With a little less than two months until the start of the 2023-2024 NCAA men’s wrestling season, it’s time to take stock of the field and evaluate the biggest names in the sport.
Right now, two athletes lead the pack: Aaron Brooks and Carter Starocci.
These three-time Penn State national champions will both begin this year with the goal of not only becoming the first four-time champs for the Nittany Lions but also becoming the only two wrestlers from the same team to become four-time champs in the same year. Only one other school in history has produced multiple four-time national champions, and that school — Cornell — just achieved that feat last year when Big Red senior Yianni Diakomihalis captured his fourth individual crown. Penn State is in a unique spot this year with their two upperweight stars, but Brooks and Starocci are far from the only athletes you need to know about heading into the 2023-2024 seasons.
Below is a list of the top 25 athletes to watch as we inch towards November, though the best part about college wrestling is all of the athletes who aren’t on the radar yet and will be poised to break into this tier of talent over the course of the season. This list is also not necessarily a pound-for-pound ranking and more of a subjective list of notable names, though previous achievement served as a key factor in who earned a spot on this year’s “names to watch” list.
1. Carter Starocci, Penn State, 174 pounds
A focused and fierce upperweight, Carter Starocci has collected three individual national titles in as many years for the Penn State Nittany Lions at 174 pounds, and he’s on track to potentially become Penn State’s first four-time national champion. While Starocci teased fans that he might not return for his fourth season (or potentially his fifth season next year), the Penn State coaching staff will no doubt want to do what they can to keep Starocci on the mat, given his historic success.
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Starocci has amassed an 80-2 career record thus far with the Blue and White, only dropping matches to DJ Washington in the Indiana dual his freshman year and Michael Kemerer in the 2021 Big Ten finals. He's avenged both those losses though and hasn't dropped a bout since March 2021.
Starocci doesn't just win, he dominates. He has bonused 66.67% of his opponents last year and comes into the season as the heavy favorite to run through the weight with force. The Hodge Trophy is a potential goal for Starocci as well, but he's been clear that aspirations extend beyond college. He told reporters at the 2023 NCAA wrestling tournament that he sees himself winning the Olympics in 2024, and while that statement is bold, it's par for the course for one of the most confident, competitive wrestlers in the Penn State lineup this year.
2. Aaron Brooks, Penn State, 197 pounds
Starocci isn’t the only Penn State wrestler with a chance to win his fourth NCAA title this season — Maryland native Aaron Brooks is also on this quest, and he’ll do so in a new weight class this year after winning his last three titles at 184 pounds. Brooks comes into his final season with the Nittany Lions holding a 67-3 varsity record with his losses coming against Marcus Coleman, Myles Amine and Taylor Venz, all of whom have since graduated.
The 197-pound weight class will be an interesting new challenge for Brooks, as he'll cross paths with returning NCAA finalist Tanner Sloan, former 184-pound national finalist Trent Hidlay, former teammate Michael Beard and a handful of other All-Americans who will be aiming to take down the Nittany Lion champ. Brooks' credentials, dominance and strength though still make him the favorite. He earned the No. 1 ranking from Intermat to start the year, and he'll be the top guy until proven otherwise.
Another interesting wrinkle this year for Brooks will be his efforts to manage folkstyle goals with freestyle opportunities because, like Starocci, Brooks has Olympic aspirations, and he's one of a few college athletes with a real chance to challenge for a spot on the 2024 Olympic team. Brooks advanced to Final X this year after winning the U.S. Open, and he battled tough against now four-time World and Olympic champion David Taylor in that best two-out-of-three series. A former Penn State wrestler, Taylor has owned the 86kg weight for the U.S. for nearly half a decade, but Brooks is looking like the heir apparent at the weight, and he'll have his shot against Taylor again at the Olympic Trials in April.
3. Keegan O'Toole, Missouri, 165 pounds
O’Toole’s record tells the story of a funky, fearless wrestler who takes on the best in the nation and finds a way to win. As a true freshman, O’Toole joined the Missouri lineup as a 157 pounder initially before quickly setting into the 165 pound spot and racking up high-profile victories. He went 19-1 that first season with his only loss coming against NCAA finalist Jake Wentzel, but he then followed that rookie year with an undefeated 25-0 year as a sophomore. He beat NCAA champion Shane Griffith in the NCAA finals that second season and became just the sixth NCAA champion for the Missouri Tigers in school history.
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The following year, the competition increased for O'Toole. David Carr, the 2021 NCAA champion at 157 pounds, moved up to 165 pounds and took out O'Toole handily in their first meeting during the Iowa State-Missouri dual. Carr repeated this performance at the Big 12 tournament, earning his fourth conference title and stopping O'Toole from the chance to be a conference champ. But, at the NCAA tournament, with everything on the line, it was O'Toole that outscored Carr, avenging his earlier loss and taking home the crown at 165 pounds. Now O'Toole and Carr are back and headlining a fun middleweight class again.
Regardless of who he is wrestling, O'Toole is appointment viewing, and he'll be in the mix this year not just for a national championship but also potentially for a Hodge Trophy if he runs the table and manages to stay undefeated against his mounting competition.
4. David Carr, Iowa State, 165 pounds
David Carr has never finished lower than third in his three NCAA tournament appearances, and he's expected to put up a similar top-tier performance this season as he finishes out his historic Cyclone career. Carr won his first title as a redshirt freshman at 157 pounds after the canceled COVID season, taking top honors during the fanless 2021 NCAA tournament following a win against Jesse Dellavecchia of Rider to cap off an undefeated season. The following year, Carr came into the national tournament as an undefeated Big 12 champ but suffered a shocking loss in the second round of nationals to Oregon State's Hunter Willits in tie-breakers. Despite his disappointment, Carr went on a winning streak after that match, beating All-Americans Wyatt Sheets, Kaleb Young, Jared Franek and Will Lewan, in addition to receiving a medical forfeit from Austin O'Connor, to finish third. It's a run that won respect from the wrestling community at large and showed Carr's leadership and character on the biggest stage in college wrestling.
Last season, Carr embraced another challenge. He bumped up to 165 pounds, putting him on a collision course with 2022 NCAA champion Keegan O'Toole. Once again, Carr met the challenge head on and won early. He beat O'Toole in the Missouri-Iowa State dual and then again at the Big 12 tournament to claim his fourth conference championship. O'Toole got the better of Carr at the national tournament, but the respect these athletes have for one another is clear. Their rivalry is great for fans and the sport as a whole, and they'll renew this competition this year as they both chase another national title.
5. Vito Arujau, Cornell, 133 pounds
Vito Arujau was a two-time All-American at 125 pounds in 2019 and 2022, but he’s a different kind of wrestler at 133 pounds. The slick and speedy Big Red star made his mark on his new weight class last season when he dominated his NCAA tournament bracket on the way to his first national title, majoring senior world silver medalist Daton Fix and topping two-time NCAA champion Roman Bravo-Young along the way. His performance earned him Outstanding Wrestler honors and made him one of three Ivy League national champions in the 2023 national tournament alongside teammate Yianni Diakomihalis and Princeton’s Patrick Glory.
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Arujau then continued his success in the months following the national tournament as well. He looked unstoppable when he won the U.S. Open in April at 61kg after victories against All-American Austin DeSanto and NCAA champions Nahshon Garrett, Nathan Tomasello, and he then picked up definitive gold at the Pan American championships in May by shutting out three of his four opponents. In June, with a senior world team spot on the line, Arujau outscored former teammate Garrett in back-to-back matches, 6-5 and 13-10. He most recently won his first senior world championship title at 61kg and will earn a bye to the semifinals in the 57kg Olympic Trials bracket next year.
This latest version of Arujau is on a new level. He’s the favorite to win the strong 133-pound weight class again this year, though there are a number of athletes — most notably Oklahoma State’s Fix — who will want to stop the rising Big Red senior. Arujau’s performance at senior worlds offers a good indication of his stellar summer training and readiness for another national title run, so all eyes will be on Arujau as the calendar turns towards November and the start of the 2023-2024 collegiate folkstyle wrestling season.
6. Matt Ramos, Purdue, 125 pounds
With just seconds remaining in the third period of his national semifinal match against three-time NCAA champion Spencer Lee last season, Purdue’s 125-pound Matt Ramos made history. He put the Hawkeye on his back and held him there, pinning Lee in what would ultimately be Lee’s final college match. The wrestling community watched, stunned. Ramos would go on to drop his national finals match that season to Princeton’s Patrick Glory, but with Glory moving on from collegiate wrestling, Ramos now inherits the preseason No. 1 spot in the country at this weight class this year.
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A funky, fast and fearless lightweight, Ramos leads a 125-pound group full of credentialed All-Americans including Anthony Noto, Eddie Ventresca, Eric Barnett, Patrick McKee, Michael DeAugustino and Brandon Kaylor. His wild style, though, makes him dangerous against every one of those guys. With a 56-15 record over his two seasons with Purdue, Ramos is a wrestler who continues to follow an upward trajectory, and he showed the country last year what he’s capable of. Now he’ll want to finish what he started and bring an individual championship trophy back to West Lafayette.
7. Daton Fix, Oklahoma State, 133 pounds
Daton Fix is one of the best college wrestlers ever who has not won a title, but his career isn't over yet. After finishing second in three consecutive NCAA tournaments, twice in overtime, Fix took fourth last season following losses to Michael McGee and Vito Arujau. He'll now have one last shot this year to end up on the top of the podium as a Cowboy.
With McGee graduated, Fix comes into the season ranked No. 2 behind Arujau. Topping Arujau is no easy task, as the Cornell senior is having one of the best wrestling years of his life and just won gold at the 2023 senior world championships. These two wrestlers — Fix and Arujau — have contrasting styles, with Fix's strength being one of his biggest assets while Arujau is known for his speed. Both Fix and Arujau could also meet beyond the NCAA stage as well, as both have the potential to drop down to 57kg and compete for a spot on the 2024 Olympic Team in March. Much like Arujau, Fix has senior-level international experience, as he picked up a silver medal in the 2021 world championships. Fix's previous achievements, both domestically and internationally, suggest that he's on the level needed to compete for a national championship. He'll just have to overcome the hurdle that is the reigning national champ.
8. Shane Griffith, Michigan, 174 pounds
Shane Griffith may be wearing new colors on his singlet this year, but he remains one of the biggest names in the sport and one of the most influential wrestlers of the last five years. After winning a national title in 2021 for Stanford (and playing a role in saving wrestling, among 11 other sports, from being cut from the athletic department at the school), Griffith finished second and fifth for the Cardinal in 2022 and 2023 respectively to be just the third three-time place winner in school history. Following that fifth-place match victory, Griffith told reporters that the bout might have been his last in college wrestling. He explained that he had completed his academic goals at Stanford and had an interest in pursuing a career in private equity. He seemed content.
Fast forward to the following day and Griffith announced that he might not be done just yet. In an Instagram post on March 24, the Stanford champ wrote a caption that read “Did someone say one more?” and posted the message alongside a series of photos that showed him in a Stanford singlet. But Griffith’s intentions to transfer and find a new home were still well known. His journey in Palo Alto had been full of adversity, with the threat of losing the program in the 2020-2021 season, a new coaching staff in 2021-2022, and five years of school at one of the nation’s best institutions, Griffith was ready for a change. So, on May 4, he became the fourth All-American transfer to join the Michigan Wolverines, a decision that brings him closer to his hometown on the east coast and puts him in a room with middleweight placewinners like Cameron Amine and Will Lewan. Griffith is now primed for one last title run, this time up at 174. The journey won’t be easy, but nothing about Griffith’s career has been easy. He has big goals, and he has a fresh opportunity to make those goals a reality.
9. Mekhi Lewis, Virginia Tech, 174 pounds
Mekhi Lewis is already in the history books as the first Virginia Tech wrestler to ever win a national title for the Hokies, and he has a chance to add to that legacy this year and challenge for the crown at 174 pounds. After winning his title in 2019 and taking second in 2022, Lewis finished fourth in last year's NCAA championships, but he'll come into this year ranked No. 3 following the graduation of Nebraska's Mikey Labriola. He currently sits behind Chris Foca — the Cornell wrestler who beat him in tiebreakers last year — and Carter Starocci — the three-time NCAA champion at the weight. Lewis, though, has battled Starocci tough, pushing the Nittany Lion to tie-breakers himself in 2023 in their lone career meeting.
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Stylistically, Lewis has the ability to push Starocci again, but the Hokies are not set to dual Penn State, meaning his only shot to take down the champ would be at the national tournament. In the meantime, Lewis will look to close out his career with another ACC title and continue to build excitement around the Virginia Tech program that he has elevated in his career in Blacksburg.
10. Parker Keckeisen, Northern Iowa, 184 pounds
Third, third, second. Those are Parker Keckeisen's last three finishes at the NCAA tournament. Regardless of the competition, Keckeisen finds a way to not just finish on the podium but finish high on the podium. This consistency has earned him praise from his coaches and the media, and while he obviously wants a national title, and he'll come into the year ranked No. 1 at 184 pounds, Keckeisen told reporters after the 2023 NCAA wrestling tournament that he's embracing the process.
"Is NCAA champ really the goal?" Keckeisen said. "You win it, and then you will forget about it the next day, but can you be proud of that and enjoy that moment? That's the goal. That's the goal, honestly, every day of my life."
His performances have, in the words of head coach Doug Schwab, "set the bar incredibly high" for the other wrestlers at Northern Iowa, and Keckeisen wrestles with the pride of knowing this role. He's on track to potentially be the first national champion for Northern Iowa since Drew Foster won this same weight in 2019, if he wrestles to his ranking, and he already has career wins over some of the guys that could pose the biggest threat to that goal, including Oregon State's Trey Munoz and Penn State's Bernie Truax. The stage is set for a big run from the fourth-year Panther.
11. Ridge Lovett, Nebraska, 149 pounds
After redshirting last season, Nebraska fan favorite Ridge Lovett returns to college wrestling this year as a title contender at 149 pounds. Lovett’s been a solid contributor for the Cornhuskers since he arrived on campus in 2019, but the jumps he made in the 2021-2022 showed that he’s not just in the hunt to finish on the podium, he’s a championship-caliber wrestler looking for a national championship
Lovett’s college career has been a little unconventional, as he started his true freshman season in 2019-2020 at 133 pounds and finished with a 17-8 record before the national tournament was canceled due to COVID-19. He then went 9-3 as a sophomore at 149 pounds following a 1-2 performance at the national tournament. Junior year, things changed. He posted a 24-4 record at 149 pounds and raced his way to the national finals where he ran into now four-time NCAA champion Yianni Diakomihalis and dropped the bout 11-5.
Taking a redshirt last season gave Lovett a chance to regroup and develop. He wrestled just four bouts last year unattached, roaring through the Cowboy Open with a 4-0 record, all with bonus. Though he wasn't necessarily tested in those matchups, he'll be a force this year when he rejoins the varsity lineup on a Nebraska team that will once again be in the hunt for a team trophy. Lovett and the Cornhuskers will make their season debut on November 4 against North Dakota State in a dual that has recently become one of the best early-season matchups of the year.
12. Real Woods, Iowa, 141 pounds
Described by Iowa’s Spencer Lee as “so athletic, so quick,” Real Woods made a statement in his first year as a Hawkeye last season. The Stanford transfer finished the regular season undefeated for the first time in his career — picking up a Big Ten title along the way — and came into the national tournament as the No. 1 seed. A major decision against Maryland’s Kal Miller, a decision against 2023 All-American Dylan D’Emilio, a 9-0 victory against Mizzou’s Allan Hart and an 11-1 dominant bonus win over Brock Hardy put Woods in the national finals and introduced him to a different kind of test: Northern Colorado’s Andrew Alirez. While Alirez would ultimately take the win in that match 6-4, Woods battled. His fighting spirit and force make him a difficult matchup for anyone, and he’ll bring those attributes back to the mat again this season.
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Woods returns at 141 pounds alongside a number of All-Americans including Beau Bartlett, Lachlan McNeil, Brock Hardy, CJ Composto, Cole Matthews and Clay Carlson. Ohio State’s Jesse Mendez, a sophomore who finished fourth at 133 in his rookie season, is also bumping up to join this stacked list. Woods has wins over Bartlett, Composto and Hardy, but he’s never wrestled McNeil or Mendez. Matthews and Carlson also have a win over Woods in their lone battles against the Hawkeye, though Woods has made jumps since those bouts in 2021 and 2022. There’s a seriousness to Woods' wrestling style that’s only been amplified since he transferred to Iowa last season, and he’ll be a key athlete to watch this season as he chases a national title in his final year of collegiate eligibility.
13. Trent Hidlay, N.C. State, 197 pounds
Trent Hidlay is electric. Just go watch him compete in Raleigh's Reynolds Coliseum. Hidlay brings the energy and "raises the roof" every time he takes the mat, bringing even more attention and excitement to a rising N.C. State program. A three-time ACC champion and three-time NCAA placewinner, Hidlay has become a staple in this program, and he'll now look to close out his Wolfpack career as an NCAA champion up at 197 pounds. The new weight poses both challenges and opportunities for Hidlay.
Strength and power have always been the biggest attributes of his folkstyle wrestling, so a bigger, stronger Hidlay is a concerning thing for his opponents. However, the problem for Hidlay is the biggest hurdles to him winning a national title — Penn State's Aaron Brooks — is also moving up to 197 pounds. To win this weight, he'll likely need to go through Brooks, a wrestler who has delivered Hidlay three of his 11 varsity losses. Hidlay made the national finals opposite Brooks in 2021, pushing the Nittany Lion before dropping a close 3-2 decision. Hidlay then went on to finish fifth and fourth in his two most recent tournaments.
"Don't grieve for your own end, before you have finished it"— Trent Hoagie Hidlay (@hoagieboyhidlay) May 16, 2023
Officially coming back for my 6th and final year of eligibility. Putting my all into one last go with @PackWrestle. Oh yeah, I'll be bumping up to 197 too. #B2W pic.twitter.com/6jF8gyAtNv
He'll come into this season ranked No. 5 at 197 pounds behind Brooks, NCAA All-American Stephen Buchanan, NCAA finalist Tanner Sloan, and NCAA All-American Rocky Elam, but if Hidlay is a full-sized 197-pounder as he's expected to be this year, he could absolutely compete with all of these guys.
14. Levi Haines, Penn State, 157 pounds
Levi Haines' potential as an impactful Penn State starter became clear the second he took the mat for his first dual meet. The new 2022-2023 rule that enabled true freshmen to start five duals as an attached member of the varsity team without sacrificing their redshirt allowed head coach Cael Sanderson to assess Haines' readiness, but he quickly learned that his young star could compete.
Haines beat Corbyn Munson by fall, topped Danny Nini and Jason Kraisser by decision and then majored Garrett Model in his first few duals, but his statement win came against All-American Will Lewan in sudden victory in the Michigan dual. Haines then came out of redshirt during the Iowa dual and outscored Cobe Siebrecht before running through the rest of his Big Ten schedule, and the Big Ten tournament, undefeated. The Levi Haines show had begun.
At the national tournament, Haines looked every bit like someone who could win the title. Early wins over Ashton Eyler and Jacob Wright brought him into the depths of the bracket where he met Bryce Andonian for a wild match that went Haines' way in the final seconds, and he then faced All-American Peyton Robb in a tight 5-3 battle. Less than a year after graduating high school, Haines was a national finalist.
The Penn State middleweight ended up losing his title match to North Carolina's Austin O'Connor, but with O'Connor's graduation, Haines takes over the top spot in the rankings heading into the season. He has the chance to pick up where he left off and add to his already impressive 27-2 record.
15. Greg Kerkvliet, Penn State, 285 pounds
The expectations and hype around Penn State heavyweight Greg Kerkvliet have always been high, dating back to his transfer to State College after a few months at Ohio State. As the No. 1 preps recruit in the country and a Cadet World Champion, wrestling fans billed Kerkvliet as a title contender right away. COVID and injuries slowed down his journey ever so slightly, though the now veteran Nittany Lion will come into this year ranked No. 1 as he chases his fourth All-American and first national title.
As a freshman in 2021, Kerkvliet battled injury and illness on his way to a seventh-place finish, but he climbed the ladder even more the following year, taking fourth with his only losses coming by way of a decision against Gable Steveson and a medical forfeit to Jordan Wood. Then, in 2023, Kerkvliet made it to the national finals. He beat All-Americans Trent Hillger and Wyatt Hendrickson on his way to the championship bout before dropping to Mason Parris for the title. Parris, who just won bronze at the 2023 senior world championships, has now graduated, leaving the heavyweight class to Kerkvliet. It's his moment, his chance to add his name and his picture to the wall of Penn State national champions.
He'll be pushed by a tough Hendrickson again this year as well as All-American and new Michigan Wolverine grad transfer Lucas Davison, but Kerkvliet will lead until he takes a loss. He's one of many stars on this Penn State team and could play a role in helping the Nittany Lions set some NCAA championship records this year.
16. Cohlton Schultz, Arizona State, 285 pounds
Arizona State’s big man Cohlton Schultz has been the anchor of this Sun Devil lineup since his redshirt freshman year in 2020-2021. A Greco specialist, Schultz came to Tempe with a long list of high school accomplishments, including four Colorado state titles, a 2017 Greco Cadet World Title, a 2018 bronze Greco Junior medal, and a 2019 Greco Junior silver medal. His size and strength have made him a problem for anyone he’s wrestled throughout his career, and he enters his last collegiate season with a 63-7 varsity record and three All-American honors.
In 2021, Schultz finished fourth in a loaded heavyweight bracket, but he jumped yet another level the following year, advancing to the national finals after taking down Lehigh’s Jordan Wood in a sudden victory semifinal. Despite dropping to Olympic gold medalist Gable Steveson in the 2022 championship bout, Schultz battled hard and held the Gopher champ to a decision to finish second. The Steveson loss was Schultz's only L that year and just his third career loss. He finished last year on the podium again, this time taking seventh after two sudden victory losses to Lucas Davison and Tony Cassioppi.
Cohlton Schultz of @ASUWrestling is a. . .— FANCO | College Wrestling News (@FancoWrestling) July 5, 2022
• 2x PAC-12 Champ
• 2x NCAA Placer
• NCAA Finalist
• USA World team member (GR)
He’s got credentials. Can anyone stand in his way in 2023 and beyond? pic.twitter.com/6wxutovmAm
This will be a particularly important year for the Sun Devil heavyweight as he’ll attempt to qualify for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. In the last Olympic cycle, Schultz took second at the Olympic Trials to Michigan alum Adam Coon, but the U.S. did not qualify the weight for the Games, meaning Coon was not eligible to compete. Coon and Schultz will be two of the biggest names heading into this year’s Greco Olympic Trials as well, and Schultz has shown that he’s at Coon’s level, if not even a little above the former Michigan NCAA finalist. Schultz stopped Coon most recently in two consecutive matches to make the 2023 Senior World Team, but they’ll likely meet again with an Olympic berth on the line in April. In the meantime though, Schultz will transition back to folkstyle later this fall and also strive for his fourth All-American honor and his first national title while representing Arizona State University.
17. Tanner Sloan, South Dakota State, 197 pounds
The 2023 national tournament was a breakout weekend for Tanner Sloan. Though the Jackrabbit did not accomplish his ultimate goal of winning a national title, he avenged his Big 12 championship loss, earned his first career All-American honor and advanced to the national finals. Those three days in March brought a spotlight to Sloan and South Dakota State that will continue into the 2023-2024 season.
An Iowa native, Sloan moved to Brookings, South Dakota in the fall of 2018 for his redshirt season, a year where he would post a 24-2 record with notable wins over All-Americans Eric Schultz, Josh Hokit, Lucas Davison and Jacob Warner. The following year, Sloan qualified for the national tournament with a 21-6 record only to have the tournament cancelled because of COVID. Finally, in 2021, he got his chance to compete on the big stage. He went 3-2 at NCAAs that year, leaving empty-handed after the Round of 12. The following year, Sloan again put together an impressive dual season but missed the podium at nationals after losses to Gavin Hoffman and Thomas Penola. This journey made his NCAA finals appearance that much bigger of a deal.
SD is 🏠— Tanner Sloan (@T_Sloaner) May 9, 2023
Excited to represent the 🐰 for one more year! pic.twitter.com/LcyVEFfGz0
Despite the fact that the only wrestler who beat Sloan at the NCAA tournament last year, Nino Bonaccorsi, is graduating, the 197 weight class might be tougher than ever. Three-time NCAA champion Aaron Brooks is moving up, along with former NCAA finalist Trent Hidlay of NC State. Stephen Buchanan of Oklahoma (formerly of Wyoming) also returns after a year of redshirt, putting Sloan at the No. 3 pre-season ranking behind Brooks and Buchanan but ahead of Hidlay. It will be an uphill battle for the Jackrabbit to win a title and become the second NCAA champion in South Dakota State's DI history, but he is improving every year and certainly part of this title conversation.
18. Cameron Amine, Michigan, 165 pounds
Unlike many of the other athletes ahead of him on this list, Michigan's Cameron Amine doesn't have a national title yet nor has he made a national final, but he does have a win over a champ, his new teammate Shane Griffith.
A three-time placewinner at 165 pounds, Amine has been an underrated staple in the Michigan lineup since his redshirt freshman year in the fall of 2020. He went 14-4 in that first varsity season, with his only losses coming against All-Americans Ethan Smith, Alex Marinelli, Keegan O’Toole and Travis Wittlake for a seventh-place finish at nationals. Amine would go on to lose to Marinelli again the following year in the Big Ten finals before avenging that loss in the NCAA tournament on his way to a fourth-place finish. In 2023, Amine finished fourth again following tournament wins over NCAA champion Griffith and Big Ten champion Dean Hamiti.
Amine’s 165-pound weight class will once again be one of the toughest in the country. Two-time NCAA champion Keegan O’Toole — a wrestler with three career wins over Amine — returns, as does 2021 NCAA champion David Carr. Amine will start the season ranked No. 3 at Intermat, with Hamiti and All-American Mikey Caliendo right behind him. For the Michigan veteran to make a title run though, he’ll need to find a way to narrow the gap between him and O’Toole. With the increased depth and talent in the Michigan room this year, such jumps are possible. Amine is strong, powerful and technically sound. He’ll also have a tough Big Ten schedule to get himself ready, and then he’ll look to make another deep postseason tournament run.
19. Bernie Truax, Pen State, 184 pounds
Bernie Truax has always wanted to go to Penn State. It was his childhood dream. Coming out of high school though, the Nittany Lions were out of reach for the California native. So Truax stayed in state and competed for Cal Poly, a team he remained loyal to through his undergraduate degree and a team that he propelled forward with his three All-American honors at 174 pounds, 184 pounds and 197 pounds. As a graduate student, Truax sought out new oportunities, and when the chance to be part of the Nittany Lion program presented itself, he took it, joining the best upperweight room in the country and putting himself in a position to win a national title.
Truax has finished fourth in his last three NCAA tournament appearances, but he'll head back down to 184 pounds this year and look to improve upon those finishes. Sandwiched between two three-time NCAA champions in Carter Starocci and Aaron Brooks, Truax is in an ideal position to make an impact on this team and bring more hardware back to Happy Valley.
20. Rocky Elam, Missouri, 197 pounds
Rocky Elam is a title contender. The third-year Tiger comes into the year ranked No. 4 at 197 pounds after taking third last season, but he wrestles every elite opponent close. He's never been majored as a varsity starter, and he's never finished lower than fifth at the NCAA tournament. He's a tough, strong upperweight capable of making some noise for Missouri again this year.
A Missouri native, Elam came to Mizzou as the No. 11-ranked recruit in his class and the Dave Schultz High School Excellence Award for the state. He quickly made an impact for the Tigers too, winning the MAC conference in 2021 and posting a 17-2 record with both of his losses coming at the national tournament as part of his fifth-place performance. In 2022, he won the Southern Scuffle and finished fourth at the NCAAs, improving on that result even more in 2023 with a Big 12 title and a third-place result at NCAAs. Elam will have the chance to wrestle in front of a hometown crowd this year in Kansas City at the 2024 NCAAs as he looks to become just the seventh national champion in Missouri wrestling history.
21. Wyatt Hendrickson, Air Force, 285 pounds
Wyatt Hendrickson might just be the most exciting college wrestler to watch in the country right now. A two-time winner of the Schalles award for most pins in a college wrestling season, Hendrickson is known for his big moves and his ability to put opponents on his back. He's been dominant ever since he arrived at the Air Force Academy, but 2023 was the first year Hendrickson made it to the national podium, and he did so in dramatic fashion.
Coming in as the No. 2 seed with his only regular season loss to No. 1 Mason Parris, Hendrickson bonused his first three opponents at NCAAs with ease. He pinned Trevor Tinker of Cal Poly in the first period, majored Grady Griess 14-1 and then majored All-American Zach Elam of Missouri 17-8. Against eventually NCAA finalist Greg Kerkvliet of Penn State, Hendrickson fell 4-2 but continued his reign of terror on the backside of the bracket. He pinned Lucas Davison of Northwestern in the consolation semifinals and then pinned Iowa's Tony Cassioppi for third. It was a historic performance for the Air Force all-star and one that will ensure he's never doubted or underestimated again.
Hendrickson has one more year of eligibility remaining, and he'll come into the year ranked No. 2 behind Kerkvliet. In interview with NCAA.com back in 2022, Hendrickson attributed his success to his calmness, saying, "What I'm able to do is reduce my nervousness and wrestle smart, and I can catch people when they are bamboozeled. I don't start going crazy, I can stick to my guns, and I can go out there and wrestle the way I want to wrestle." He has a crazy style, but it's a style that just might help him win a national title, if everything goes right for the Falcon.
22. Aaron Nagao, Penn State, 133 pounds
Aaron Nagao had a solid freshman season last year with Minnesota, posting a 12-3 regular season record, but he broke through to the national scene at the Big Ten tournament when he beat Henry Porter, All-American Lucas Byrd and future All-American Jesse Mendez to book a trip to the conference finals against Roman Bravo-Young. Nagao then proceeded to ride out Roman Bravo-Young in the third period, and while he would still go on to lose to the Nittany Lion, his performance elevated his name and his brand.
At the national tournament, Nagao topped Kurt Phipps, Micky Phillippi, Zach Redding, All-American Kai Orine and Mendez before finishing fifth after loses to Bravo-Young and Daton Fix. He then made the decision to transfer to Penn State, joining a room that now includes Bravo-Young as well as Olympic bronze medalist Thomas Gilman and other top-notch partners. The intrigue around Nagao will grow this year not only because of his dominant top wrestling and fast-paced style but because of this new training situation. What kind of jumps will Nagao make this year while practicing with Penn State? Other All-Americans have transferred to Penn State after their first podium finish, with Max Dean serving as the most recent example of someone who came to State College and found even more success. Others, such as former Central Michigan lightweight Drew Hildebrandt have performed similarly at Penn State compared to results at previous institutions. Nagao won't be alone as a transfer into the room, as Cal Poly All-American Bernie Truax comes in alongside him, but their stories will be fascinating to follow as the season progresses.
23. Bryce Andonian, Virginia Tech, 157 pounds
When Bryce Andonian wrestles, anything can happen. The two-time Virginia Tech All-American is known for his crazy style and relentless pace, and he's not afraid to put himself in dangerous situations if he thinks he can win a match. Just watch his quarterfinal bout with Penn State NCAA finalist Levi Haines. Multiple times in that match, Andonian looked like he might get a fall or big backpoints against the Nittany Lion. Though he ended up dropping the bout and settling for seventh at the national tournament, Andonian fought, and that's his trademark.
An Ohio native, Andonian came to Virginia Tech after four years at St. Edward High School where he won two state championships and took home a Fargo national title at 145 pounds. In his first season as a Hokie, Andonian qualified for the national tournament with an 18-6 record, but, like so many others on this list, he was unable to wrestle at nationals that year because of the COVID cancellation. He returned in 2021 to finish in the Round of 12 before earning his first All-American honor, a fourth-place finish, at 149 pounds in 2022. His bouts at that tournament, particularly his matches against Wisconsin's Austin Gomez, made him a fan favorite, and he'll come back now at 157 pounds for the second season in a row and look to build on his success yet again, chasing a title at a weight where he comes in ranked No. 6 to start the year.
24. Peyton Robb, Nebraska, 157 pounds
Peyton Robb will enter the year as the No. 3-ranked 157 pounder in the country, but his story is far more complex than this number. After finishing sixth in last year's NCAA tournament following an injury default to Ed Scott, Robb was rushed to the hospital after vomiting and experiencing overwhelming chills that morning. He had also developed a growing bruise on his leg that was spreading over his body.
Doctors ultimately diagnosed Robb with strep cellulitis and discharged him after giving him an IV and prescribing him antibiotics. But problems continued. He was readmitted to the hospital the following day with a bacterial infection that would become so severe that it spread through his tissue and created a situation in which Robb may have needed his leg to be amputated to survive. Several surgeries later, doctors were able to remove all of the tissue and save Robb and his leg .
Eight months later, and Robb is back training. He's recovered enough to start training again, and he's expected to compete for the Huskers this year. He comes into the year ranked No. 3 by Intermat, a product of his sixth-place finish in 2023 combined with his 4th-place performance in 2022. Robb's a wrestler who battles every time he's on the mat, and if he's able to compete like he was in 2023, prior to the infection, he'll be a title contender at 157 pounds.
25. Sammy Sasso, Ohio State, 157 pounds
A two-time NCAA finalist, Sammy Sasso has been the face of the Ohio State Buckeyes wrestling program throughout the duration of his career. His leadership and grit caught the attention of his coaches and teammates early in his career, as he earned the coveted "Black Shirt" — Ohio State's distinction for tough wrestling leaders — as a freshman. Sasso's first NCAA tournament opportunity was canceled because of COVID, but the never-deterred wrestler rebounded from that disappointment and advanced to the finals the following year before dropping to Austin O'Connor in a nail-biter of a bout. As a sophomore, he finished fifth, before returning to the national finals as a junior and losing a close match to Cornell legend Yianni Diakomihalis.
Under normal circumstances, Sasso would be preparing for his fifth and final season in the varsity lineup. He's been so close to his goal of winning a national title for the last several seasons and would enter this year as the No. 1-ranked guy in his new weight class, 157 pounds. However, in late August, Sasso was admitted to the hospital after being shot in the stomach during a carjacking. The Buckeye senior is in stable condition and has been posting on social media regularly to update friends, family and fans. He's expected to take a medical redshirt this year, per Wrestlestat, but Sasso is still a name to know this year as he continues to recover and looks to possibly make a return to the mat at some point in the future.