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Defending Champs Looking for Three-Peat

March 6, 2009
|  Lynchburg, Va.
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Chris Daggett is one of three senior leaders who will look to help the Flames make it three straight at the NCAA East Regional on Saturday.

Chris Daggett is one of three senior leaders who will look to help the Flames make it three straight at the NCAA East Regional on Saturday.

Following 17 events, which started back in November, the Flames' wrestling season comes down to a single event, as Liberty will look to defend back-to-back NCAA East Regional titles on Saturday, at the 2009 NCAA East Regional Qualifier.

The one-day tournament, hosted by Gardner-Webb inside Paul Porter arena, will feature 10 individual weight class brackets, where the victors will punch their ticket to St. Louis, Mo., with an automatic berth into the 2009 NCAA National Wrestling Championship.

Liberty, who finished the regular season with a 12-9-1 dual record, has captured the team title at the event that past two years.

In the program's first year of reinstatement following 12 years away from the mats, Liberty edged Gardner-Webb by 17.5 points, 86 to 68.5 points, to take home the 2007 team championship. The Flames had four grapplers capture individual titles, including co-most outstanding wrestler Christian Smith.

Last year, Liberty hosted the event inside the Vines Center, thrilling its home fans with a second-straight team championship. The Flames dominated the event with a 41-point win over the Bulldogs, 108.5 to 67.5 points, thanks in part to an unprecedented six individual weight class victors, giving Liberty 10 national qualifiers in just two years of competition.

However, the Flames will have their hands full this go around, as this year's tournament field includes a seventh team in Campbell, while three of Liberty's national qualifiers from last year will not compete.

In a precursor to Saturday event, the Flames posted a 5-1 record at the East Regional Duals, knocking off five of their six foes tomorrow in dual tournament action.

Liberty finished the Regional Duals event with an identical 5-1 record with Campbell, but by virtue of the Flames 27-12 victory over the Camels on Feb., 3, the Flames were tagged the event's winner for the second-straight year.

Below is a breakdown on Liberty's probable starters for 2009 NCAA East Regional Qualifier:

125 pounds – For the 10th straight event, the Flames will forego points at the 125 pound weight class. Highly touted freshman Joe Pantaleo was living up to his billing with an 11-7 mark early in the year, until he suffered a season-ending injury at the Virginia Duals on Jan. 9. Since the event, Liberty has forfeited 13-straight bouts at the lightweight class.

133 pounds – This weight class will certainly be one of three the Flames will be heavily favored in, as Christian Smith will look to cap off his storied NCAA career with another trip to nationals. The former ACC champion at Duke, is a three-time national qualifier in two different weight classes (125 and 133 pounds), and is the defending East Regional 133-pound title holder. He is one of three 20-match winners for the Flames this year and enters the event having won eight-straight matches.
Smith's record vs. East Regional foes this season: 4-0
W vs. Kyle Baird (Gardner-Webb): major decision (9-0)
W vs. Richie Apolinor (Campbell): technical fall (18-0)
W vs. Sean Reed (Millersville): major decision (8-0)
W vs. Billy Chamberlain (Duquesne): decision (5-4)

141 pounds – A second-straight weight class where Liberty will be favored is headed by Tim Harner, who will be looking to make it four-consecutive national qualifying seasons. The transfer from Rider, has taken the title during the past two East Regional qualifiers after transferring to Liberty. Last year, he posted a 2-2 record at the NCAA National Championship, becoming one of two Liberty grapplers to advance to the round of 16. After opening the year at 149 pounds and posting a 7-5 record, the senior has dominated since dropping back to the familiar 141 rannks. He has recorded a 16-3 mark at 141 pounds, including six straight and wins in 13 of his last 14 bouts.
Harner's record vs. East Regional foes this season: 5-0
W vs. Austin Reece (Gardner-Webb): technical fall (19-4/6:22) (Note: at 149 pounds)
W vs. Kelin Bidelspach (Campbell): fall (5:30)
W vs. Sean Andel (Millersville): technical fall (21-6)
W vs. Jayk Cobbs (Duquesne): fall (1:38)
W vs. unknown (Delaware State): forfeit

149 pounds – Another transfer will look to lead the Flames in a highly competitive 149 pound weight class, as Frankie Gayeski will take to the mats for Liberty in Boiling Springs, N.C. The former Lehigh grappler switched with Harner midyear, and has posted a 10-9 record at 149 pounds since moving up from 141. He placed eighth at the Southern Scuffle and has won his last five bouts coming into tomorrow's event. The Malaga, N.J., native will get his toughest competition from Delaware State's Matt Cathell, who is unbeaten this year and ranks No. 13 nationally with a 13-0 overall record.
Gayeski's record vs. East Regional foes this season: 1-1
L vs. Rob Tate (Gardner-Webb): decision (2-4/SV) (Note: at 141 pounds)
W vs. Joel Caudill (Campbell): major decision (18-5)

157 pounds – Junior Shaun Smith will be looking to enact some revenge at this year's East Regional qualifier, after getting edged by Millersville's Jarrett Hostettler in a 5-2 decision during last year's title bout. The Washington, W.Va., native is 8-12 this season at 157 pounds, having captured victories in his last four trips out onto the mats, including wins over three East Regional opponents. Smith will not only face stiff competition from Millersville's Hostettler, who is 26-5 this year, but also Delaware State's Brandon Gardner, who has posted a 17-5 mark this season at 157 pounds.
Smith's record vs. East Regional foes this season: 4-0
W vs. Jake Fose (Campbell): decision (8-4)
W vs. J.J. Lester (Millersville): decision (4-1)
W vs. Nathan Reinhart (Duquesne): decision (4-3)
W vs. Nick Dalcero (Wagner): fall (5:30)

165 pounds – Liberty has been without the services of Chad Porter this year at 165 pounds, as the junior is redshirting for academic reasons, following a second-straight trip to the national championship last year. Redshirt freshman Brad Clark has stepped in nicely for the Flames, posting an even 14-14 mark during his first season of competition for the Flames, including an unblemished 4-0 mark against East Regional opponents. The favorite heading into the weekend's tournament is Gardner-Webb's Jeremy Brooks, who has won six of his last seven events to up his record to 28-8 on the season, which includes 12 wins by fall.
Clark's record vs. East Regional foes this season: 4-0
W vs. Dave Sweeney (Gardner-Webb): technical fall (15-0/6:41)
W vs. Steve Wiktorek (Campbell): decision (4-0)
W vs. Matt Gregg (Duquesne): decision (6-1)
W vs. Sean Quinn (Wagner): decision (5-1)

174 pounds – The Flames looked solid at 174 pounds two weeks ago, as Aaron Kelley had won four out of six bouts to nearly even his season mark at 14-16. However, the junior, who earned his first national qualifying trip with a win at last year's East Regional, suffered an injury during a workout session. Flames head coach Jesse Castro will now be calling on the serves of Julian Colon, asking the sophomore to wrestle up two weight classes after posting a 6-12 record this year at 157 pounds. The task will not be easy for Colon, as the 174 pound weight class has three legitimate contenders in Millersville's Shane Smith (29-13), Delaware State's Kyle Skinner (19-11) and Duquesne's Ryan Sula (19-12).
Colon's record vs. East Regional foes this season: 1-1
W vs. Justin Guthrie (Gardner-Webb): fall (2:35) (Note: at 157 pounds)
L vs. Brandon Gardner (Delaware State): decision (6-7/SV) (Note: at 157 pounds)

184 pounds – Rounding out Liberty's top three guns in the East Regional is Chris Daggett, who has backed up his 2008 national qualifying season with a 22-13 mark as a senior. The West Virginia transfer has won his last seven bouts and leads the Flames with a 6-0 record against this year's potential East Regional field. Daggett is most likely the heavy favorite coming into the weekend, as the next highest victor during the 2008-09 season is Campbell's Kyle Higgins with an 11-22 overall record. However, Daggett dominated Higgins in their previous match-up, winning in a 9-2 decision to help guide the Flames to a 27-12 road dual victory over the Camels.
Daggett's record vs. East Regional foes this season: 6-0
W vs. Blake Salyer (Gardner-Webb): fall (1:34)
W vs. Kyle Higgins (Campbell): decision (9-2)
W vs. Jason Foor (Millersville): decision (7-3)
W vs. Scott Black (Duquesne): decision (4-1)
W vs. Chris Woodall (Delaware State): decision (7-1)
W vs. Peter Morano (Wagner): major decision (14-2)

197 pounds – Anchoring Liberty's 197 pound weight class this year has been Brandon Johnson, who has posted a 9-17 record in his first year as a starter. After winning only two of his first 12 bouts, the Goldsboro, N.C., native has started to find his stride with a 7-6 record in the weight class since Dec. 29. Johnson is 4-2 this year against potential East Regional foes, winning three of four at the East Regional Duals. The 197-pound weight class is one that could be up for grabs, as Delaware State's Shawn Nowrey (13-10) and Millersville's Raymond Bennett (17-13) narrowly lead this year's East Regional field.
Johnson's record vs. East Regional foes this season: 4-2
W vs. Mattthias Piasecki (Gardner-Webb): fall (4:59)
L vs. Khiry Reed (Campbell): decision (1-3/SV)
L vs. Raymond Bennett (Millersville): decision (3-9)
W vs. unknown (Duquesne): forfeit
W vs. Ellis Hester (Delaware State): medical forfeit
W vs. Mark Wagner (Wagner): technical fall (18-3)

285 pounds – Just like 174 pounds, the Flames will be without the services of a two-time national qualifier, as heavyweight leader Patrick Walker will not take to the mats to try for a third-straight trip to the national championship. The junior will be unavailable to make the trek to St. Loius, Mo., this year because of a prior commitment, and will be giving up his spot at this year's East Regional qualifier to his understudy, Andrew Wilson. The event could serve as a teaser for next season, as the former Alaska state champion might be making the move up from 197 pounds to heavyweight next year for Liberty. During his first go around with the Flames, Wilson has posted a 2-9 record at 197 pounds and a 4-1 mark at heavyweight. However, three of his four wins at the top weight class have come by forfeit. His lone earned heavyweight win was a 3-1 decision over Delaware State's Eric Sewell at the East Regional Duals. The task will not be an easy one for Wilson, as Gardner-Webb's hometown favorite Dustin Porter is ranked No. 19 nationally with a 29-5 record, while Campbell's Khiry Reid ranks just behind him with a 20-20 overall mark.
Wilson's record vs. East Regional foes this season: 4-0
W vs. unknown (Millersville): forfeit
W vs. unknown (Duquesne): forfeit
W vs. Eric Sewell (Delaware State): decision (3-1)
W vs. unknown (Wagner): forfeit