Flames target third top-three NCWA Championship finish
March 11, 2014 | Lynchburg, Va.
Now in its third season as a member of the National Collegiate Wrestling Association (NCWA), Liberty University's wrestling team will vie for its third consecutive top-three finish at the NCWA National Championships, this Thursday through Saturday at the Allen Event Center in Allen, Texas.
The Flames placed third at the Jan. 25-26 NCWA Collegiate Cup Dual Championships in Dalton, Ga., earning 20 bonus points toward their National Championships team score. They still trail the two tournament favorites, Collegiate Cup champion Grand Canyon University (22 points) and runner-up Shorter University (21 points). Grand Canyon edged Shorter 23-19 in the Collegiate Cup final after Shorter beat Liberty 23-16 in the semifinals.
"They're definitely the favorites going in, but with some help from some other teams, they're definitely beatable," Liberty Head Coach Jesse Castro said of Grand Canyon. "At the National Duals, they dominated. They railroaded everyone."
Grand Canyon is serving a four-year probationary period in the NCWA as it transitions from NCAA Division II to D-I. Shorter, meanwhile, is making the move from NCAA D-III to D-II and wrestled against the University of Oklahoma, a top-10 NCAA D-I program, this season. Liberty competed at the NCAA D-I level from 2006, when the program was re-instated, to 2011.
The Flames qualified 17 wrestlers for the NCWA tournament, more than any of the 85 teams in the field, at the Mid-Atlantic Conference Tournament.
Castro said Liberty's strength of schedule rivals all but Grand Canyon's and Shorter's.
"The three of us probably have the strongest schedules and we go to some of the same tournaments," Castro said, such as the Citrus Classic in Florida and Joe Parisi Open in St. Louis, where the Flames competed against several NCAA D-I, D-II, and D-III schools. "That has a huge benefit in the long run. I prefer being battle ready."
He said other teams in contention for the top three include Central Florida, Grand Valley (Mich.), Central Washington, and Wayne State (Mich.)
"There's always some dark horse teams that could make some noise and have a good tournament," Castro said. "We've got to be ready, that's the bottom line."
It will be key for the Flames' individual wrestlers to remain in the championship brackets, or score as many points as possible through the consolations.
"What's going to be crucial is bonus points, winning those matches in the early rounds," Castro said.
Competitors receive one advancement point for each championship match they win, but only 0.5 points for each consolation triumph. Wrestlers also earn two bonus points for each pin, 1.5 points for each technical fall, and one point for each major decision.
"What's so fun about this tournament is it's an individual tournament, but it's a team tournament, too," Castro said. "Last year, we got such a good picture of what a team is."
Liberty had three finalists and eclipsed Lindenwood-St. Charles (Mo.) by two points for third place, as it picked up key victories from unexpected sources. That included 157-pounder Chase Boontjer, who wrestled back through the consolation bracket and topped Lindenwood's Cullin Halpin, 3-2, in the seventh-place match after pinning Lindenwood's other entry, Masen Ridenhour, in his first consolation bout.
"Last year, we were eight points off of second place as we had a lot of guys come back in the consolations and do well," Castro said. "The year before, we were 11 points out of second. We had five finalists and still didn't win it because we didn't have anyone coming through the back door."
Among the Flames' top seeds for this week's event are Boontjer at 157, fellow junior Keyshaun Ward, who placed fourth last year at 174, seniors Royal Brettrager (third at 184) and 2012 National Champion Aaron Thompson (runner-up at 197), and undefeated freshman Ryan Diehl, who's 30-0 and seeded second at 133.
Diehl is on a collision course to meet Massachusetts Institute of Technology top-seeded senior Sam Shames, the undefeated defending 133-pound National Champion, in the final.
Another freshman, Jake Paull, will get a shot to send Shorter's 133-pounder Jesse Jones to the consolation bracket with a second-round upset on Thursday.
Castro is counting on as two other freshmen, Timmy Nordan at 125 and Josh Ferenczy at 165, as well as Colin Lewis, a graduate student at 141, and sophomore Peter Tatanish at 149, to challenge for All-American status with top-eight finishes.