Flames wrestlers primed for action-packed 2021-22 season debut Saturday at Messiah
Liberty University’s men’s wrestling team is bringing a 20-man roster to Saturday’s season-opening Messiah Invitational in Grantham, Pa., where the Flames will grapple in a field of 10 predominantly NCAA Division III programs, including the host Falcons, Elizabethtown, Gettysburg, and Ursinus from Pennsylvania.
Other teams in the field include Washington & Lee (Va.), Johns Hopkins and McDaniel from Maryland, Wheaton (Ill.), and Wisconsin Eau Claire.
Head Coach Jesse Castro is cautiously optimistic about Liberty’s potential to compete, even without a few of its top wrestlers, including junior heavyweight Rick Weaver and 165-pounder David Over, sidelined by injury.
“It will be a good starter tournament for us against solid competition, both teams and individuals,” Castro said, noting that the scored event will be more challenging but not unlike the end-of-season Mid-Atlantic Conference tournament. “I’ve got my expectations in light of having some guys out, including Rick Weaver, who is a point-getter for us, and David Over, which is going to hurt us too. It will be a good opportunity to see exactly where we are.”
A few others won’t make the trip due to their academic standing.
“There will not be many freshmen wrestling this weekend because we are trying to keep an eye on them academically,” Castro said. “They’re struggling and have to understand the priority of why they are here. It is tough to do that (discipline), but necessary.”
The Flames will have wrestlers in nine of the 10 weight classes (all but 165), with five at 149 pounds (junior Brandon Ahlemann, sophomore Grant Brammer, junior Charlie Hudson, senior Bobby Leek, and freshman Caleb Slack) and three at 141 (sophomores Garrett Good and John McCann and junior Damien Thayer) and 184 (senior Blake Barrick and freshmen Ethan Chelberg and Gabriel Hays).
“We’re really looking forward to seeing the sophomores compete,” Castro said. “We had an abbreviated season last year and the guys didn’t have an opportunity to get any kind of rhythm in their competition, so we are really eager to see some of those guys (in live action).”
Besides Barrick, senior 125-pounder Dante Minnino and heavyweight Jeff Allen are Liberty’s team captains this season. Other team members competing this weekend are graduate Logan Robertson (133), sophomores Connor McCann (157) and Cole Waddy (157) and seniors Ethan Martin (174) and Josiah Murphy (197).
The Flames’ coaching staff will include two former wrestlers, Assistant Coach Josh McIlhenny and 2020 national champion 157-pounder Chad Cantrell, who will undergo hip surgery soon but plans to return to compete as a graduate assistant next season.
“They know the system and have preexisting relationships with guys on the team which is very helpful,” Castro said. “Chad is going to be out of commission for a little while, and we need him on the mat, but certainly understand and want to get him healthy again.”
Castro likes the makeup of this year’s team, with wrestlers sharpening one another both spiritually and technically on the mat.
“The camaraderie and spiritual atmosphere of the team is at a good place,” Castro said. “They’re all on board when it comes to doing what we’re doing. Why do we do this? To honor the Lord with the talent that He’s given us. We’re going to be reflecting Christ in the way we present ourselves, not just in the way we wrestle, but off the mat, too. Everybody is excited about that aspect, to be a living testimony.”
He is excited to watch the team’s development as the season progresses, with the fall semester featuring an open tournament at Averett (Va.) University on Nov. 14; the Lindenwood Open in St. Louis and Star City Open in Roanoke, Va., on Nov. 20-21, when the Flames will enter split squads; the Dec. 4 Carolina Clash Duals at Lander University in Greenwood, S.C.; and the Dec. 29-30 Citrus Classic in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Then in the spring semester, competition heats up with the Jan. 14-15 Virginia Duals in Hampton, Va., and the Jan. 21-22 NCWA National Duals at Liberty, the three-time defending champion, before concluding with the Feb. 26 MAC Championships, where the Flames will seek their 10th consecutive crown and to qualify as many wrestlers as possible for the March 10-11 NCWA Grand National Championships in Allen, Texas, where they have also captured the past three titles.
By Ted Allen/Staff Writer; Video by Patrick Strawn/Club Sports Director of Video & Media