Next year, we hope to be able to separate these weight classes when we preview the 2017 Nationals but as of right now, the two heaviest divisions could use some more contenders to step forward and enter the fray. To be fair about it, 98 kilograms is not exactly a barren cupboard. As 2016 Olympic Team Trials champ Joe Rau (Minnesota Storm) recovers from surgery, 19-year old G’Angelo Hancock (NYAC) has stepped in to steal some of the spotlight. The same could be said of Rau’s Olympic teammate Robby Smith (NYAC), who himself is on the mend. With Smith out of action, Toby Erickson (Army/WCAP) stands as the most pedigreed athlete looming at 130.
US Nationals Preview – 98 kg
G’Angelo Hancock (NYAC) Everyone recognizes by now that Hancock has surpassed “prospect” status. That’s what happens when you earn a Junior World bronze, perform well overseas to follow it up, come back to earn a Senior gold at a right-of-passage event, and then proceed to upset an Olympic bronze medalist. Rau is still going to be a problem once he’s back, which means that Hancock is certainly not guaranteed anything right away. But he’s the prototype. Young, long, strong, and devoted to the cause, Hancock is also gaining precious experience at the highest level. He doesn’t need this tournament, but he does need competition. There will be some for him on Sunday.
Hayden Zillmer (Minnesota Storm) Truth be told, it isn’t as if Zillmer is a full step behind Hancock. Zillmer became a National Team member when he defeated Patrick Martinez (NYAC) for third at the Olympic Trials. What’s notable about that (aside from Martinez being, you know, good and all) is that Zillmer hadn’t really been active for a few years in Greco at that point. The 2015 NCAA All-American has picked up the pace ever since. A bronze at the ’16 University Nationals was his last foray at 85 kilos and he looked like a dangerously serious competitor at 98 in New York, where he lost a close 2-1 final to Hancock to close out the day. There will be eyes on him this weekend and rightfully so.
Zach Merrill (Titan Mercury) The move down from 130 to 98 has yielded positive results for Merrill so far, with an impressive third-place showing at the NYAC to back it up. As we talked about, Merrill fought hard at heavyweight but simply did not have the size to really break through the way he would need to there. 98 kilos compliments not only his stature, but also, his style. Merrill has some dog in him but that only obscures his inclination for technique. This is a guy who is active, angling in, out, and doesn’t stay satisfied with a position even if it feels like a safe place for him. As he grows increasingly confident and more seasoned at this weight, chances are down the line he will have seen this as a very savvy career decision.
Daniel Miller (Marines) Miller did not see a lot of action at the Clubs Cup last week, going 0-1 in a match he was clearly the better athlete. There were some nuanced technical miscues that contributed. Because all things being equal, Miller is probably the toughest wrestler at this weight. He fights for every little thing. His problem has been he gives up position which leads to points being scored and with points at such a premium currently, Miller doesn’t employ the kind of offense necessary to compensate. A close loss to 2016 Olympic bronze medalist Cenk Ildem (TUR, world no. 4, the same guy Hancock defeated in Budapest) was an indication Miller is beginning to progress. What you want to see out of this athlete Sunday is more risk-taking that allows him to blossom even further.
US Nationals Preview – 130 kg
Toby Erickson (Army/WCAP) Judging by recent history, there are only two athletes who have had Erickson’s number: Smith, because obviously; and Adam Coon (Cliff Keen WC). With those two out of the picture for now, Erickson has the first real shot he’s had in a while to take center-stage in a major domestic event. The 2011 Junior World bronze medalist won the Schultz last year and has taken second in two US Opens. He also recently graduated from Officer Candidate School, so he probably has to knock a little bit of rust off. Even still, Erickson should absolutely have enough capital in the bank to not only qualify here, but win the thing.
Eric Fader (Marines) Fader took second in a round-robin bracket in New York City before dutifully making the trip overseas to be a part of the US delegation that competed in the Clubs Cup. It didn’t go swimmingly for him out there. A 1-5 record with the lone win being an injury default victory was the final tally of his matches. But that is definitely not what is important for Fader right now. If he wants to assert himself as a real threat in this weight, he has to be willing to be the nail for a little while both domestically and abroad. And then harness that experience to turn it into tangible results. Fader isn’t decorated as a Senior nor does he have enough of a dossier to judge him off of. What he does have is very good balance for a big guy plus, is willing to engage at every opportunity. That is his foundation for this level and it’s not a bad place to start.
Tony Nelson (Minnesota Storm) Nelson is one of the biggest wrestling names to jump into a US Greco Roman event in quite some time. A two-time NCAA DI champion, his sparkling record with the University of Minnesota wound up an astounding 131-16. After college, he moved onto freestyle competition where he became a legitimate contender nationally. Apparently, he’s interested in using his experience in Greco to further hone his skills as a freestyle wrestler, but maybe he changes his mind Sunday evening when he will likely earn a place on the podium. He is that type of athlete. There might be no one at 130 kg this weekend who has the same type of natural wrestling ability and if Nelson is ready to take some chances and be aggressive (and he will have to be), it could lead to a memorable performance people take notice of.
Jacob Mitchell (Army/WCAP) Mitchell might very well boast one of the brightest futures out of the entire US program. He hasn’t had the same type of instant success out of the gate someone like Hancock has enjoyed, but Mitchell is plugging along nicely and showing improvement every time out. A Junior College national champ, he has the total wrestling package, similar to Nelson. In fact, the two met in freestyle a couple of years back at the Schultz with Nelson coming away the victor. That means little here. Mitchell earned a third at this tournament a year ago and will for sure be in the running for a medal again on Sunday. He is a big, strong kid who has had some moments where he’s extremely entertaining to watch. An “empty the clip” type of competitor once the action heats up. Pay attention to this athlete.
Matthew Lamb (Army/WCAP) One more WCAP heavyweight to close it out, Lamb is another wrestler who shows off some very nice skills when he turns it on. Unfortunately for him, this weight class has been so strong that has hadn’t had the scope of opportunities to really show what he can do on a consistent basis. That could change now that there has been a slight bit of turnover leaving more chances to shine. Lamb had a tight but fun-to-watch match versus Erickson in the Schultz finals last January and lost a similarly narrow decision to Mitchell at 2015’s US Nationals. With a fourth at the 2015 Open, that is three consecutive tournaments Lamb was in contention at, just like he will be again on Sunday.