Cornell, NC State lead WIN’s 2021 College Recruiting Rankings
By Rob Sherrill
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
That’s become the norm in recent years in college recruiting, especially at or near the top of the leader board.
With virtually all of the nation’s top recruits committing during the early signing period in November, what you saw in the fall is, for the most part, is what we got in the spring.
This year, the COVID-19 pandemic presented some additional barriers to movement up and down the charts. Major states like Illinois, California and New York, which contribute nearly a hundred names to November signing classes annually, elected not to host state tournaments this year. Even states like Pennsylvania and New Jersey, which eventually did host state meets, did so on delayed schedules and with limited fields. Although many wrestlers competed in out-of-season events more often than in an ordinary year, it’s more difficult than ever to use the season just concluded to assess the movement, up or down, of recruiting classes.
So the movement we see in recruiting classes isn’t at the top. Cornell retains the No. 1 ranking we gave them in November, and North Carolina State, Penn State and Oklahoma State join them in holding on to the top four spots, in that order.
For veteran Cornell coach Rob Koll and his staff, it’s their second No. 1 ranking in five seasons. Koll also brought in the top group of recruits in our Class of 2017 ranking. More recently, Cornell ranked second in our 2018 early-signing assessment and sixth a year ago.
Only the Big Red managed to sign six recruits ranked in the top 25 at their weight classes in WIN’s current issue. That’s down one from the fall, when seven Big Red recruits were ranked. But all four of the recruits who competed in state tournaments this season (the National Prep Championships were not officially held) won titles.
The late-season performance of Brett Ungar (125) from Easton (Pa.) Notre Dame, which saw him beat fellow top 10 recruits Gary Steen and Mason Gibson back-to-back to win the AA state title and the Outstanding Wrestler award, will make him a welcome addition in Ithaca, N.Y.
Pat Popolizio’s newest Wolfpack class matched Cornell with four Top 10 recruits, up one from their November total of three, including Stevo Poulin of Shenendehowa, N.Y. Since the class included so many recruits who either did not compete in a state tournament or will not until June, only two of North Carolina State’s nine recruits owned 2021 state titles at press time. But the class offers significant future depth at 174, 184 and 197 pounds.
The only other class with four current top 10 recruits is Maryland as coach Alex Clemsen’s group improved three spots to No. 12. That makes the Terps the biggest mover in the top 15. Like the Wolfpack class, only two Maryland recruits won state titles this year, but Braxton Brown (125) of Texas and Jaxon Smith (174) of Georgia have now combined for seven state crowns.
Gary Steen, the newest candidate to fill the 125-pound spot in coach Cael Sanderson’s lineup, switched his commitment to the No. 3 Nittany Lions from Pittsburgh during the season, joining a pair of current and previous No. 1 recruits.
Although a pair of Cowboy recruits, Travis Mastrogiovanni (157), who will join brother Trevor in No. 4 Oklahoma State’s lineup a year from now, and Kyle Haas (285), didn’t compete this season, five Cowboys recruits won state titles, and coach John Smith’s newest class matched Penn State with three top 10 recruits.
Richard Figueroa’s run to a Junior World team berth and a grand slam hit by four recruits helped Arizona State leapfrog to the No. 5 spot. Cael Valencia, the third member of the famous wrestling family from California, is headed to Tempe. Cael (174) had plenty of big in-season wins despite no state tournament in California.
The Tar Heels’ sixth-ranked class was the only one in our assessment to have every member of its class win a state title in 2021, and all four are also repeat champions. Led by four-time Georgia champion Caden McCrary (141), the quartet owns 10 state crowns.
We ranked 30 early recruiting classes in WIN’s November issue. Sometimes, fall classes have dropped out of the rankings in the spring. The absence of state tournaments this year, though, combined with solid, if not always spectacular, performances by every class, led us to keep each of them in the spring rankings this year. To reward some other classes, we expanded the rankings to 40 teams. The differences between the final 15 classes are so minute that we decided to reward each with a spot.
Closing out the analysis of the top 30, Penn coach Roger Reina showed he can still recruit with the best. His newest Quaker class made the biggest overall jump among programs in the November ranking, moving up four spots to No. 19. Even though only one of his seven recruits won a state title — unranked Richard Delsanter (125) of Ohio – that’s a reflection of the depth his Pennsylvania and New Jersey middle-weight recruits faced.
Three others in the bottom half of the fall rankings moved up three spots. Repeat state title efforts by Dustin Norris (125) in Ohio and Stoney Buell (165) in Michigan — who wrestled as high as 215 this season — helped lead Purdue from No. 20 to No. 17. Only five other programs matched the three top 10 recruits in coach Tony Ersland’s class.
After finishing a spot behind the Boilermakers in the fall, Cary Kolat’s class at Navy stayed there, checking in at No. 18. Five of the seven future Midshipmen who competed in state tournaments won them — and the two who didn’t are ranked in WIN’s top 20.
Meanwhile, Troy Nickerson’s newest class at Northern Colorado was the third big mover, up to No. 23. His recruits won titles in five different states.
Among the newest programs to crack the rankings, three of them pushed November incumbents out of the top 30, led by Illinois at No. 27. This despite the fact that not a single member of retiring coach Jim Heffernan’s final recruiting class competed in a state tournament in 2021. Two of those recruits would have been trying to become four-time state champions, Maximo Renteria (133) in California and Dylan Connell (184) in Illinois. But with the hiring of dynamic assistant Michael Poeta as his successor and the subsequent announcement that Fighting Illini home matches are being moved to the State Farm Center, the home of the high school state tournament for a half-century, the arrow is definitely pointing up in Champaign.
Army West Point (No. 29) and Princeton (No. 30) also debuted in the top 30. Six top-three state finishes and the emergence of Thomas Godbee (197), overshadowed by others in a deep Georgia talent pool, fueled coach Kevin Ward’s newest West Point class. Princeton’s ranking was capped when Dean Peterson (125), New Jersey’s Outstanding Wrestler as a junior, missed his senior season due to injury.
Our spring rankings are based primarily on two factors: the number of recruits outstanding enough to lead a serious bid for NCAA or All-America honors, and the class’s overall performance during their senior high school seasons.
Going back to the race between Cornell and North Carolina State at the top, both schools scored well using both metrics. Move further down the list, and you’ll see that the strength of Penn State, Oklahoma State and Arizona State are more heavily weighted toward the first measure. Both are important.
While I love overall team strength, it’s most important in high school rankings. In the college world, where the total focus is on those three days in late March, the number of All-Americans is important, but so are the big points the semifinal winners bring. That’s just as important when it comes to competing for team trophies. As we saw once again two months ago in St. Louis, Penn State could write a book about it.
What will the next chapter look like?