TEMPE – Brandon Courtney is back at the men’s NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships with the rest of the 12th-ranked Arizona State wrestling team looking to improve upon his runner-up finish at last year’s tournament.
Courtney, a redshirt junior, will be among those who wrestle during Thursday’s opening day sessions of the competition in Detroit. In his final tune-up, he won his third consecutive Pac-12 title earlier this month to help the Sun Devils to their third straight overall conference championship.
In addition to Courtney, who competes in the ultra-competitive 125-pound weight class, five other ASU wrestlers won Pac-12 titles: Michael McGee, Kyle Parco, Jacori Teemer, Kordell Norfleet and Cohlton Schultz.
Also performing well were Mykey Ramos, who was third in the 141-pound division, and Josh Nummer (174 pounds) and Anthony Valencia (165 pounds) who secured fourth-place finishes. Courtney, McGee, Parco, Teemer, Schultz and Valencia all finished last season as All-Americans. Those six will be in Detroit along with Parco as the Sun Devils look to challenge powerhouse Penn State, winners of eight of the last nine contested NCAA championships.
The two schools could collide in the 133 division featuring McGee and the reigning champion from Penn State, Roman Bravo-Young.
Courtney comes into the tournament as the No. 4 seed in his weight class. If he can improve upon his finish last year, he would become the first ASU wrestler to win an individual NCAA championship since Zahid Valencia in 2018.
He acknowledged that he felt the pressure to maintain his 2021 level. He said it made him nervous, but as a natural competitor he thrives when the expectations are great.
“It’s really nervous going out there because I’m so high ranked,” Courtney said. “Going through the year highly ranked, going into NCAAs, nothing changes. I could go in there 30th-ranked and I’m just going to go out there and compete.”
The 125 division is stacked, but most wrestling analysts agree that the NCAA title runs through Michigan’s Nick Suriano. This is the second year where Courtney enters the tournament with a clear favorite in his bracket.
In 2021, the tournament favorite was Spencer Lee, a three-time champion who defeated Courtney in the finals. With Spencer Lee sidelined with an injury, Suriano moved into the top-seeded position.
If the two were to meet It would be a first-time matchup, but Courtney said the wrestlers aren’t entirely unfamiliar with each other. Before Suriano ended up at Michigan, his third college, he practiced with Courtney at ASU.
“Dude’s tough, I ain’t going to take anything away from him,” he said. “It’s going to be a scrap. It’s going to be fun.”
Parco, a Fresno State transfer, advanced to his second straight national tournament, this time as the No 5 seed at 149 pounds. Parco finished sixth for Fresno State last year. He is 21-1 going into this year’s tournament – with his only loss to Penn State’s Beau Bartlett. He was 13-1 going into the 2021 championship.
Parco said he has big expectations going into Detroit. He is looking to prove his doubters wrong.
“One main thing that’s in my mind is just solidifying my position in college,” Parco said. “I think a lot of people last year think that my All-American last year was a fluke or it was a one time thing. I want to show people that I’m here to stay.”
The final rounds of the 2022 Pac-12 Wrestling Championships felt like an Arizona State and Oregon State dual meet, with the overall team championship coming down to the last weight classes: Norfleet faced Ryan Reyes in the 197 division and Schultz wrestled Gary Traub at heavyweight.
Norfleet won his fourth consecutive conference title Schultz earned a 2-1 decision to secure the Sun Devils’ first conference title at home since 1997. Arizona State finished 0.5 points ahead of Oregon State.
Schultz’s performance at the Pac-12 tournament earned him the No. 2 seed at the national tournament, putting him on a collision course with the 2020 Olympic gold medalist Gable Steveson of the University of Minnesota.
Joining Steveson in one of the deepest divisions are fellow Big 10 wrestlers #7 Mason Parris, #4 Greg Kerkvliet, and #3 Tony Cassioppi. Schultz lost twice to Cassioppi at last year’s tournament. They are the only losses of his NCAA career.
Schultz said heavyweight is an interesting weight class because many of the top wrestlers came up together, meeting at both the domestic and international level. According to Schultz, five former world champions are competing in the heavyweight division.
“Heavyweight is one of those goofy weight classes you don’t see a whole lot of being moving around, moving in and out of heavyweight,” Schultz said. “A lot of the same guys that are in heavyweight now have been career-long heavyweights.”