With the 2016-17 season now a few days behind us and a bad taste still lingering in our collective mouths after NDSU’s national championship performance, it is time to look forward to next season and see what might be in store for our beloved Bison. As with any team (except maybe Penn State), there are irreplaceable graduates as well as promising returnees. The most important loss is obviously three-time national qualifier Josh Rodriguez. Rodriguez has been the cornerstone and starting point for the Bison wrestling team for three years in a row, and it can’t be discounted how important it is to get a dual going with bonus points from the first wrestler to take the mat (in most duals). With 100 wins over the course of his career, replacing Rodriguez in the lineup will not be easy. The other major loss is 285 NCAA qualifier Ben Tynan. Tynan held down the heavyweight spot for NDSU well over the last two seasons after a strong community college career in California.
NDSU has a strong recruiting class coming in, with five state champions from four different states, including North Dakota’s two best seniors Brandon Metz and Jesse Shearer of West Fargo, and champions from Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa. The known commodities for North Dakota wrestling fans are Metz and Shearer, who both finished their stellar prep careers with over 200 wins, and who I think will slot in nicely for NDSU in the not to distant future. Council Bluffs, IA, native McGwire Midkiff will join the Bison next season after a 3A state title at 126 pounds for Jefferson High School. Midkiff is a four-time state placer at the Iowa big school level. From Illinois, 145 pound state champion Gavin Sutton will also make his way to Fargo in the fall. Sutton is a three time 2A state place winner and has a strong wrestling background that should make his transition to the college level a good one. Lastly is 2X Wisconsin state champion Jaden VanMaanen, who competed for Lacrosse-Central in his prep years. Van Maanen won his title at 145 pounds this year and finished his prep career with a 191-4 record. Flowrestling currently ranks Van Maanen 20th among the nation’s 145 pound wrestlers this season. Though Bismarck native Taylor Nein had his redshirt lifted last season, I don’t expect that to be the case with any of this year’s freshman. The Bison return quality competitors at each of the weights these guys might fill next season, so there is no reason to rush the college transition process.
One name to remember entering next season is NCAA qualifier Mitchell Bengtson, who was injured last fall and never stepped on the mat for the Bison this season. Bengtson has wrestled 141 his entire career, but after a year off the mat, I think 149 is the more likely target weight. The problem for the Bison coaching staff is that both 149 pounders from this season, Mitch Freidman and Kyle Gliva, also return, and both had bright spots during competition this year splitting the role.
The three spots in the Bison lineup that are probably locked for 2017-18 are those occupied by returning NCAA qualifiers Cam Sykora (133), Clay Ream (157), and Andrew Fogarty (165). Ream will enter next season staring down the barrel at his final chance to All American, while Sykora and and Fogarty return as sophomores with a year of NCAA experience under their belts and an eye on another step up the ladder. All three should start the season ranked in or around the top twenty in the county, and Sykora’s results from the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments have me thinking All American isn’t an unreasonable goal at 133 next season.
Wisconsin native Paul Bianchi appears to be the heir apparent at 125 for the Bison, though I am sure the weight class will be open for competition. Bianchi finished his redshirt season with a respectable 14-5 record while winning a Finn/Grinnaker open title and finishing second to Rodriguez at the Bison Open. The WWC and now Big 12 always seem to be most powerful at the lightest weight, so we should get a strong indicator where Bianchi stands when he meets in-conference competition right out the gate.
Taylor Nein wrestled admirably for the Bison at 141 this season as a true freshman after he won the Bison Open and had his redshirt lifted. That said, Nein’s 5-12 record in dual competition means his job is likely less than safe, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to redshirt the Bismarck native if another option presents itself. By the sounds of it, California native Nico Colunga, who redshirted this season after wrestling 133 for the Bison as a true freshman, is bulking up and will also make a run at the 141 starting spot. Joe Umlauf could also be a factor here.
The next question mark spot can be found at 174, where Carter Nielsen started the season for the Bison but was injured at the Midlands. From that point forward, Lisbon, ND native Dylan Urbach moved down to fill the spot. If healthy, the nod likely goes to Nielsen, but Urbach and redshirt Colton Clingenpeel could also make a push for the role in what could be a very competitive open tournament season at the weight for the Bison.
Though he didn’t have the most impressive Big 12 tournament, Tyler McNutt made big gains for NDSU last season and should take his spot back again next year. Others competing for time in that role will be Vincent Feola, who finished 9-5 as a redshirt last season, Frazee native Jonah Lange, and Bison utility man Charley Popp, who could also compete for the 174 spot. As I mentioned earlier, it seems most likely that Jesse Shearer will redshirt this fall, but I will be watching the Bison Open closely to see where the West Fargo native stacks up with the rest of these guys right out the gate.
Though he did not qualify for the NCAA tournament at 197, Cordell Eaton was sixth at the Big 12 tournament as a redshirt freshman, and really came on strong at the end of the year. I don’t see anyone taking his job next season, and expect him to make a serious push at national tournament qualification. I doubt Eaton sees serious competition in the room next year.
The heavyweight spot might be most intriguing for the Bison. With the graduation of Tynan, rs sophomore Dan Stibral is the next man up in the lineup, and he is certainly a capable replacement. The wildcard will be the other West Fargo true freshman in the room, three-time state champion Brandon Metz. Metz just polished off Iowa recruit Aaron Costello 6-3 in the “War at West Gym,” two weekends ago, and is probably the most college-ready of any of the prized freshmen NDSU has coming their way. That said, NDSU probably isn’t looking at cracking the top ten at NCAA’s with the addition of Metz, so unless he really blows the doors off to start the season (which is certainly possible), I would imagine his shirt stays on in preparation for four hard runs at NCAA’s down the road.
As a team, NDSU is going to have a difficult time equaling the dual success they had in dual competition this season. The loss of Rodriguez means NDSU will be without a guy that is going to get you bonus in most every match, no matter the opponent. Though Sykora has that capability when he gets to the top position, it isn’t the sure thing that Rodriguez was in most matches. The Bison should have the nucleus to win four matches against everyone, but individual dual matchups will dictate whether or not they can find a fifth or six win to achieve dual team success.