Martin: How the month of March affects next wrestling season

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Zach Martin

We weren’t given a typical March Madness this year. By now, we would’ve known the four teams heading to Atlanta for the Final Four in the men’s tournament.

But the 2020 version of March Madness might be the craziest one yet.

The COVID-19 pandemic kicked it off with the cancellation of everything except the UFC somehow. Then, the official decision by the International Olympic Committee to move the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to 2021. Finally, the NCAA granting an extra season of eligibility to spring sport student-athletes, but not winter sports.

That includes the 330 individuals that qualified for the NCAA Wrestling Championships.

Before I get to the main point of this column, let me unpack my feelings toward the decision March 30.

I’m glad the NCAA is allowing all spring athletes the chance to gain a season they lost due to unprecedented circumstances. It makes the NCAA for once look really, really good.

However, I wish they allowed the aforementioned 330 wrestlers a chance at redemption.

Wrestling is the most individualized sport in all of college athletics. Duals don’t mean anything. Only your individual stats and wins matter. Individuals qualify for the NCAA Championships for wrestling, teams don’t.

Which was my whole argument as to why only the qualified NCAA wrestlers gain another year of eligibility. No one else, just those 330. Potential history was taken away from a dozen wrestlers, most notably Spencer Lee of Iowa going for his third straight 125 pound NCAA title on his way to four consecutive crowns.

Qualifiers who never got a shot at becoming All-Americans for the first time in their four or five years careers, that can’t happen now.

It didn’t happen and it kind of sucks, but as Iowa Head Coach Tom Brands always says, onward.

Now that the dust has settled, we now know what the 2020-21 wrestling season will look like. I have two words for you.

Buckle up.

Those Olympic redshirts that sat out last season, they’re all back. It was announced that the qualifiers for the Olympic Trials, scheduled for April, will keep their spots for when the trials are eventually held sometime next year.

That means Oklahoma State’s Daton Fix and Virginia Tech’s Mekhi Lewis are going to be fresher than ever transitioning back to folkstyle wrestling, making the Cowboys and Hokies deeper and trophy-worthy at the 2021 NCAA Championships.

But what does it mean for Cornell’s Yianni Diakomihalis? He wrestled at the 65 kilogram weight for Team USA, the only weight the Americans failed to qualify for the Olympics.

Penn State alum Zain Retherford and Diakomihalis are the two front-runners to hopefully qualify that weight, but Retherford placed third at the Pan-Am qualifier and needed a second place finish to qualify the weight.

The wrestling community wants Diakomihalis to get his shot at qualifying 65 kilograms and I think he should get it, but he’ll have to maneuver a path toward that opportunity.

Cornell is going to be really, really good. It can challenge Iowa for the team title and is definitely a top four team. Diakomihalis can wrestle at 141 pounds or bump to 149 and be the immediate favorite to win his third NCAA title.

He’ll have to take a Spencer Lee approach and balance the collegiate schedule with the freestyle schedule to attempt to give Team USA the final of six weights for the now-2021 Olympics.

So since we covered freestyle, let’s transition to folkstyle.

Iowa will be great once again. It’ll have holes at 149 and 174, but has viable fill-ins with Missouri transfer Jaydin Eierman and Nelson Brands. The Hawkeyes will be the favorite once again.

Michigan is going to heavily challenge its Big 10 foe. The majority of the Wolverines starters are back, led by heavyweight Mason Parris.

We’ve already discussed how good Cornell will be, so will Oklahoma State, North Carolina State, Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Nebraska, Iowa State, the list goes on and on.

Bottom line is, the depth of the best teams will be on full display.

The Cyclones will have plenty of firepower to compete with the best, but health and lineup decisions will have to align just right for them to be competing for a trophy.

Right now, we’re in store for one of the best seasons in a long time. It just would’ve been better if the qualified wrestlers received another year of eligibility.