Men’s wrestling team ranked No. 1 in NCWA heading into first duals tournament in Mich.
Liberty University’s four-time-defending NCWA National Duals and NCWA Grand National champion men’s wrestling team debuted at No. 1 in the NCWA rankings, released on Friday.
The Flames were followed by second-ranked Mid-Atlantic Conference (MAC) rival The Apprentice School and No. 3 University of Toledo, which recently won a dual meet against the Shipbuilders in a tiebreaker. Queens University of Charlotte (N.C.) came in fourth and Springfield (Mass.) Tech, Grays Harbor (Wash.) College, Grand Valley (Mich.) State, UNLV, the University of Florida, and the University of Central Florida rounded out the top 10.
The Flames feature six individuals ranked No. 1 in their respective weight classes, including five defending NCWA Grand National champions — graduate Dante Minnino (125 pounds), senior Ian McIlhenny (157 pounds), graduate Josiah Murphy (197 pounds), senior Jeff Allen (a three-time champion at 235 pounds), and senior Rick Weaver (285 pounds). The sixth, senior David Over (165 pounds), placed second at nationals last year. Additionally, junior Garrett Good (141 pounds) is ranked second and Zachary Kaminski (174 pounds), a freshman former U.S. Marine, is ranked fourth.
This Friday and Saturday, Liberty will compete in its first dual meet tournament of the season, the Blithe Memorial Duals in Grand Rapids, Mich. The eight-team event is hosted by Cornerstone University, a second-year program led by former Flames Assistant Coach Chris Williamson, the son-in-law of Flames Head Coach Jesse Castro.
The Flames will compete in a round-robin format against the other three teams in its pool on Friday, starting at 11 a.m., before being reseeded for Saturday’s quarterfinals, which begin at 9 a.m. Liberty is the only NCWA program in the tournament, with Wisconsin Eau Claire, an NCAA Division III school with several nationally ranked wrestlers, likely to be the No. 1 seed. Wheaton (Ill.) College is another NCAA DIII program and the rest of the teams, including Cornerstone, are in the NAIA ranks.
Liberty’s travel squad for the tournament will include 125-pound graduate Dante Minnino and freshman Chase Arnestad along with freshman Blake Schmitt and junior Damien Thayer (133 pounds); Good and fellow juniors Johnny McCann and Grant Brammer (141); senior Charlie Hudson and junior Brandon Ahlemann (149); graduate Chad Cantrell, senior Ian McIlhenny, junior Connor McCann, and freshman Josiah Foss (157); senior David Over and freshman Syler Weber (165); senior Ethan Martin and Kaminski (174); freshman Jackson Wakeland and sophomore Gabe Hayes (184); Murphy and senior Sean Gillespie (197), and heavyweights Allen and Weaver.
“We are probably going to be seeded third or fourth, and we are guaranteed six matches,” Castro said, noting that he plans to rotate his wrestlers in at their respective weight classes or may bump them up depending on the draws. “There are going to be a lot of strategic moves, and it depends on how we are doing, point-wise. We will mix and match and bump (wrestlers) up a weight strategically, because there will be a lot of wrestling.”
With most of the teams NCAA and NAIA, the duals will all include 10 weight classes, rather than the 11 wrestled in NCWA competitions.
“We’re going to be competitive,” Castro said. “It is going to hurt not having Garrett Good in the lineup, because he is injured, and not being able to wrestle both of our very good upperweights (Allen and Weaver).”
The tournament is named for Williamson’s son, Christopher Blithe Williamson, who died during childbirth last year. Williamson and his wife, Rachel, Castro’s youngest daughter, have two girls, Salem (4) and Josephine (2). The couple also welcomed a second son, Zaddock, in October, and this will be Castro’s first opportunity to meet his 11th grandchild.
The Flames, who competed at the Lindenwood Open on Nov. 19, will continue to travel over the Christmas Break at the Dec. 29-30 Citrus Invitational in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and in the NCWA National Duals the following weekend in Louisville, where the NCAA and NAIA will also hold their national dual tournaments. They will host the MAC Tournament on Feb. 25, seeking a 12th consecutive title and to qualify as many wrestlers as possible to contend for a fifth consecutive NCWA Grand National tournament crown, March 9-11 in Puerto Rico.
By Ted Allen/Staff Writer