Liberty wrestlers primed to peak at nationals in Texas
March 13, 2013 | Allen, Texas
Ranked fourth in Tuesday's NCWA national poll, Liberty University's wrestling team is shooting for a top-three finish in this week's National Collegiate Wrestling Championships at the Allen Event Center in Allen, Texas, just north of Dallas.
With 17 wrestlers in the 11 weight classes, the Flames — along with Lindenwood-St. Charles (Mo.), which beat Liberty in the Jan. 19 NCWA national duals final, and Lindenwood-Belleville — have the most qualifiers for the tournament, which starts Thursday at 10 a.m. (EST) and ends with Saturday afternoon's championship finals.
"Our goal's to go down and win," Flames 184-pound junior Royal Brettrager said Tuesday during the team's final practice before taking a bus to Richmond at 3 a.m. Wednesday to catch a 7 a.m. flight to Texas. "We have 17 guys and we'll have, hopefully, a handful of all-Americans and most of them placing, hopefully high."
"I feel like our depth's strong, plus the guys are peaking at the right time, right now," added Aaron Thompson, Liberty's lone returning NCWA national champion at 197.
Last year, Liberty placed third in the NCWA nationals despite putting five individuals in the finals of their respective weight classes.
"If we get three national champions, we'll have a good shot of (winning the team title), but it's not guaranteed," Flames head coach Jesse Castro said. "We really need guys in the back door (consolation brackets) to come through. That's what hurt us last year. How in the world did we have five national finalists and still not win the tournament? That's ludicrous."
Notre Dame, which won last year's NCWA national tournament title, moved up to NCAA Division II, placing third in that tournament this year. Lindenwood St. Charles is currently the top-ranked NCWA team in the nation, followed by McKendree (Ill.) and California Baptist, last year's NCWA nationals runner-up.
"We recognize that there are some talented, powerful teams out there that have a good history, but your past isn't going to make you win this year," said Brettrager, the returning NCWA runner-up at 184 pounds. "Last year, I lost my last match. I made a mistake, got caught. This year, I understand I have to be more focused, more careful, but at the same time, going out, being aggressive and giving it all."
With approximately 500 wrestlers competing, the 16th annual NCWA nationals is the largest collegiate tournament in the country.
Besides Cal Baptist, Lindenwood, and McKendree, there are a handful of other teams that could keep Liberty out of the top five.
"Central Florida's going to be very competitive along with the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC)," Castro said. "So it's not a shoe-in, by any means."
Individually, the Flames are strongest in the middle and upperweight classes, starting at 141, where freshman Peter Tatanish (24-11) won the Mid-Atlantic Conference tournament title, held March 2 in Liberty's new Schilling Center, and will face Massachusetts-Amherst's Max Jacobs in the first round.
Perhaps Liberty's most improved wrestler of late is senior Peter Crawford (16-13), who captured the 149-pound MAC tournament title, after placing seventh last year.
"He was on and off all year long, struggling, wrestling hard, but mentally trying to stay in the game," Brettrager said. "He came out at the (MAC) qualifier and looked like a whole new guy. It looked like he was training for the Olympics. He came out, destroyed his opponents, cleaned everything up, his head was in the right place, and hopefully he rolls into this week and just keeps going. Most of the guys are just like that — up and down all year, but they're peaking right now, mentally, physically, talent-wise, everything."
Liberty freshman Marcus Miller (16-6) decisioned sophomore teammate Chase Boontjer (12-8) in the 157-pound MAC final, 4-1. As is also the case in the 141, 165, 174, 184, and 197 weight classes, both will be competing at nationals but only one wrestlers' points will count toward the team total, which Castro must designate before the tournament starts.
At 165, the Flames feature two returning all-Americans — Robert Clymer (13-6), last year's national runner-up who will meet Mercer's Hunter Allen in the first round, and Mark Busse (18-13), who was eighth last year and will face Grand Valley State's Austin Geerlings.
Liberty junior Keyshaun Ward (23-10) is coming off a MAC tournament title at 174 and will meet Toledo's Vincente Vielma in the first round.
Brettrager (15-5) is seeded second at 184 behind South Carolina's Ben Brummel, who he lost to, 7-4, in the MAC final after beating him in last year's final. Thompson (19-5) is the top seed at 197 and will meet Andrew Kordek of Illinois State in the first round.
At 235, Liberty's Andrew Wilson, a fifth-year senior from Alaska who was last year's runner-up at 285, will face Kyle Folk of Stony Brook in his first-round match.
"I wrestled 285 last year," said Wilson, who competed at the NCAA Division I level his first three years. "I'm definitely a lot quicker at 235. I'm excited for it and it's my last year, so I'm doing all I can and enjoying every moment here at Liberty. We're on a pretty good roll and we have pretty good momentum. Hopefully, we'll close out on a good note."
He is optimistic about not only his own, but the Flames' chances as a team of returning to Lynchburg as national champions.
"That's the goal, it's the ultimate prize," Wilson said. "Everybody's got to wrestle their best and a lot of things have got to go right and if that happens, we can win."