Entering the NCAA tournament as the twelve seed essentially means that a wrestler is set up to finish one match from the podium, and that is where Bismarck’s Ryan Blees finds himself entering his first NCAA championships this weekend. Essentially, Blees needs to win one more match than the seeds predict to become an All American. Of course, it is much more complicated than that. There are multiple different paths to the podium for Blees and anyone else this weekend. What we do know is that Blees enters the NCAA tournament with three losses since making the move down to 149 pounds at the Christmas break. Two to NCAA qualifiers and seeded wrestlers Beau Donahue (NCState) and Troy Heilmann (North Carolina), and one to Arizona State backup Josh Maruca. Blees has a legitimate path to the semifinals, but based on the guys surrounding him in the bracket, there is also a path to an 0-2 finish. After winning the ACC title as a team, Virginia Tech should be in the hunt for strong finish. This only magnifies the importance of every win for each Virginia Tech wrestler including the only North Dakotan in this years championship field.
As the twelve seed, Blees drew a first round bout with American’s Michael Sprague. Sprague is a relative unknown (at least for me), but enters NCAA’s with a 23-13 record and a relatively strong resume. Like Blees, Sprague holds an overtime victory over #4 Heilmann and a tight win over Oklahoma’s Davion Jeffries. Though there aren’t many more other eye-popping victories, Sprague has been within a few points of some pretty talented guys this season. The point is, North Dakotans should not be quick to look at a potential Thursday night matchup with #5 Ke-Shawn Hayes of Ohio State, as Sprague is no slouch. The other two wrestlers in Blees’s initial bracket quad are Hayes and Michigan’s Malik Amine. Amine is a battle tested Big 10 wrestler who hasn’t had a ton of success against top tier competition, but also cannot be overlooked should Blees lose round one.
Should Blees win his initial bout with Sprague as the seeds dictate, a matchup with Hayes awaits in Thursday evening’s round of sixteen. Though the 27-5 Buckeye would certainly be a favorite in that bout, there are reasons I believe a win for Blees is possible. Hayes is one of the best neutral wrestlers in the country (he has taken down everyone including both #1 Zain Retherford and #2 Brandon Sorenson), but he can be ridden and has faded last in some bouts this year. It is probable that Blees gives up a first period score, but the path to victory here is to keep the match 2-1 or 4-2 after the first, hammer Hayes on top in the second, and score a winning takedown in the third. The other factor benefiting Blees is size. Hayes is a 141 pounder wrestling up a weight class because he lost a beginning of the season wrestle-off to teammate Joey McKenna, while Blees has been a 157 pounder for his entire career up until two months ago. Im sure Hayes has had no problem growing into a full 149 since last October, but heavy hands from Blees have worn down many a talented wrestler. I also like the matchup because like Blees, Hayes is a tournament newcomer. There shouldn’t be a tournament experience advantage on either side. The reason I like Blees’s bracket placement so much is because an upset over Hayes means a likely quarterfinal matchup with North Carolina’s Heilmann, who Blees is 1-1 with his season. A win there would mean All American status and a semifinal matchup with 2X national champion Zain Retherford of Penn State.
A loss in the first round to Sprague would mean a wrestle back bout with Amine, and a long path to All American status that while not ideal, is filled with winnable matches. Standing in Blees’s way on that path would likely be Central Michigan’s Justin Oliver, who is the six seed because of a very strong start to the year but has faded late (possibly due to some kind of injury), followed by ACC foe Beau Donahue (who Blees beat at the ACC tournament and is 1-1 with), and a blood round matchup with Oklahoma State’s Boo Lewallen. Of course the story line here is an interesting one: Blees, an Oklahoma State transfer, wrestling Oklahoma State product Lewallen with All American status on the line.
A win in the first round over Sprague and a loss to Hayes would create a new path, this one actually (in my opinion) more challenging than the first. Here, Blees would run into Nebraska’s #13 Colton McCrystal and then a blood round matchup with the winner of the round of sixteen match between Northwestern freshman phenom Ryan Deakin and NCAA champion Jason Tsirtsis of Arizona State. This path requires less backside wins to the podium, but a matchup with Deakin or senior Tsirtsis isn’t my favorite. Tsirtsis is one of the best wrestlers in the country at winning close matches and will be looking to finish his final NCAA’s strong. Deakin is arguably the third best wrester at the weight this season and has a near-vitory over Iowa’s Brandon Sorenson on his resume.
Should Blees beat Hayes and fall to Heilmann in the quarters, it would mean a likely matchup with the loser of the Deakin-Tsirtsis match described above.
I have liked this weight class for Blees since his rise from the ashes because after Retherford and Sorenson, it has the potential to blow wide open. Floradio Live predicted on their show last Thursday that this bracket was one of the most likely to explode completely. Usually that means one or two wrestlers with double digit seeds making the semifinals. Why not Blees?