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    March 11, 2023 San Juan, Puerto Rico RSS |

    While Liberty University’s men’s wrestling team came up just short in its quest to defend its NCWA Grand Nationals team championship and build on its record run of four consecutive titles, it had an equally compelling individual storyline going into this weekend’s tournament, held for the first time at the Puerto Rico Convention Center in San Juan.

    Flames 235-pound senior Jeff Allen, one of Liberty’s four No. 1 seeds, became the NCWA’s first-ever four-time national champion by edging Utah Tech’s Zeke Alleman, 5-4, in Saturday night’s final.

    Allen, who started his career on Virginia Tech’s NCAA Division I team before transferring to Liberty as a sophomore, joined Head Coach Jesse Castro — who won four titles at the NCCAA level from 1977-81 — as the program’s second men’s wrestler ever to complete the grand slam.

    “That’s history,” Castro said, noting that Allen also joined former Lady Flames women’s wrestler and current Assistant Coach Cendall (Manley) Murphy, who became the NCWA’s first four-time women’s Grand National champion in 2020. “Jeff has overcome a lot. It takes consistency to win four national championships, and not only a lot of fortitude and longsuffering, but a lot of focus.”

    Flames senior 235-pound wrestler Jeff Allen finishes his career with a Liberty record 136 victories and an NCWA record four Grand National titles. (Photo by Chase Gyles)

    Besides setting the NCWA record, Allen also ends his four-year Flames career with an all-time program record 136 wins, with the final one ranking among the most difficult. After giving up a point to Alleman for stalling, Allen secured the victory with his second takedown midway through the third period.

    “He had to earn that one,” Castro said of the championship bout against Alleman. “(Alleman) was tough, and he took Jeff to the limit. It was just a battle for him to hold that lead.”

    Castro, who gave Allen a huge hug after the match, admired his perseverance and endurance throughout his career.

    “As a defending national champion, you have a target on your back and you have to maintain a level of conditioning and consistency that’s hard to do,”  Castro said, noting that for him each title was more challenging than the previous one. “It kept getting harder. Obviously, there are all different levels of competition, but the internal pressure that you have to get a grip on and handle makes it very difficult.”

    Despite winning all three of its championship finals and having 12 All-Americans for top-eight finishes, the Flames met their match in the team competition against Bellarmine (Ky.) University, a team transitioning to the NCAA Division I level next season. The Knights, who started the year by ending Liberty’s four-year run as NCWA National Duals champions on Jan. 7 in their hometown of Louisville, held on to claim the team title with 206.5 points, 17 more than Liberty (189.5).

    “They were just too strong,” Castro said. “Even in their consolation matches, they all came through. They’re that good. I thought we gave them a good run, we really did. We received some real positive remarks from their coaching staff, which was shocked by how close we came to beating them. I am so proud of this team and the way they bounced back and fought to the finish.”

    Mid-Atlantic Conference rival Apprentice School won a three-way battle for third place with 135 points, followed closely by Springfield (Mass.) Tech (133) and Grand Valley State (131.5), which had edged Bellarmine for the Great Lakes Conference tournament title when the Knights rested a few of their injured wrestlers.

    In San Juan, Bellarmine sent five of its nine wrestlers to the championship finals and three to the consolation finals. The Knights won the first seven of those eight matches leading up to the heavyweight showdown between Thadd Huff and Liberty senior two-time defending national champion Rick Weaver.

    However, Weaver made it a clean sweep for the Flames’ upperweight trio of finalists by opening a 7-1 lead in the third period and finishing off Huff by fall in 6 minutes, 9 seconds, clinching his third national crown.

    “That was an awesome finish,” Castro said. “(Huff is) a good (NCAA) Division I wrestler, with over 25 wins against Division I competition. Rick just beat him down. He just manhandled him.”

    Flames graduate Josiah Murphy also defended his national crown at 197 pounds by escaping late in his finals match against Grand Valley State’s Seth Konyenbelt for a 3-2 triumph. After winning his first two matches by fall on Thursday, Murphy won his last four by increasingly tight decisions.

    Liberty had two consolation champions — graduate 125-pounder Dante Minnino, who won his consolation semifinal match by forfeit over freshman teammate Chase Arnestad before doubling up Springfield Tech’s Dylan Beddow, 8-4, in his third-place bout, and 174-pound freshman Zach Kaminski.

    Kaminski also won his consolation semifinal by forfeit, over Slippery Rock’s Keith Brubach, before pinning Ohio State’s Benjamin Blickle for third place in 2:37.

    Arnestad went on to win his fifth-place final against Apprentice’s Caleb Olgers by fall in 1:21. He was one of three freshmen to earn All-American status, along with Kaminski and 133-pounder Blake Schmitt. Schmitt, from nearby Forest, Va., finished fourth after winning his consolation semifinal by 11-0 major decision over Grand Valley State’s Gabriel Martinez before dropping his consolation final to Bellarmine’s Michael Schiffhauer, 6-3.

    “Our young wrestlers really stepped it up,” Castro said. “Blake Schmitt is a freshman coming into his own (and) it is great to see that he has made this kind of improvement.”

    Seniors Seth Ellsmore (fourth at 235), Sean Gillespie (sixth at 197), Charlie Hudson (seventh at 149), and David Over (eighth at 165), and sophomore Gabe Hayes (sixth at 184) also earned All-American honors.

    In the women’s tournament, Lady Flames junior Maile Ka-ahanui was Liberty’s only competitor on Saturday, finishing fourth to help secure an 11th-place team showing out of 35 teams with 21 points.

    Complete results are available online.

    By Ted Allen/Staff Writer

    The Flames and Lady Flames celebrate their success in San Juan with their coaching staffs.