

SW: So we both agree that Grajales could beat anyone on this chart or end up getting bounced. To a lesser extent, I think the same could more or less be said for anyone seeded #1-7.

It’s been a crazy year with tons of parity and excitement, but, along with 285, I think 149 is where the most chaos will ensue at NCAA’s. Houdashelt, who you mentioned, is the favorite by default, but how many legitimate title contenders do you think there are, and just how little separates them?

JJ: Crazy weight. I want to say something like six or seven guys have been ranked #1 at some point this year. I’d say six guys—Houdashelt, Dardanes, Villalonga, Maple, Tsirtis, and Sueflohn—have legitimate title shots. But four more—Habat, Grajales, Kindig, and Sakaguchi—have outside shots as well. So that’s ten guys. There’s only eight AA spots. It’s as much as a battle for eighth as it is for first.

With all that said, I think the finalists will be decided in two quarterfinal bouts. Maple-Tsirtsis on the top half and Villalonga-Sueflohn on the bottom half are who I think are where the best guys on the bracket are. I’ve got Maple and Sueflohn prevailing, with Maple repeating as Champ. All of Sueflohn’s losses are to guys on the top half and Maple has hit his stride lately. Plus, the OU senior has the experience having won a title last season.


JJ’s PICKS: 1) Maple 2) Sueflohn 3) Tsirtsis 4) Villalonga 5) Dardanes 6) Houdashelt 7) Grajales 8) Neibert

Steve’s PICKS: 1) Tsirtsis 2) Sueflohn 3) Houdashelt 4) Maple 5) Dardanes 6) Sako 7) Villalonga 8) Kindig


SW: One of the most Michigan-rich weights in the tourney, natives Brandon Zeerip (EMU/Hesperia) and Paul Hancock (Army/Fordson) earned wildcards, and Luke Smith (CMU) and Brian Murphy (UMich) both qualified via their respective conference tourney.

To be honest I was pretty shocked Murphy wasn’t seeded in the top 16. The true freshman is quickly becoming a favorite of mine, and, assuming he wins his pigtail, he’ll have a rubber match against #13 Dylan Alton (PSU). A 3rd place NCAA finisher in 2012, Alton nipped Murphy in OT about 6 weeks ago, but Murphy avenged the loss at Big 10’s last weekend.

So, what do you make of Murphy’s non-seed and subsequent bracket placement. Am I crazy to think he could AA as an unseeded true freshman???

Smith has quietly enjoyed a really a nice second half after a slow start, but to be honest I was pretty surprised to see him as a #12 seed. Did you this one coming, and what kind of performance do you think he is now poised for? 

How about the wildcards, Zeerip and Hancock? Zeerip feel a bit sleeper-ish to me. I don’t see him beating #7 Brian Realbuto (Cornell) in round 1, but, after assessing his draw, I think making a deep run into the consis seems fairly plausible.

JJ: You’re not crazy about Murphy. I think he sits in a great spot to All-American for the Maize and Blue. But yes, how the heck did he not get a seed? He beat the 13 seed, Dylan Alton of PSU at B1G’s and has a win over Dylan Ness to boot. He also lost to the 1 seed in OVERTIME! All things considered, the fact of the matter is he’s an outstanding collegiate wrestler, true freshman or not. I have him winning his pigtail bout and then getting another W against Alton to match him up with Ian Miller of Kent, the 4 seed. That match is not at all unwinnable. Miller is a hammer and I can’t disrespect him, he’s one of the most exciting wrestlers to watch in all of NCAA Wrestling. Give the nod to Miller.

 From there, I think Murphy will be able to string together three straight wins and take home AA honors. In fact, it sounds weird to say since he is unseeded, but I’d be surprised if he didn’t. 

Luke Smith getting the 12 seed is somewhat surprising, but he’s definitely got a resume to justify getting seeded. He started out pretty slow this season, but when he hit his stride, he was lights out. I’m not sold that he’s going to place top 8, but I wouldn’t count him out either. He’s a grinder and if he can get on top, he almost always gets riding time, which makes him an extremely difficult matchup.

Lastly the Wild Cards - Zeerip and Hancock. Zeerip has the better draw of the two, but it’ll be a tough road. He’s got 7th seeded Brian Realbuto of Cornell right off the bat. I personally didn’t see how Realbuto got seeded so highly, but he’s very tough. The two have one mutual opponent- Schiedel of Columbia- who beat Realbuto at EIWA’s, but also Zeerip defeated at Midlands. Zeerip will have a shot to pull it off, but it’ll be a hard-fought match no doubt. 157 is unbelievably deep, so it will take quite a tournament for the Hesperia native to leave with the result he desires. But he’s capable.

Hancock will have a tough first round match, as he drew Isaac Jordan of Wisconsin first. Jordan is a frontrunner to make a run at winning it all, so an upset here is not exactly likely. From there, he’ll have Tristan Warner of ODU or CMU’s Smith, both of whom are studs. I don’t know if Hancock will be able to muster enough to knock off either one, but hopefully he can get a win in his final trip to the NCAAs.

SW: Glad to hear we’re on the same page with Murphy. He isn’t going to blow anyone away this weekend, but as long he wrestles within himself I think Murphy’s scrappy style is perfect for grinding through a tournament like this.

As for the top-seeded Green, the 2X AA has really taken it to another level in his junior season. Based on their 2 matches this year he really seems to have returning champ #2 Derek St. John (Iowa) figured out, but in order to get to the finals he will have to get through either the high flying Miller, or Jordan, his only loss of the season.

Meanwhile, in order to make his 3rd NCAA finals appearance, St. John will need to get through #3 Alex Dieringer (Oklahoma State). The two met once this season, and it was Dieringer’s only loss.

So, will we get another Green/St. John matchup, or will at least one get knocked off prior to the finals? If so, who will be there in their place?

Assuming Green/St. John does happen, what do you think of St. John’s chances to reverse their prior two outcomes? He’s a scrapper who’s proven on the big stage, but Green has been extremely convincing in their prior matchups.

Finally, what about #9 Dylan Ness (Minnesota), arguably the country’s most dangerous wrestler? Many were surprised to see the former NCAA RU seeded so low. Could Green be in danger of a quarterfinals upset? 

JJ: Like 149, this is an extremely open bracket in terms of who the champ will be. St. John-Dieringer will be a tight one, but DSJ seems to have his number. After all, he’s his only loss this year. Green will have to survive a couple of potential landmines in Ness and Jordan. Ness is the ultimate bracket-buster and remember the year he made the finals he was the #7 seed. 

I think that DSJ v. Green III will happen. And I’ve got the defending champ. Everyone knows how hard it is to beat the same guy three times, so I won’t even bore you with delving into that cliché. This is based on zero sensible statistics, just a gut feeling. Tough to pick against a guy whose NCAA results are 4-2-1.

One other guy to watch for is #11 Taylor Walsh. He’s only got losses to St. John, Ness, Green, and Jordan 2x. He also has 25 pins on the year. That’s just unreal.

JJ’s PICKS: 1) St. John 2) Green 3) Dieringer 4) Jordan 5) Ness 6) Walsh 7) Miller 8) Murphy

Steve's PICKS: 1) Green 2) St. John 3) Dieringer 4) Jordan 5) Ness 6) Murphy 7) Miller 8) Walsh


SW: Last weekend at Big 10’s Jackson Morse (Illinois/Lowell) beat Dan Yates (UMich/Hesperia) in a battle between former MI Grappler wrestlers of the year. Morse claimed that meeting, avenging a loss from January.

Now they enter with respective seeds of #12/#13. Assuming they can avoid an early upset, Morse would likely see #5 Nick Moore (Iowa) in the round of 16, and Yates would have to get through #4 Steve Monk (NDSU).

Which do you think has the best odds to crack the quarters? Is there any chance both advance to set up a rubber match? And how about consolation, what are their overall prospects?

Also, senior Josh Houldsworth (Columbia/Holly) recently cracked Intermat’s national rankings. With a reasonable round 1 match against #16 Jim Wilson (Stanford), what do you think of Houldsworth’s chances to make some noise in his final trip to NCAA’s?

JJ: I think Yates has the best chance to make the quarters of the two. In fact, I’m saying he beats the 4th seeded Monk. His teammate Taylor Massa upset Monk last year at the NCAA Tournament when Massa was seeded 12th and Monk was 5th. I think Dan will have the game plan to get the win. From there, I think it’s likely that Nick Moore ends his title run and sends him to the Round of 12. With it all on the line in his senior season, I expect Yates to rise to the occasion and All-American.

Obviously that means I have Moore knocking off Morse in the second round. They didn’t meet this year, but Moore has been on a tear as of late. I’d love nothing more than to see Jackson make the podium. And to his credit, he’s almost always been at his best when it counts- his entire life. It’s absolutely possible that he makes a run at it, and since I took Yates to place, Morse is equally likely to do so. Like Yates, he’ll need some big wins, but he’s a guy who can get it done. 

Houldsworth will look to put the final touches on his great career for the Lions of Columbia. He’s got a winnable match first round in Jim Wilson from Stanford. David Taylor in the following round is much less winnable. I think the Holly native will have a great tournament and rack up two or three wins, but unfortunately, I think he’ll fall just short of making the Top 8.

SW: The MI storylines are extremely intriguing here, far more so than the title race. It’s been an insane season where the seemingly impossible has happened on more than one occasion, but this is where I draw the line. No way does #1 David Taylor (PSU) not win this in convincing fashion.

Assuming you feel the same way, just how dominant will DT be, and who is his most likely to make the finals opposite him?

JJ: Taylor is by far the biggest favorite in any weight entering the tournament. He hasn’t been challenged all year. He’ll roll through the bracket regardless of ESPN showing two of his three career losses on their promo video for the NCAA Tournament (Come on guys). His biggest issue over the weekend will be how many bonus points he can score for the Nittany Lions.

It’s probably safe to say it’ll be either Tyler Caldwell of Okie State or Nick Sulzer of UVA that he’ll face in the finals. Caldwell won their first meeting, but I’m going with the little brother of my former drill partner to reverse that outcome- partly because I don’t want to catch any flack, and partly because I think he’s the better of the two. That’ll set up a St. Ed- St. Paris Graham matchup. And you have to go back all the way to the 2010 FILA Juniors for their one and only career meeting. Taylor won that match in three periods.


JJ’s PICKS: 1) Taylor 2) Sulzer 3) Caldwell 4) N. Moore 5) Monk 6) Moreno 7) Yates 8) Luvsandorj

Steve’s PICKS: 1) Taylor 2) Sulzer 3) Monk 4) Caldwell 5) N. Moore 6) Morse 7) Moreno 8) Mock


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