Iowa State wrestling eyes first Big 12 title since 2009

Redshirt junior Todd Small wrestles against Oklahoma’s Anthony Madrigal on Feb. 9.

Zach Martin

It’s been over 10 years since Iowa State tasted victory at the Big 12 Championships.

When Cael Sanderson roamed the coaching corner for three years, the Cyclones won three consecutive conference titles. It’s been followed by close calls and heartbreak with four runner-up finishes since 2010.

Now, with a full lineup expected going into the Bank of Oklahoma (BOK) Center healthy, Iowa State is within reach of its first championship since 2009.

The journey to the first place trophy begins Saturday morning in Tulsa, Oklahoma, as the Big 12’s best run through a double elimination bracket in 10 weights over the course of four sessions.

Oklahoma State has dominated this tournament, grabbing the last seven titles in a row. It can go for an eighth straight this weekend.

Iowa State has every intention to stop the streak.

“Everybody is 0-0, and that’s exciting, it’s a fresh slate,” Head Coach Kevin Dresser said. “It’s been the first Friday in December since we’ve had these 10 guys together, so let’s just see what they can do.”

The task is a daunting one, with the Cowboys having three top-seeded grapplers after the brackets were released on Wednesday. All three are All-American and National Title contenders.

Nick Piccininni (125 pounds), Boo Lewallen (149) and Travis Wittlake (165) are all ranked in the top eight in the third NCAA Coaches’ poll. The only weight Oklahoma State is not expected to get an auto bid is at heavyweight.

That’s a steep ladder to climb for the Cyclones.

“We’re going to have to wrestle everybody anyway if you want to win,” 133-pounder Todd Small said.

Small’s kneecap has been a topic of conversation since he injured it on Feb. 23 in his injury default loss to North Dakota State’s Cam Sykora.

Shortly after the match, he was working out and within a week was back on the mat.

Small, pre-seeded fifth in his weight, will face South Dakota State’s Zach Price in the opening round and a win would send him to a rematch with Oklahoma’s Anthony Madrigal. The Sooner beat Small 8-6 on Feb. 9 in Norman.

If Small were to defeat Madrigal, he’d potentially get top-seeded Montorie Bridges of Wyoming, a wrestler he has never faced in his career, in the semifinals.

Even with eight auto bids up for grabs at 133, the plan, barring any setbacks, is for the redshirt junior to wrestle a full tournament.

“We got really lucky with what happened,” Assistant Coach Derek St. John said. “Todd Small is looking really, really good like nothing ever happened. I hope it’s not an issue.”

With 149 having five spots to claim, Iowa State will have to wait and see if the shoulder injury of Jarrett Degen can hold up for the first of two tournaments in March.

Pre-seeded fourth, Degen will get the winner of Northern Colorado’s Andrew Alirez and Oklahoma’s Jacob Butler in the quarters. Win the quarterfinal and for only the second time in their college careers, Degen and Lewallen could meet in the semis.

“It’s hanging on, just got to wrestle through it,” Degen said. “Going out of place, it hurts. Get it back in, figure it out and keep going. I had a right-hand shot, now I don’t, so I’ve been working a left-hand shot.”

The Cyclones have a single No. 1 seed at 157 with redshirt freshman David Carr, who will be wrestling in a true Division I match for the first time in over a month. His 52 second pin in the first round at the Last Chance Open on Feb. 18 is the last time he wrestled since the Oklahoma State dual back in late January.

Carr has only wrestled three Big 12 opponents this year and it wasn’t in a conference dual, rather the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational where the Ohio native defeated North Dakota State’s Jared Franek, Oklahoma’s Justin Thomas and Fresno State’s Jacob Wright.

Wright and Thomas could meet in the quarters, which would set up a possible rematch with Carr in the semis. Franek, the two seed, would have to wait for a second battle if both make it to the championship match.

Despite not competing much during the month of February, St. John is far from worried about what the energy and condition of the third-ranked grappler at 157 is.

If chalk holds, Ian Parker (141) and Gannon Gremmel (heavyweight) would face off against wrestlers in the finals that, lately, have had their number.

Both pre-seeded second in their respective weights, Parker is 0-2 against the Sooners’ Dom Demas while Gremmel lost both his matchups with Utah Valley’s Tate Orndorff in Vegas.

Alex Mackall (125), seeded third, would have to win a potential third fight against Northern Iowa’s Jay Schwarm to reach the finals. Mackall tech falled the Panther at the Harold Nichols Open and Schwarm topped the Cyclone with a first period pin in the dual back in February.

Sam Colbray is seeded third at 174 while Marcus Coleman slides into the fifth seed at 184. The only two weights Iowa State did not get an allocation for is at 165 and 197.

Meaning Chase Straw and Joel Shapiro will have to steal a bid to make NCAAs.

The brackets did no favors for Shapiro as he gets to face second-seeded Tanner Sloan of South Dakota State, who majored the Des Moines, Iowa, native 10-2 in their dual match in the first round.

Making his way through the consolation bracket would appear to be the best path for the redshirt freshman to claim one of the six automatic bids at 197.

For the sixth-seeded Straw, he’ll either face Randy Meneweather of Air Force or Northern Colorado’s Jordan Robinson in the quarters. Get past that and the redshirt senior will get a third chance to beat North Dakota’s State Andrew Fogarty.

The defending Big 12 Champ at 157 lost to Fogarty 4-0 in Vegas and 8-1 in the final regular season dual. His path to claim one of four auto bids is to make the championship match or get to the semis and win one wrestle back to make the third place match.

The message to both Straw and Shapiro is a simple one: Nothing to lose, everything to gain.

“I think [Straw], he wrestled really well the last month going into this weekend,” Dresser said. “Shapiro’s probably gotta go win one match he’s not supposed to win and you get to go to the NCAA Tournament as a freshman. That’s a pretty good target out there for you to grab.”

The first three sessions can be viewed on ESPN+ while the 10 championship matches will be aired by a Fox Sports affiliate. It all starts at 11 a.m. Saturday at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma.