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Previewing the 2021-22 Northwestern wrestling season

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We could be in for a treat this season.

Photo via the NU Sports team website

With the weather getting cooler and winter approaching, it can only mean one thing — it’s time for the ‘Cats to hit the mats.

Northwestern wrestling returns this month following a COVID-shortened season just eight months ago, and the squad has plenty to be excited for. Let’s take a quick look at what to expect this year for the NU grapplers.

2020-21 Season Recap

This is technically just a 2021 season recap, as all matches were scheduled during this calendar year, with COVID-19 restrictions shortening the season by a handful of duals and a couple of large invitationals. Facing strictly Big Ten opponents, the ‘Cats went 2-6 in conference duals, notching team wins against Maryland and Wisconsin. Multiple Wildcats found themselves in and out of rankings, with a couple of them riding top-10 territory for some time. And, of course, there was Ryan Deakin, who claimed the consensus No.1 ranking for the entire regular season at 197, keeping alive an unbeaten streak that had stretched back to December of 2019.

Following the regular season, Northwestern traveled to State College for the Big Ten Championships, where a number of ‘Cats reached the podium and punched their tickets to the NCAA Championships. Here’s a quick rundown of how everyone fared:

125 - Michael DeAugustino, 5th

133 - Chris Cannon, 4th

141 - Colin Valdiviez, 6th

149 - Yahya Thomas, 8th

157 - Ryan Deakin, 1st

165 - David Ferrante, 7th

174 - Troy Fisher, DNP

184 - Jon Halvorsen, DNP

197 - Lucas Davison, 5th

285 - Jack Heyob, DNP

Of the seven wrestlers that reached the podium, all but one — Yahya Thomas — were given automatic bids to the NCAA tournament. Thomas’ consistent performance throughout the season led to him receiving an at-large bid, however, sending a septet of ‘Cats to St. Louis for the NCAA Championships, while NU earned a 7th-overall finish at the Big Ten Championships.

At the NCAA Championships, three Northwestern wrestlers reached the podium, earning the title of All-American, while NU surged to a top-10 team finish. The team did, however, face heartbreak, as clear favorite Ryan Deakin was upset by Rider’s Jesse Dellavecchia for his first loss in over 14 months, but also triumph, as Yahya Thomas finishing third nationally after entering as the 25th overall seed. Here’s how the entire team finished:

125 - Michael DeAugustino, DNP

133 - Chris Cannon, 7th

141 - Colin Valdiviez, DNP

149 - Yahya Thomas, 3rd

157 - Ryan Deakin, 3rd

165 - David Ferrante, DNP

197 - Lucas Davison, DNP

The group effort earned the team a 10th place finish nationally, their highest under coach Matt Storniolo and an outstanding way to finish out what had been a tough season for the squad.

2021-2022 Season Preview

Lineup

As far as a projected lineup goes, there shouldn’t be too much change. From that group of starters at the Big Ten Championships, the team has only lost one wrestler in Colin Valdiviez, and there has been one weight-class change, with Jon Halvorsen moving from 184 to 197. While lineups can change week-to-week (something that we saw Storniolo do quite a bit last season), the starters should remain relatively consistent as the year goes on. Here’s what I think they’ll look like:

125 - Michael DeAugustino

DeAugustino took over the 125 duties from Sebastian Rivera in 2019, and has become one of the team’s most consistent wrestlers. After back-to-back NCAA qualifications and a modest bit of time spent in the top 10, DeAugustino shows promise to make a run at the All-American podium in March.

133 - Chris Cannon

Speaking of All-Americans, Chris Cannon earned that honor in his first season wrestling attached to the team, finishing seventh nationally after a breakout year. There’s no reason to think that he can’t continue that success, and his January 14 match against Iowa’s Austin DeSanto will be one you don’t want to miss.

141 - Frankie Tal-Shahar

This is probably the toughest weight class to truly put a finger on, but we’ll go with Tal-Shahar here. With Valdiviez’s departure, he’s the sole wrestler listed at 141 right now on NU’s site, and had six appearances last year in extra matches.

149 - Yahya Thomas

After making the run of a lifetime at the NCAA’s last season, look for Yahya to gain more consistency this year. He’s shown flashes of his ability throughout the past two seasons and has proven that he can hang with the best. If he can wrestle like that every time he’s on the mat, he’ll be a contender come March.

157 - Ryan Deakin

The three-time All-American fell just short of a national championship last year, losing by fall in a match he’d probably win the next 99 times. His combined record the last four seasons is 91-15, and thanks to NCAA rules giving him another year of eligibility, he’s going to get one more shot at an individual title. I wouldn’t bet against him.

165 - David Ferrante

Ferrante went 4-8 last season, but his record doesn’t do him justice. Ferrante’s growth over the course of the year became evident, with the first-year wrestler placing well enough at the Big Ten Championships to earn a spot at the NCAA’s. With another year of training under his belt, expect him to make some leaps.

174 - Troy Fisher

Of Fisher’s 11 losses last season, eight of them came by three points or fewer. Of those eight matches, six were decided by one point. He managed to bring two top-20 wrestlers to the wire in his first year, and has a very consistent defensive game. If he can manage to score a few more points of his own this year, he could flip his record.

184 - Jack Jessen

With Jon Halvorsen having moved up to 197, Jessen is the likely candidate to start at 184. After a solid redshirt freshman year in 2019-20, Jessen struggled some on the mat last season, going 1-7 on the year. Something to note is senior Brendan Devine’s move from heavyweight back to 184, a class he wrestled at in 2018-19.

197 - Lucas Davison

Davison posted a 7-3 record last season that included a fifth place finish at the Big Ten Championships and a second straight NCAA automatic bid. The redshirt junior has been steadily consistent the past two seasons, and could be a dark horse at a podium finish in Detroit this season.

285 - Jack Heyob

Heyob posted a 1-6 record last season in a weight class that is comically loaded in the Big Ten. It’s never going to be easy, but there will certainly be nights where he can grab you a few team points, which can sometimes be the difference.

Outlook

I aired on the side of optimism in the excerpts above, and by no means are any of the things I said above set in stone. There are very big question marks at three weight classes, with some uncertainty still at another two. Yet, this team has potential to be very, very good. They finished 10th at NCAA’s a season ago with just seven classes being represented and three of them placing. They have the ceiling to turn that into eight and five this year, with two wrestlers among those looking at an NCAA individual title. Can they compete for a Big Ten or NCAA team championship? No, Iowa and Penn State are on another level from everyone else. But a top four finish in the conference isn’t anything too wild, along with another top ten finish nationally.

If the team we saw in St. Louis shows up all year, then this will be a fun season to watch.