Men’s wrestlers ready to roll at Saturday’s season-opening Messiah Invitational
Four-time defending NCWA National Duals (six overall) and NCWA Grand National (five overall) champion men’s wrestling team will open its 2022-23 season Saturday at the Messiah Invitational in Grantham, Pa., where the Flames will compete against a number of NCAA Division III programs including the host Falcons as well as Washington & Lee (Va.), Elizabethtown (Pa.), Johns Hopkins (Md.), and Wheaton (Ill.) College.
The Flames return five of their seven individual national champions from last season — graduates Dante Minnino (125 pounds) and Josiah Murphy (197) as well as seniors Ian McIlhenny (157), Jeff Allen (235), and Rick Weaver (heavyweight) — as well as one more from 2020-21, graduate assistant Chad Cantrell, who will complement McIlhenny at 157. Allen will be contending for his fourth national title next spring, which would match Head Coach Jesse Castro’s Liberty men’s wrestling record total from 1977-81 in the NCCAA ranks.
On top of the returning talent, Castro has also replenished his ranks with a deep and talented recruiting class.
“A 33-man roster is a little larger than normal, a few over what we had last season, as we had some nice walk-ons that we didn’t expect,” he said.
Among the newcomers is freshman 174-pounder Zach Kaminski, a 21-year-old former Marine Corps member from Wisconsin, whose father, Matt, wrestled on Liberty’s NCAA Division I team in the early 1990s under Head Coach Don Shuler.
“He has a wrestling pedigree and a vision to promote wrestling at our school,” Castro said. “We recruited him, and he’s a great addition who gives us a nice balance there (at 174). He is very tough and is going to make an impact, along with two-time All-American (senior) Ethan Martin.”
He said the incoming freshmen have only strengthened the competitiveness and bonds of brotherhood within the team.
“What I like about this incoming class is for the most part, these guys are very disciplined,” Castro said. “The difference from this year to last year is evidenced by the fact that I don’t have to babysit them as much. They stay on top of their academics, don’t miss classes or study halls, don’t miss practices, are actively involved in our fundraising (Wednesday’s Flames Giving Day) and are meshing well with the upperclassmen. Overall, they’re not detracting from the culture of the team, they’re only adding to it.”
Murphy and 165-pound senior David Over are the Flames’ two designated spiritual leaders this season, representing the team at events organized by Club Sports Assistant Athletic Director Reese Braband and his spiritual development staff.
“(Junior brothers) John (141) and Connor (157) McCann are helping out with that too, and actually asked me to implement a time after practice each week when one wrestler would share his testimony,” Castro said.
Though he won’t be carrying a full roster to Messiah for Saturday’s opening individual tournament, Castro is blessed with tremendous depth at all but one weight class and will have plenty of options in dual meets, including at the NCWA National Duals.
“If anything, we are untested at 133,” Castro said. “Everywhere else should be fairly solid. By and large, we’re two deep and very respectable in every weight class. I don’t see a drastic drop (from the starters to their backups) as even our second man is very tough.”
The only tournament Liberty will host this season is the Mid-Atlantic Conference (MAC), which serves as a qualifier for the NCWA Grand National Championships, generally with the top five wrestlers in each weight class advancing. The Flames won their 10th consecutive title in that event last February, with eight individual tournament champions and 20 national qualifiers.
This year’s NCWA National Duals, normally held at the LaHaye Ice Center, will take place Jan. 6-7 in Louisville, Ky., in conjunction with the National Wrestling Coaches Association’s (NWCA) Dual Championships, with NCAA Division II, Division III, and NAIA brackets contested on adjacent mats.
From March 9-11, the NCWA Grand Nationals, typically staged in Allen, Texas, will be moved to Puerto Rico, where seven collegiate programs on that U.S. territory, including the University of Puerto Rico, are joining the NCWA this season and planning to compete in the national tournament field.
By Ted Allen/Staff Writer; Video edited by Kylee Lilge/Club Sports Video & Media Coordinator