Amid the upset-heavy weekend of this year’s NCAA Basketball Tournament, the nation’s top collegiate wrestlers met on the sport’s largest stage in St. Louis for the annual NCAA Wrestling Championship. A handful of ‘Cats made their way onto the mat to compete one last time and pulled off some major upsets.
NU entered the weekend with seven of its ten starters qualified to compete, six of whom earned autobids from their performances at the Big Ten Championships. Despite their strong showing in State College, though, the Wildcats remained unranked going into the NCAA Championships. By Saturday afternoon they earned a 10th-place finish, their best under coach Matt Storniolo.
The top-10 result was led by three All-American finishes from Chris Cannon (133 lbs), Yahya Thomas (149), and Ryan Deakin (157) along with solid advancement points from the rest of the squad.
Cannon began his first NCAA Championships as an 8-seed, already having exceeded expectations with his breakout rookie season. After a strong two-win start in the championship bracket, the 133 grappler fell to top seed and eventual runner-up Daton Fix of Oklahoma State. Splitting his next two matches in the wrestle-backs, Cannon earned a seventh-place finish with a dominant 11-3 major decision over Virginia’s Louie Hayes.
Ryan Deakin entered the tournament as the top overall seed and presumed favorite to win his first NCAA Championship having been the top wrestler at the 157-lb weight class since December 2019. After three wins in the three matches to start off the weekend, Deakin met fourth overall seed Jesse Dellavecchia out of Rider. Scoreless through the first period, Deakin began the second in the bottom position. After a quick scramble, Dellavecchia managed to retain his position on Deakin and pin him for the upset victory.
Deakin would go on to finish undefeated through the wrestlebacks and earn a third-place victory, the highest of his career. While he may have had a natty on his mind, the top-three placing is still an outstanding finish for the three-time All-American.
Finally, with what was one of the most impressive runs of the entire tournament, Yahya Thomas managed to earn a third-place finish at 149 despite being seeded 25th overall. Having been upset in the Big Ten Championships, Thomas earned an at-large bid to continue his season. While his season certainly had its ups and downs, the 25th overall seed given to Thomas seemed to be a bit of a slight, which he went on to prove in full.
Thomas came out of the gates with back-to-back top-10 upsets over Stanford’s Jaden Abas and Cal Poly’s Legend Lamer, taking the two matches by a combined 10 points. He would then face top seed Sammy Sasso (Ohio State), putting up a good fight but eventually losing 8-3.
From there, he didn’t look back and went on a four-match tear that included three more top-10 victories, two of whom were top-four seeds. Thomas outscored his opponents 22-9 during his final four matches, beating each by two or more points.
While it was unlikely that a 25-seed would finish anywhere near the podium, Thomas had shown enough skill to warrant the idea of a solid run. What resulted was one of the best stories of the entire tournament and an all-time run for the junior.
Aside from the three placing wrestlers, NU’s four other qualifiers all picked up at least one win on the weekend, helping contribute to the team’s total placing. The Wildcats’ 45 total team points were enough to earn them a 10th-place finish, just 1.5 points behind conference rival Ohio State.
Northwestern’s performance at college wrestling’s biggest event exceeded expectations and installs plenty of excitement for what will hopefully be a more traditional season next year. Per NCAA rules, Deakin could return for one final season, something he didn’t rule out during a post-match presser. If he chooses to do so, NU could be looking at a handful of top-five wrestlers next season with a supporting cast full of potential podium finishers.
Storniolo seems to have this team trending upward, and if there’s any time to hop on the bandwagon before next season, it’s right now.