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    October 8, 2021 Lynchburg, Va. RSS |

    Liberty University’s men’s wrestling team, the three-time defending NCWA Grand National and NCWA National Duals champions, is gearing up to get back in contention for its fifth and sixth national titles in those respective tournaments this season after having its 2020-21 campaign canceled by COVID-19.

    The Flames brought in eight new recruits for the fall semester and added three walk-ons during tryouts in late August to build their roster back up to 30.

    “We are really pleased with the turnout,” Liberty Head Coach Jesse Castro said. “The numbers looking good, depth is looking good, and we have a good system in place for the upcoming season. Kudos to the guys for their dedication in the offseason. We had maybe three-quarters of our team doing the optional technique training in the springtime.”

    Practices out of their state-of-the-art wrestling facilities in the Liberty Club Sports Complex are in full swing as of this week in anticipation of opening the 2021-22 slate at the Nov. 6 Messiah (Pa.) Invitational.

    The Flames will again host the NCWA National Duals on Jan. 21-22, 2022, as well as the Mid-Atlantic Conference championships, which they attempt to win for the 10th season in a row while qualifying as many wrestlers as possible for the NCWA Grand Nationals set for March 10-12 back in Allen, Texas.

    “In the preseason, we have been emphasizing strength, conditioning, and technique training, too,” Castro said. “Starting this past week, we picked up more time in the room, more wrestling and drilling, and the guys are getting pretty eager to start competing.”

    Castro and a couple of his wrestlers endured personal bouts with COVID since the start of the semester and may still be battling fatigue, but have proven themselves overcomers, as any successful wrestler must.

    “Last year was a crazy year and there are still so many question marks as to how the season is going to pan out,” Castro said, noting that all of his wrestlers must have negative COVID tests before competing at Messiah. “We have a normal schedule, but we will see what happens. We are following the policy of the NCAA, not requiring vaccinations and looking to institutions to make that call.”

    He likes the look of his lineup at the outset of this season, though the Flames are a little thin at 157 and 165 pounds with graduate assistant Chad Cantrell, one of their five NCWA Grand National champions in 2019-20, will soon have surgery on a hip injury and will likely be sidelined until next season, when Castro hopes to retain him on staff for a final season of eligibility.

    “Our depth is looking pretty good this year,” Castro said. “We did lose a couple solid kids, but as far as starting lineup goes, it should be the same as last year.”

    Senior 235-pounder Jeffrey Allen, 184-pounder Blake Barrick, and 125-pounder Dante Minnino will serve as team captains.

    “I am actually really pleased with our leadership,” Castro said. “Our captains are all very consistent and they work hard. They’re good guys and they set good examples.”

    Dante Minnino, one of the Flames three team captains, returns for his senior season at 125 pounds.

    Minnino returns to anchor the lightweights along with sophomores Logan Robertson at 133 and Garrett Good at 141 with junior Charles Hudson and sophomore Brandon Ahlemann battling for the starting spot at 149. While the 157 weight class is up for grabs,  David Over, who finished 11-3 in limited wrestling action last season, returns as the frontrunner at 165 while fellow junior Ethan Martin is penciled in as starter at 174 along with Barrick at 184, junior Josiah Murphy at 197, Allen at 235, and junior Rick Weaver at heavyweight.

    “Our upperweights are going to be pretty hard to beat, though we don’t have a lot of depth at 235 and heavyweight,” Castro said.

    He likes what he has witnessed from his team off the mat as much as their development on it.

    “So far, they seem to be doing really well as far as jelling, chemistry-wise and with the spiritual element,” Castro said. “We are trying to be intentional in carrying over what we had last year, when weren’t overwhelmed with competition, and the guys on our team are buying into that. They’re drawing closer to each other and taking initiative on their own, which is a good thing. Christ in their lives as a team seems to be more of a priority to them, which is the most exciting part of the development process, as far as coaching is concerned, for me to watch.”

    He has met with School of Divinity Professor Dr. David Wheeler to discuss ways for his team to engage the community through outreach and service.

    “There are always opportunities to be a witness to the guys you wrestle and share the Gospel wherever we go,” Castro said. “We definitely want to emphasize that more, as it has been a mainstay of our program throughout the years. (Founding Head Coach Bob Bonheim) was an evangelist at heart.

    In addition to the nine NCWA team championships (five National Duals and four Grand National tournament trophies), Liberty has won a total of 40 individual titles in the 47-year history of the program started. Bonheim guided the Flames to five consecutive NCCAA National Championships from 1977-81, the same time period that Castro won four individual national titles.

    Liberty’s All-Time Individual National Champions

    1975-76 (NCCAA Division II)

    Wayne Smith 118 lbs.

    Randy Williams 134 lbs.

    Dick Whitaker 190 lbs.

    Bryan Hardy 285 lbs.

    1976-77

    Jesse Castro 142 lbs.

    Tom Brittain 177 lbs.

    Dick Whitaker 190 lbs.

    1977-78

    Aaron Thomas 134 lbs.

    Jesse Castro 142 lbs.

    Dave Maple 158 lbs.

    1978-79

    Rob Hetrick 126 lbs.

    Jesse Castro 142 lbs.

    Dave Brown 190 lbs.

    1979-80

    Mike Osborne 126 lbs.

    Aaron Thomas 142 lbs.

    Rich Adams 177 lbs.

    Dave Brown 190 lbs.

    1980-1981

    Mike Speer 118 lbs.

    Jesse Castro 142 lbs.

    Steve Iles 150 lbs.

    Howard Johnson 167 lbs.

    1987-1988 (NCAA Division II)

    Warren Stewart 142 lbs.

    2011-12 (NCWA Division I)

    Scott Clymer 141 lbs.

    Aaron Thompson 197 lbs.

    2012-13

    Andrew Wilson 285 lbs.

    2013-2014

    Ryan Diehl 133 lbs.

    2014-15

    Ryan Diehl 141 lbs.

    Josh Llopez 167 lbs.

    2016-2017

    Josh Ferenczy

    2017-18

    Austin Amos 197 lbs.

    2018-2019

    Andrew Burgette 158 lbs.

    Sam Karel 174 lbs.

    Austin Amos 197 lbs.

    Jeffrey Allen 235 lbs.

    Dominick Johnson 285 lbs.

    2019-2020

    Chad Cantrell 157 lbs.

    Joe Scott 165 lbs.

    Sam Karel 174 lbs.

    Austin Amos 197 lbs.

    Jeffrey Allen 235 lbs.

    Video by Hayden Robertson/Club Sports Video & Media Assistant