Season 5,Column 46: So Cool, So Hot, SoCon Tournament Preview

The conference that saved, then strengthened Southern wrestling goes all in Saturday the 5th to set its team for Detroit with multiple medal threats and a herd of hard charging dark horses.

The hope-filled eight convene again in Boone, North Carolina for the Southern Conference Wrestling Tournament. Coach JohnMark Bentleys host Mountaineers are fresh from breaking Scotti Sentes Campbell Camels three year stranglehold on the regular season title. BUT, don’t for a second think this a one OR a two hump race, folks. Six of the eight squads in the nine team conference will have mucho say-so in who takes home team medals AND who punches a ticket to the National Championships in two weeks. Literally every weight class is drama loaded with razor thin margins of separation between contestants. Let’s take a delicious ten course dive into this showdown high up in the mountains of western North Carolina, shall we?

125-in 2016 Fabian Gutierrez headed Eastbound and down from his Commerce City, Colorado home to Chattanooga. 76 wins and three NCAA championship visits later, the Joyce Litchford Memorial scholarship winner and 2021 Sports Management graduate is the #1 seed at his final conference tournament. Earned, not given, as Gutierrez defeated uber-star in the making Caleb Smith of App State and 2X Conference champ, 2X NCAA qualifier Korbin Meink of Campbell this season. In fact, if your names not Killian Cardinale, the All American from West Virginia, Fabian [@faybeein_g] has pretty much had his way with you this year. Still, one could easily see Smith, a sophomore with a 1,000 mile gas tank, or Meink, the trial-hardened veteran, on top of the podium Saturday. Meink went 0-2 in this three way round robin, Smith 1-1 with his OT win over Meink clinching the Mountaineers regular season conference title. A star sophomore for App State, Smith essentially forced two conference champs to move around or move out of the Mountaineers lineup this season. He seized the starting spot at 125 and you’ll need good luck and a crowbar getting it away from him for the next few seasons. Meinks been there, done that, emerging from a 7 deep weight class with three NCAA qualifiers for the Camels to get the post season nod. 125 is one of the few weight classes at this tournament where it’s unlikely a serious challenger will emerge outside of the top three, though if Davidsons Aedyn Concepcion finds his form, that will change. The Wildcats been mild pretty much all year, though, reason(s) undisclosed, so it seems a bit late for a bounceback.

133-Nobody outside the UTC wrestling room foresaw the emergence of Sophomore Brayden Palmer into the Mocs lineup and onto the national scene. Then at the Southern Scuffle EVERYBODY, including the Scribe, stood up and dropped a collective “WHO DAT?” as Palmer blazed up the backside with SEVEN straight wins to take third. OK, understood, capitalization somewhat overused but still relevant. Palmer, whos 22 wins leads the team, is coming in hot and angry. He dropped a squeaker to Indianas Brock Hudkins last time out as the Mocs beat the Hoosiers for their first win over a Power 5 team since 2016. Prior to that though, he had won nine straight, four with bonus points. Squarely in his path, App States Codi Russell, up a weight class (see the 125 preview as to why), spoiling to avenge two regular season losses to Palmer. Also in the way and on his own post season path to success, Davidson’s Kyle Gorant. One of two Senior anchors to Coach Andy Lausiers squad Gorant, an Academic All American, handled Palmer 9-5 in an early season SoCon showdown and boasts a sharp 18-10 mark on the year. In between Gorant and the top two sits Gardner-Webbs Todd Carter. Carter bonused in half his wins this year, doubled his victory total from last season, and beat Gorant 8-3. MmHmm. It’s LIKE that at 133 in the SoCon, without even bringing up The Citadels fine Jake Rotunda and Campbells transfer from Illinois, Domenic Zaccone. Rotunda, injured last year, saw a fine 10-3 campaign end with an injury loss in the SoCon finals in 2021. 11-10 with a tough schedule this time around but 5-3 in conference and spoiling to spoil somebodies post-season. Zaccone and Davidsons Gorant have a first round showdown to follow up a final regular season match win for the Wildcat. This time?

141-Campbells Shannon Hanna, 14-5, takes the top seed over 23-8 Heath Gonyer of App State by virtue of Hannas 6-0 conference record and his 2-1 sudden victory win in the head to head match. Gonyer, a freshman, strung together nine and six match win streaks this year, ably filling in for injured returning 2X SoCon champ Anthony Brito. Another redshirt senior whos battled injuries through a career at two teams, Gardner-Webbs Trevon Majette began at Old Dominion. He sat out a bit after transferring from that murdered program and is 9-6 this year, 5-1 in conference, losing to Gonyer at Novembers Mountaineer Invitational. Majette was out mid December-mid January, undefeated since. Here’s a weight class crying out for an at large bid.

149-You’d have to look a bit to find a year where the SoCon had a returning All American and a bonafide All American threat in the same weight class. That’s what’s up here as App States 3X SoCon champ, 2021 AA Johnathan Millner is headed for a 3rd showdown with Campbells Josh Heil and looking for his third victory over the Camels 100 plus match winner. Heil, himself a 3X SoCon champ and 4X NCAA qualifier, was undone so badly by improper refereeing at last years NCAA Championships rules were changed post season. The Heil family wrestling heritage stretches through multiple programs across a decade of modern success and Josh is hungry to add more to the legacy. Millner will join the 100 win club this year with a chance at 3X AA status should he make the podium in Detroit and return for a final season. The big twos dominance has pretty much kiboshed any hope for an upset or an at-large bid for the SoCon here. However, talented returners for 2022 like UTCs SoCon Freshman of the Year Noah Castillo, Davidsons Gavin Damasco, and Presbyterians Reid Stewart show promise.

157-After a three year run at 165 the Citadels Dazjon “Cheese” Casto dropped down a weight and blitzed the SoCon with a perfect conference record, 17-6 overall. The #1 seed has been on point all season, making the semis at the Bulldogs own Battle at the Citadel. He went one round better at the Navy Classic with a run to the Finals. He made the 2nd day at both the CKLV and the Southern Scuffle. Casto and #2 seed defending SoCon champ Cody Bond of App State missed a regular season matchup as the Citadels dual with the Mountaineers was postponed and not rescheduled. Expect it in the SoCon finals. Bond, 17-7, is actually 8-0 against SoCon foes if you count dual and tournament results. It’s been Bond, Cody Bond (1) for 2 months running with eight straight wins for the App State star after a 2 day, 2-2 showing at the Southern Scuffle. Seeds 3 and 4, Campbells JoJo Aragona and UTCs Lincoln Heck, are 2nd half stars, both earning starting spots late in the season. Aragona, a transfer after a heralded freshman season for BIG 10 power Rutgers, finally fixed 157 for the Camels. Multi year starter Ben Barton left for Lock Haven last off season, and Aragona displaced Matt Dallara and Troy Nation for the post season. Heck worked last years SoCon Freshmen of the year, Weston Wichman, out of the Mocs starting lineup and heads into the SoCon tournament at 10-4. The run began at the Scuffle where Heck had a 5 match, 3-2 day in his first regular outing as a Moc. Aragona was a 2021 Christmas present for the Camels. With just two matches under his belt for this season its win 3 straight or wait till next year for the Campbell late comer. As to why he’s seeded 3rd, good question! When you find out let the 5th seed, Davidsons Bryce Sanderlin, know. He’s 16-9, 5-3 against conference foes. Yes, one of those three was to Aragona, but still, the numbers don’t seem to add up. Just an observation.

165-Simple. 4 bonafide stars. 3 previous NCAA qualifiers. 2 automatic bids. Make that math work. UTCs Drew Nicholson, defending SoCon champ, is 15-6, 8-0 in the SoCon and seeded 1st. App States Will Formato, the 2nd seed, has finished 2nd and 3rd at the SoCon the last 2 seasons. He takes a 3 yr. record of 18-4 in duals and tournaments versus SoCon foes into Saturday. Nicholson defeated Formato in sudden victory this year and has won nine straight matches overall. In their personal rivalry, though, Formato had beaten Nicholson 3 in a row until last month. It’s THAT tight between them. Gardner-Webbs R.J. Mosley was odd man out at the weight till his at large NCAA bid last year. Mosleys shortened seasons the past two years precluded equaling his 22-15 redshirt freshman breakout campaign, but he seems set to fulfill that promise. Hes 4-3 in conference and has closed the gap on both Nicholson and Formato, facing and falling to each in a three day span, both by tiebreaker. Same type of match, a tiebreaker but a different result when Mosley met Porter. RJs win over Selwyn slid the Citadel star to the 4th seed. 14-6 after a two weight class jump this year, Porter, the 2nd leg of the Citadels “Trilogy of Terror” holds a 6-2 mark versus conference foes in duals and tournaments combined. This looks like a Top 4 lock into the semis, but from there its Katy bar the door. DAMN shame that just two are guaranteed a spot at the show.

174-Thomas Flitz of App State has been a starter most of the past 4 years, qualified for the NCAAs three times and notched a 30 win season two years back. So, with a preseason rank outside the Top 25 he was a no- brainer for the All Overlooked and Underrated team this campaign. He’s undefeated in conference for the 2nd time in three years. Medical issues prevented a potential break out performance at the Scuffle but he does have a win over North Carolina’s Top 10 ranked Clay Lautt from the dual season. Defending conference champ Austin Murphy of Campbell, 2nd seed, has had a limited season but made last years bloodround at the NCAAs. (2) Murphy was 3-0 for the Camels at the Chippewa Challenge mid January, defeating likely NCAA qualifiers Bret Fedewa of host Central Michigan and Albert Urias of Cal St. Bakersfield along with Americans Tim Fitzpatrick. He also has a victory over Lehighs Jake Logan. The gap between the top two seeds and the rest of the field is significant but somebody’s going to be looking for an at large bid when the dust settles in this weight class.

184-With returning champ Caleb Hopkins of Campbell, the emergence of UTCs Thomas Sell, and the steady presence of Gardner-Webbs Ja’Quan Anderson, the top 3 seeds have separated themselves this year in the SoCon. Hopkins, 26-7 the past two years, has swept conference foes for two seasons in a row. Like Murphy, he picked up three wins for the Camels at the Chippewa Challenge. Sell slid into the 184 spot after NCAA qualifier Matthew Waddell bumped up to 197. MUCH after returning Moc 197lb starter Logan Andrew was lost for the season. Perhaps sooner would have been better, but that is another story. Sell is 7-1 in conference, Anderson 6-1 but outside the SoCon they’re only 21-16 combined. In short, Hopkins has lapped the field. Even with this years abundance of talent at 184 look for Caleb to snag some wins at NCAAs. Fun fact warning- there may be three, count em, three Hopkins brothers in the Camels starting lineup next season. Just sayin.

197-Campbells Chris Kober, defending conference champ, opened his Camels career with 19, 20, and 20 win campaigns. He’s only lost 4 conference matches the past 3 years. However, he has only 19 wins the past two campaigns due to Covid-19 and other, unverified issues. With UTCs Waddell and double tough Tyler Mousaw of VMI ready, willing, and able to snag the SoCons lone bid at 197, Kober will need to be perfect to take the title and the trip to Detroit that comes with it. It will be his 3rd NCAAs should he do it. Waddell, 7-1 since moving up to 197, is aiming to return to the NCAAs as well. Mousaw, last years 3rd place SoCon finisher, is 12-4 versus conference foes in his first two years. Injured in this years pre-season team wrestle-offs, Mousaw may be hitting his stride. If so, look out. These three should be standing come the semis with Waddell and Mousaw scrapping for the chance to dethrone Kober. IF Kober doesn’t look past Anthony Perrine of Gardner Webb, now at 197 for the Runnin Bulldogs after taking 3rd at heavyweight last year. Perrines 4-2 in conference. Some of his non conference foes? VTs Dakota “Junkyard Dog” Howard, Kordell Norfleet of Arizona State, NC States Isaac Trumble, and Cam Caffey of Michigan State. YO. Welcome to 197, Anthony!

285-Another class where a defending champ hunts a repeat title without the benefit of a top seed, 285 is hurting for a third bid. 2021 champ Mike McAleavey of the Citadel leads his team with 22 wins and placed top eight at both the CKLV and the Southern Scuffle. Yet, he saw his lofty status as the conferences big, big dog rudely snatched away by Campbells ferocious Taye Ghadiali. The Camel took a 6-1 win in their match and helped secure the #1 seed with the victory. Ghadiali is 16-2 and easily could be undefeated. Only two, one point losses, to VTs Nathan Traxler and 2X AA Matt Stencel of CMU, stood between Ghadiali and perfection this year. These two will go to Detroit and win matches there. Fine senior Mitchell Trigg of Davidson and sturdy Michael Burchell of App State look to be out of luck barring a true 2nd place match or an at large bid. So, there’s your 2022 SoCon Tournament preview. Grab some coffee and a snack and enjoy a FINE wrestling weekend.

See you sometime soon!

Ted Carreras

(1) Daniel Craig and Sean Connery remain forever deadlocked for best James Bond ever, but App States Bond is clearly top Cody.

(2) Murphy came up one match short of AA status in 2021, beating Edinboros Jacob Oliver, Mason Kaufman of Northern Illinois, and Hayden Hastings of Wyoming at last years NCAAs. Make the tournament and he could see the latter two again. Sadly, Oliver, a multi year Fightin Scots starter, was only in lineup for a match or two this year.

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