In every sport every year, media outlets publish preseason rankings. In wrestling, late October seems to be the most popular time. Coaches have some idea of the lineup they’re building, those who have eligibility have usually decided whether they want to return, and analysts can use this and other information to create the most complete picture of the field.
The early rankings are mostly based on the previous year’s finish, including those who redshirt and who slide when others graduate. However, even the best rankings are unable to predict the many upsets and surprises that occur each season. In a season that saw the loss of several #1s, the rankings changed dramatically.
While not all variations are top notch, there is something interesting at each weight Here are the wrestlers who made the biggest jumps from the preseason. I also included some true freshmen and wrestlers who were initially unranked and ended up in the top 16 at the end of the article. As much as the unranked side is harder to measure and true freshmen can’t be ranked in pre-season, they stand out.
125: #3 Liam Cronin, Nebraska (11-2)
Cronin began the year in 2022 wearing a medical redshirt at #20. A two-time qualifier, this is seventh overall and third year at Nebraska after starting his career at Indiana. He lost the season opener to #33 Ethan Bergink of Army, but has since been followed by #5 Pat McKee, #4 Michael D’Augustino, #14 Brandon Keillor (OSU), #20 Eddie Ventresca (VT) and #26 Tanner Jordan.
He is currently on an 11-match winning streak with seven bonus point wins. The rest of his schedule doesn’t get any easier with matches against #1 Spencer Lee, #6 Eric Barnett, #10 Matt Ramos, #9 Malik Heinselman, #11 Dean Peterson and #7 Brandon Courtney. Cronin is a big part of an enhanced Nebraska team and looks like a serious factor in March.
133: #6 Connor McGonagle, Lehigh (8-1)
McGonagle started the year ranked #29 after qualifying for NCAAs twice at 141 pounds. He went 0-2 both years and had a record under .500 overall. This year, however, he collapsed. His one loss so far on the season came in his third match of the year to #2 Dayton Fix. The win that pulled him up the rankings was a 5-3 decision over #7 Mickey Filippi. He also had wins over #25 Kai Orin, #30 Wyatt Henson and #19 Jason Shaner. His remaining schedule includes #8 Michael Colaiocco and #4 Michael McGee. With her current results, McGonagle looks like she should be much improved in the NCAA this season.
141: #5 Brock Hardy, Nebraska (19-2)
Nebraska showed its strength here as another wrestler rocketed up this year’s rankings. After graduating in 2018, Hardy took a two-year LDS mission where he was completely off the mat. He returned in 2021 and had a combined 10-3 record this year, but was unable to crack the starting lineup. His biggest win was against Michael Blockhaus in 2021 at 149 pounds, so he came in at #28 in the 141 rankings this season.
The 2023 ranking seemed appropriate after a 1-2 start to the year, but he had a breakout win at the Journeyman Classic and never looked back, winning 18 in a row. That included 12 bonus-point wins and wins over #6 Ryan Jack, #8 Cal Happel, #9 Clay Carlson, #22 Jesse Vasquez and #11 Jake Bergland. He looks like a title contender this year, and has a chance to be the favorite with #2 Real Woods.
149: #6 Panero Johnson, Iowa State (9-2)
Paniro Johnson is technically a “true freshman” but took a grayshirt year with Cyclone RTC where he was 19-6 against college opponents. A common thread was that he was fine but had significant gas tank issues. As he began to break down, a story emerged about how the coaching staff finally stepped in and helped him see a doctor who diagnosed him with sickle cell anemia, for which he is now being treated. Thanks to the persistence of his coaches, cardio doesn’t seem to be a problem anymore.
With all this, he started the year at #24. That quickly changed after his first game as a starter. He knocked out #2 Austin Gomez 9-4, then beat #7 Max Murin a month later. His only two losses this year came in overtime to #1 Yanni Diakomihalis and #5 Kyle Perko. Although Yanni is beloved, Panero has shown that he should not be overlooked.
157: #14 Trevor Chumbley, Northwestern (17-4)
After spending three years behind the combination of Ryan Deakin and Yahya Thomas, Chamblee began the 2023 season tied for #33 at #157. He quickly won the Michigan State Open, including a victory over now #22 Paddy Gallagher. He did it again with a Midlands title with a win over #18 Garrett Modell.
Chumbley has broken into the top ten at one point this season with a win over now #16 Bretton Lee. He has recently suffered losses to #21 Kobe Seibrecht and #1 Peyton Robb, but has shown that he is an All-American contender in wide-open weight classes.
165: #11 Danny Brownell, Illinois (16-5)
After qualifying his first two years as a starter, Brownell went 12-9 in 2022 and did not qualify. With that, he started the year at #27 but started climbing the rankings after a win over now #19 Gerrit Nijenhuis at the Michigan State Open.
Since then, he has defeated #31 Holden Heller, #23 Max Mayfield, #15 Justin McCoy and #12 Peyton Hall. The fourth-year starter is looking to not only qualify for the third straight time, but to improve on his 0-2 2021 NCAA record.
174: #4 Chris Foca, Cornell (16-1)
Surprisingly, Foka made the biggest jump in the rankings, jumping seven spots from #11 to 174. Foka wasn’t healthy at the end of the 2022 season, but showed he could compete with the best after one-point losses to #1 Carter Starocki and #2 Mekhi Lewis.
This year, he lost another one-point loss to Lewis, but also had wins over #8 Ethan Smith, #17 Cade DeVos, #25 Julian Broderson and #26 Aaron Olmos. He went undefeated in duals, won the Bearcat Open and finished third at the CKLV. If he can stay healthy this year, he looks like a significant factor and potential title threat.
184: #17 Reece Heller, Pittsburgh (15-2)
After spending multiple years at Hofstra, the Heller brothers transferred to Pitt together and made the starting lineup. Reece started the year at #27 at 184 after spending time at 149, 165, and 174 at Hofstra. He began his climb up the rankings with dual wins over #19 Tate Samuelson and #26 Dylan Connell.
His real breakout was when he won the Midlands, with wins over Connell and #30 Anthony Carman. Still only, Heller looks to be a mainstay in Pittsburgh’s lineup and should be in line to qualify for his first NCAA.
197: #16 Jackson Smith, Maryland (13-5)
After a 23-6 redshirt season and making the U20 world team, the hype was on Jackson Smith. Still unable to conquer folk, he debuted at #28. He had a big win at the Tiger Style Invitational with a pin over #11 Jake Brownell that kept him out of the top ten.
Since then he has taken some losses that have dropped him in the rankings. However, Maryland is an ascending team and Coach Clemson has shown he can develop talent. In a chaotic 197 weight class, no one would be surprised to see him make the podium in March.
285: #13 Tyrell Gordon, Northern Iowa
It took four years, but in 2022 Gordon cracked the lineup as an undersized heavyweight for the Panthers. He went 11-17, but qualified for the NCAAs and went 1-2. He spent some time in the weight room in the offseason and appears to be much closer to middleweight. He started the year at #21, but had wins over #14 AJ Nevilles and #16 Tate Orndorff at CKLV. Since then, his only losses have been to #8 Jack Elam and #12 Wayne Trefan, both in overtime. If Gordon can continue to gain experience, he is someone who could surprise people later in the year.
True freshman wrestlers are now in the top 16
133: #9 Jesse Mendez, Ohio State
141: #12 Tom Crook, Virginia Tech
141: #16 Vince Cornella, col
149: #9 Caleb Henson, Virginia Tech
149: #15 Jackson Arrington, NC State
157: #9 Daniel Cardenas, Stanford
184: #13 Brian Soldano, Rutgers
285: #5 Dayton Pitzer, Pittsburgh
Unranked wrestlers are now in the top 16
125: #11 Dean Peterson, Rutgers
125: #13 Brett Unger, col
141: #14 Danny Puccino, Illinois
184: #16 Lenny Pinto, Nebraska
285: #12 Owen Trephan, NC State