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20 best high school wrestlers over the past 20 years

Justin Kerr

10/25/2005
Justin Kerr, RevWrestling.com High School Analyst
justin@revwrestling.com

Wrestling fans could argue endlessly as to who the greatest high school wrestler of all-time is. To compare the high school wrestlers of all eras is more of a challenge than this writer would take on. However, this article is the first of a two-part series which will settle, once and for all (tongue firmly in cheek), the debate as to who is the best high school wrestler over the past 20 years. In fact, it will list the top 20 over the past 20 years.

The starting point for making such a list is to ask how does one determine the best? For instance, how does one compare a dominant heavyweight to a dominant 119-pound wrestler? In this writer's view, the criteria has to be this: If you took the best 10-20 guys from a weight class and had them wrestle 10 mythical matches against each other, who would emerge with the best record? In other words, who was the best relative to the other top competitors in their weight?

Furthermore, it is important to note that for these purposes, how good a wrestler was at the pinnacle of his high school career (i.e. his junior and senior seasons) is the key factor. In other words, having a relatively unaccomplished freshman and even sophomore year would not disqualify one from this list if they were dominant at a national level their last two seasons.

One final note: This list will go above and beyond simply listing who has the best overall accomplishments of the last 20 years. Such a list would be unimaginative, and in my view, not worth reading. Rather, who a competitor beat to win titles and how dominating they were will be considered over sheer titles won.

Special Mention (40-31):

Jeremy Hunter (Pennsylvania)
Troy Letters (Pennsylvania)
Harry Lester (Ohio)
Teague Moore (Pennsylvania)
Garrett Lowney (Wisconsin)
Luke Fickell (Ohio)
Chris Fleeger (Pennsylvania)
Matthew Coughlin (Indiana)
Michael Poeta (Illinois)
Joey Gilbert (Illinois)

Honorable Mention(30-21):

Stephen Abas (California)
Cael Sanderson (Utah)
TJ Williams (Illinois)
Mark Perry (Oklahoma/New Jersey)
CP Schlatter (Ohio)
Mark Angle (Pennsylvania)
Jesse Jantzen (New York)
Eric Larkin (Arizona)
Mark Smith (Oklahoma)
Adam Mariano (New York)

20. Ray Brinzer (Pennsylvania)

More known for his colorful antics than for his wrestling, Brinzer was as dynamic an upperweight as has ever taken the mat in high school wrestling. Hailing from powerhouse North Allegheny High, Brinzer accomplished the extremely rare feat of winning three Pennsylvania AAA state crowns in the middle-to-upperweights. What's even more impressive, though, is the fact that he won back-to-back Junior Nationals freestyle crowns and a Junior Nationals Greco-Roman title.

Brinzer had a unique philosophy on the sport to say the least. Viewing wrestling as a martial art, he refused to warm-up before his matches -- under the theory that if in a fight, he would not have a chance to warm-up. His trademark was bringing a Gumby doll to every match for good luck. Perhaps he was on to something -- since Blair Academy's Adam Frey brought a similar doll to Junior Nationals in 2005 and also won both styles.

Brinzer would go on to finish third in the NCAAs twice for the University of Iowa, after transferring from their arch-rival, Oklahoma State.

19. Johny Hendricks (Oklahoma)

Hendricks dominated in Fargo like few have before or since. Consider: In 2001, his junior year in high school, he scored technical falls over now NCAA champion Troy Letters and current two-time NCAA runner-up Ben Askren -- just to win his pool. In the finals, he registered a first period technical fall over highly regarded Matt Herrington. The following year, Hendricks again crushed all opponents in his pool before registering a solid 3-0 win over the outstanding Mark Perry in the finals. Ironically, Hendricks won his first NCAA title in 2005 with a win over Perry in the finals as well. Hendricks also tallied three Oklahoma state titles after a runner-up finish his freshman year. Wrestling with a fire in his eye that made many compare him to a young John Smith, Hendricks was particularly unstoppable in freestyle with his gut wrench.

Less than a year removed from wrestling at Junior Nationals, Teyon Ware won an NCAA title at 141 pounds as a true freshman for Oklahoma (Photo/Danielle Hobeika).
18. Teyon Ware (Oklahoma)

Although Ware rarely dominated against elite competition, there was a familiar theme to his matches -- his arm getting raised at the end. In fact, Ware never tasted defeat while winning four Oklahoma state titles. He had very little freestyle experience going into the freestyle season after his sophomore year in high school, yet managed to win the Junior Nationals title in freestyle at 132 pounds that summer, defeating a Senior Nationals champion along the way. Ware then repeated as Junior Nationals champion his junior year in high school. A one-point upset loss to Todd Meneely his senior year in the finals of Junior Nationals was perhaps his only significant blemish. Ware has since captured two NCAA titles, including as a true freshman.

17. Zack Esposito (New Jersey)

"Espo" won everything there was to win his senior year in high school -- and usually in dramatic fashion: Ironman, Beast of the East, Prep Nationals, Dapper Dan, High School Nationals, and Junior Nationals. Few have been as exciting to watch as this highly aggressive competitor. Perhaps most impressive about Esposito's dominance that year is that he was essentially wrestling up a weight for the team, as Blair Academy had another great 145 -- Mark Perry. In fact, although he wrestled 152 his senior season, he was actually at 141 the next year as a freshman in college.

16. Jeff McGinness (Iowa)

Very few wrestlers have ever been as technically polished in high school as this competitor from Iowa City. While McGinness is part of the mega-exclusive undefeated four-time state champions club, he also had very impressive accomplishments in freestyle, including being Cadet and Junior Nationals champion as a sophomore in high school, and finishing a lofty third place at the Junior Worlds. He culminated his career by winning the Outstanding Wrestler award at High School Nationals his senior year.

Before Eric Guerrero won three NCAA titles at Oklahoma State and represented the U.S. in the Olympic Games, he was a three-time state champion in California (Photo/Danielle Hobeika).
15. Eric Guerrero (California)

Guerrero joined the very small list of three-time California state champions by winning 225 of the 229 matches he wrestled. After finishing second, third, and third his first three years at Junior Nationals in freestyle, Guerrero climbed to the top spot on the podium by defeating defending champion Scott Schatzman his senior season. Perhaps his most impressive feat was at High School Nationals, where he captured Outstanding Wrestler honors. Those in attendance were heard to use the analogy that his opponents appeared so helpless it looked as though Guerrero was merely drilling.

14. Dan Knight (Iowa)

Another of the rare four-time undefeated state champions from 1983-1986, Knight may have been the most highly regarded of his era. An Iowa product, he captured three Junior Nationals titles in four finals appearances -- including winning a double title his senior year with little difficulty. He would go on to be a two-time All-American at Iowa State.

13. Ty Moore (Pennsylvania)

His collegiate career was a disappointment. He is certainly overshadowed today by his younger brother, NCAA champ Teague Moore. However, Ty Moore was as tough as they come in high school. A rare four-time Pennsylvania AAA state champion, Moore hailed from the vaunted North Allegheny wrestling team -- which at the time, was co-best program in the nation along with Lakewood St. Edward. Perhaps the best phrase to characterize Moore's style would be "just plain mean." Physical and relentless, his greatness is probably best demonstrated by his match in the Dapper Dan following his senior season. In that match, he scored a fall in less than a minute -- against Junior Nationals champion and future three-time NCAA champion T.J. Jaworsky.

In college, Moore seemed to simply burn out. As a true freshman, he was a one point loss away from All-American status. He was destined to never improve upon that finish for the remainder of his career.

12. Jacob Newby (Oklahoma)

Slick and quick, Newby's only place in Fargo was at the top of the podium. Although he won Cadet Nationals after his freshman year, it was his big upset of defending champion Chad Renner in the finals of Junior Nationals after his junior year that really vaulted him to stardom. The following year, Newby not only repeated in dominating fashion as Junior Nationals champion at 154 pounds, but also won FILA Junior Nationals (20-and-under age group), defeating Marcus Mollica, who would go on to win NCAAs the following spring.

After finishing fourth in the NCAAs as a redshirt freshman, Newby gave up wrestling to pursue a music career.

11. David Kjeldgaard (Iowa)

The winner of the inaugural Dave Schultz award for high school excellence in 1996 was the kid from Iowa with the funny name. There was nothing funny about his accomplishments, however -- as Kjeldgaard finished 173-4 en route to winning three Iowa state titles, and much more impressively, a still-unsurpassed (although it has been tied) record of six Junior Nationals titles. A true scholar-athlete, Kjeldgaard graduated valedictorian of his class with a 4.0 GPA.

Kjeldgaard's collegiate career was solid but unspectacular due to being slowed by a variety of severe knee injuries. However, to assess just how good he was in high school, it is perhaps useful to look at who he beat to win his Junior Nationals crowns in freestyle. His junior year, he defeated TJ Williams, who would go on to win two NCAA titles while posting a record of 98-1 at the University of Iowa. His senior year, he defeated future NCAA champ and four-time top-three finisher Joe Heskett just to reach the finals -- where he triumphed over a kid from Utah by the name of Cael Sanderson.

10. Lincoln McIlravy (South Dakota)

While his skills truly blossomed in college under the tutelage of Dan Gable, "Mac" was pretty tough in high school too. Not only was McIlravy a five-time state champion -- he captured Cadet and Junior Nationals titles as well, going through Chris Bono, John and Russ Hughes, Tony Pariano, and Mark Smith, among others, to capture his titles.

Mac next won NCAAs as a true freshman with one of the most electrifying comebacks in NCAA history.

Troy Nickerson won a record five New York state titles and compiled a record of 214-6 (Photo/Danielle Hobeika).
9. Troy Nickerson (New York)

Simply put, Nickerson won everything there was to win, generally by a large margin. While he won a record five New York state titles, his greatest achievements were in Fargo. An upset loss to Matt Fisk as a freshman (subsequently avenged numerous times) was the lone blemish on Nickerson's Fargo credentials -- as he captured five titles in six tries.

The pinnacle for Nickerson probably came his junior year at Fargo. That year, he moved up from his previous double Cadet National title to winning both styles at Junior Nationals, never going the distance in the process. Nickerson capped off his career by winning Senior Nationals in impressive fashion.

8. Pat Smith (Oklahoma)

The first four-time NCAA Champion, Smith was possibly more dominant in high school than college. Winner of back-to-back Junior Nationals in dominant fashion, he actually scored a technical fall over Sean Bormet to win his senior year. Ironically, it was Bormet he would face to win his fourth NCAA title -- winning this time by a slim 5-3 margin.

Smith was also part of an illustrious group who won NCAAs as a true freshman. Only three wrestlers were able to do this in the past 20 years: Smith, McIlravy, and Teyon Ware.

7. Brent Metcalf (Michigan)

Never before did middleweights stand out as the best in the nation from their sophomore year on as Metcalf and his archrival Dustin Schlatter did. Metcalf vaulted to superstar status following his sophomore year, when he not only won both styles at Junior Nationals, he only went the distance once in approximately 20 matches -- scoring a quick technical fall in the freestyle finals.

His junior year, it was more of the same. Metcalf dominated the much-heralded Alex Tsirtsis of Indiana, 5-0, to repeat as Junior Nationals champion. He had previously knocked off former champion and two-time finalist Craig Henning just to make the finals. All other opponents he either pinned or tech falled on his way to winning both styles.

In Metcalf's senior year, he wrestled two epic bouts with the great Dustin Schlatter (No. 6 below). While many observers thought Schlatter beat the buzzer with the winning takedown in regulation (including this writer), Metcalf showed himself to be made of pure steel in riding out Schlatter in double overtime to maintain his undefeated high school career. At the Dapper Dan classic that year, wrestling a very tough opponent (Matt Dragon) who was a weight class bigger, Metcalf uncharacteristically found himself in a quick 4-0 hole. Again, he showed that he had ice water in his veins as he methodically fought back to an 8-7 lead -- and then showed incredible presence of mind in fending off the match-winning takedown attempt by Dragon. In Fargo, Metcalf made it six straight titles by dominating and pinning Dragon, after Dragon dropped to 145 to gallantly take one more shot at Metcalf.

Metcalf's spring also included repeating as FILA Junior Nationals champion in both freestyle and Greco-Roman. Among his wins that spring were a shellacking of 2005 Junior Hodge winner Jeff Jaggers of Ohio -- and a huge win over NCAA fourth-placer finisher Eric Tannenbaum (although Tannenbaum did win the series two matches to one).

6. Dustin Schlatter (Ohio)

Although he was already a four-time Cadet Nationals champion and a returning state champion, Dustin Schlatter's sophomore season started inauspiciously as he tasted defeat for the first time -- losing twice at the Ironman. Much as Gable's loss to Larry Owings seemed to drive him to new levels, so it was with Schlatter. After crushing the competition at state that year -- Schlatter had probably the finest postseason of any sophomore who ever took the mat. In that season, he faced a gauntlet of top junior and senior opponents, who seemingly all gravitated to the 135-pound weight class in the high school wrestling equivalent of the movie Highlander. While pundits were debating which upperclassmen superstar would emerge as the best out of Ryan Lang of Ohio, Dan Frishkorn of Virginia, Alex Tsirtsis of Indiana, Josh Churella of Michigan, and Charles Lloyd of Illinois, young Schlatter had other ideas and beat every single one of them. Only Ryan Lang was even close, as Schlatter beat this Senior Nationals champion, 6-4. At the time, Tsirtsis was coming off very impressive showings against collegiate competition and considered virtually untouchable. Schlatter dismantled him -- giving up only a takedown in the closing seconds of a 5-1 win. Schlatter also shut down Frishkorn, 3-0, at Fargo that year. For good measure, Schlatter scored technical fall victories that spring over the runner-up and third-place finishers at Fargo at 140 -- CJ Ettelson and Carter Downing.

Schlatter junior season just added to his legacy, as he beat 2005 NCAA All-American Michael Keefe, 3-1, and top-12 finisher Frank Edgar, 7-4, at the West Virginia Open. At the Beast of the East that year, he faced a great opponent in three-time California state champion Troy Tirapelle of California, the brother of NCAA champion Adam Tirapelle and NCAA runner-up Alex Tirapelle. Schlatter showed himself to be on another level once again, winning by a score of 14-6. The match was worse than the score, with Schlatter scoring seven takedowns and letting Tirapelle up six times.

While a showdown with Metcalf didn't materialize in Fargo that summer due to Schlatter breaking his wrist -- Schlatter avenged his controversial loss by winning a 4-3 decision over Metcalf for the Senior National title. Prior to that -- his closest bout in this loaded weight was 17-4. Perhaps most impressive was that as Schlatter closed his senior season, he had wrestled against five NCAA All-Americans (Frishkorn, Keefe, Churella, Drew Headlee, and Coleman Scott) and beaten all of them, as well as four wrestlers who had reached the All-American round of NCAAs (Ryan Lang, Frank Edgar, Rob Preston, and Mark McKnight) and beaten all of them as well.

Joe Williams was a four-time state champion in Illinois who tasted defeat only once (photo by John Sachs).
5. Joe Williams (Illinois)

An aura of invincibility surrounded Joe Williams in high school. A four-time state champion, Williams tasted defeat just once -- when he was disqualified for an illegal slam. Williams also won a Junior Nationals title his senior year -- and dominated at the Dapper Dan Classic.

Perhaps his most notable victory, however, came following his junior year in high school. At the Junior World Team Trials that spring, he claimed an 8-5 victory over a graduating senior who would go on to be his teammate at the University of Iowa, Lincoln McIlravy.

4. Steve Mocco (New Jersey)

If one wrestler personified the word intimidation, it is the top high school heavyweight of all time -- Steve Mocco. Relentlessly intense and punishing, Mocco was on an entirely different level than any heavyweight who every competed on the high school level. After dominating three years in Fargo -- Mocco won a Senior Nationals title as well. He tasted defeat just once in his career, a fluke pin when he was going for a lateral drop.

Mocco was able to step in as a freshman and easily defeat NCAA All-Americans right off the bat. Only being inexplicably ridden out in double overtime in the finals by Tommy Rowlands kept him from winning as a true freshman (and being on his way to four titles). Clearly, Mocco was good enough to be an NCAA All-American at least since his senior year in high school, if not sooner.

Damion Hahn of New Jersey was said to be a "man among boys" in high school -- before going on to capture two NCAA titles for Minnesota (Photo/Danielle Hobeika)
3. Damion Hahn (New Jersey)

A "man among boys" might be the best way to describe Damion Hahn in high school wrestling. The winner of three state titles in single-division New Jersey, Hahn also won three junior national freestyle titles, dominating almost all of his opposition. After his sophomore season, Hahn even defeated Cael Sanderson, who had just completed his senior year.

It was his performances against older competition that really distinguished Hahn, however. After his junior year in high school he entered the U.S. Open -- and very nearly placed. Most impressively, though, Hahn unthinkably crushed two-time NCAA champion Mark Branch by a score of 10-5.

As a freshman on redshirt, Hahn very nearly gave Cael Sanderson his only collegiate loss (a 4-3 loss). So good was Hahn coming out of high school that many considered his collegiate career -- two-time NCAA champion, four-time All-American -- to be a disappointment.

2. Alan Fried (Ohio)

If Mocco personified the word intimidation, Fried personified the word intensity. The first four-time Junior Nationals freestyle champion, Fried's opponents appeared to be stuck in slow motion while he was in fast forward.

Fried's most impressive victory may have been defeating NCAA champion Clar Anderson after his junior year in high school. Fried competed in the Olympic Trials that summer, where he would face his future coach, John Smith. Those who were there report that young Fried actually scored the first takedown against America's greatest freestyle wrestler ever.

Perhaps most interesting was that on the way to winning Junior Nationals as a sophomore, he actually scored a technical fall over a senior from Iowa by the name of Tom Brands -- his future nemesis in college. Even as a redshirting freshman at Oklahoma State University, Fried defeated Brands at an open tournament. Brands would go on to win his first NCAA title -- and repeat the following two years with victories over Fried in the finals.

1. Cary Kolat (Pennsylvania)

While picking the top 20 among so many worthy contenders was difficult, picking No. 1 was actually quite easy. None have excelled so early as Cary Kolat. First, there is the fact that Kolat racked up a 137-0 ledger on his way to four state titles in wrestling-rich Pennsylvania. Moreover, Kolat placed at the Midlands as a sophomore and as a junior, back when that tournament was as tough as the NCAAs. Among his great achievements in that tournament were pinning NCAA All-American Shawn Charles -- and actually wrestling a 1-0 bout with Olympian Ken Chertow his junior year. Chertow, ironically enough, had a much easier time with NCAA champion Terry Brands in the finals that year than he did with the junior in high school from Rices Landing, Pennsylvania.

Kolat even showed he could compete at the very highest level by placing at the U.S. Open. Beating top senior level competition in high school was almost commonplace for Kolat. For example, as a junior in high school, in an open tournament, Kolat won easily over NCAA champion Sean O'Day.

Kolat had a mystique about him in high school that made it inconceivable that he would ever lose. Even other great wrestlers seemed to say his name with what might be described as reverence. Like Hahn, Kolat was so good coming out of high school that many would consider collegiate career -- two-time NCAA champion, four-time top-three finisher, and his international career -- Olympian, two time world medalist -- a disappointment. He was two upset losses away from being a four-time NCAA champion, and an entire article could be written about how he was robbed by FILA out of being a multiple-time world and Olympic champion. Clearly, however, in measuring the high school careers of all wrestlers, Kolat is my pick for best of the past 20 years.

Comments

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Hangey (1) about 1 and a half years ago
yo
imock (1) about 1 and a half years ago
joey wildasin from southwestern should have got a mention.....he was a beast
rsvickers (1) about 4 months ago
No love for Sean Hage!? World Champion!?
mpitts (1) about 4 months ago
How's Sean Hage not even mentioned? 6 Jr. Fargo titles (held the record till Metcalf tied it) and a world champ.
matkovich8 (1) about 4 months ago
Best Brother Duo for sure Nick and Andy Simmons. Both undefeated 4X Champs.
ryanhenry (1) about 4 months ago
Missing from this list is 5x junior national champion Oscar Wood. As a freshman He teched Brandon Paulson in the Junior national finals. also Bobby Janiese Beat TJ in freestyle and Sam Henson in Greco. I see a clear east coast bias to your ranking.
ryanhenry (1) about 4 months ago
Oh and fried, Kolat, Knight, and Smith don't qualify they were not in highschool in the last 20 years.
Beast_Trainer (1) about 4 months ago
Anthony Ashnault? NJ. Undefeated 4X State Champ!
Granbyman (1) about 2 weeks ago
The article was written 10.25.05, so the twenty (20) year period would be from 1986-2005 (20 seasons). Kolat, Knight, & Smith qualify as per the article. Ashnault does not since he wasn't @ South Plainfield HS until the 2010 season (SP '13).