Flames Claim Four Titles, Win Fifth-Straight Crown
Liberty wrapped up its fifth-consecutive NCAA East Regional Championship Sunday afternoon in the Vines Center, earning four weight-class titles while head coach Jesse Castro was also honored with his fourth Coach of the Year award.
The Flames sent seven grapplers to championship bouts, with four coming out on top. Since the 2006-07 season, Liberty has now claimed the regional title each year, while advancing 24 wrestlers on to the NCAA National Championships.
Liberty’s 88 team points in the event are the fewest since its first year competing in the event, when the squad finished with 86 points. Gardner-Webb wrapped up the second-place spot with 74.5 points, while also claiming four weight-class titles on the day. The 13.5-point margin of victory over the Bulldogs is the smallest in Liberty’s five wins since the 2007 season as well, when Gardner-Webb finished second, 17.5 points behind.
Robert Jillard’s run to the 125-pound title began with a matchup against the 2009 East Region champion, Billy Chamberlain. Chamberlain, now wrestling for Sacred Heart, captured the title while competing for Duquesne, before the school cut the wrestling program.
The graduate student showed his experience early, taking a 6-3 lead into the final period behind two takedowns and a reversal. However, in the closing period, Jillard came through with a reversal, and then scored three back points in the last ten seconds of the bout. His riding time edge pushed the final score to 9-6, and advanced him into the finals.
Jillard started quickly in the Flames’ first championship bout at 125 pounds, scoring a takedown on Gardner-Webb’s Brett Kostern within the opening 20 seconds. The Franklinville, N.J., native extended his lead by tacking on back-to-back two-point near fall moves in the first, before Kostern escaped, ending the period at 6-1.
Kostern tried to close the gap in the second frame by scoring a takedown, but Jillard gained two points of his own on a reversal with under five seconds remaining in the period.
The Flames’ freshman escaped to open the final stanza before adding a takedown and two more back points to wrap up his 20th win on the season and a ticket to the 2011 NCAA Championship. His final advantage was 14-3.
T. J. Mitchell gave the Flames two titles in a row, earning a trip to the NCAAs in his first attempt. Mitchell dominated his opening match-up with Sacred Heart’s Anthony Ricco at 133 pounds, giving up only one point in the bout. Mitchell held a 7-1 advantage going into the final period, where he posted six more points for a 13-1 major decision.
In his title bout, Mitchell gained an early 2-0 advantage with a takedown, while also gathering 2:12 of riding time in the first period over Campbell’s Gabe Gardner. The Flames’ redshirt junior earned another quick takedown in the second period after starting in the neutral position, then capped off the period with two more near-fall points.
Mitchell kept rolling in the final two minutes of action, escaping to start the period and adding another takedown to secure the Flames’ second individual championship with a 13-0 blanking of his opponent. Mitchell’s win ups his season record to 17-13 and sends him to the national event for the first time in his career.
At 141 pounds, Seth Hicks faced a tough battle with Millersville’s Mike Greck. Greck used a reversal and a takedown in the second period to take a 5-3 lead into the final two minutes. Hicks came back to claim the lead, but a late escape and an illegal hold against Hicks allowed Greck to move on, 7-6.
In Hicks’ third-place bout, the redshirt freshman fell behind 4-1 early, as Gardner-Webb’s Richie Spicel looked to earn his second win over the Flame this season. After ending the opening period with a 6-2 edge, Spicel tallied three more takedowns in the bout, winning 17-11. With the defeat, Hicks wrapped up the day in fourth place.
Senior Peter Crawford became the third Liberty representative in the finals after knocking off Millersville’s Steve Hess at 149 pounds. Crawford built a 6-1 lead through one period, then rolled on to the 10-3 win. Crawford tallied four takedowns in the match and a two-point near fall for his 10 points.
In Crawford’s championship bout, the senior looked to avenge a loss to Gardner-Webb’s Ryan Medved. The Runnin’ Bulldogs’ redshirt sophomore wouldn’t have it, however, picking up the 15-0 technical fall victory 3:19 into the bout, giving Crawford second-place honors in his first competition at the NCAA East Regional.
Crawford wraps up his career as a Flame with 13 wins, while providing depth to the lineup at multiple weights during his four years of competing.
Unfortunately for Liberty, redshirt junior Julian Colon was a scratch for the tournament. The tri-captain finishes his year with a 14-11 record at 157 pounds for the Flames.
Chad Porter was the first wrestler to record a fall on the day, as he claimed a spot in the 165-pound championship with a pin (3:33) over Gardner-Webb’s Justin Guthrie. The pin was Porter’s ninth on the year.
Porter then controlled his championship bout from start to finish, on his way to his fourth regional title. He scored two first-period takedowns to earn a 4-1 lead, and racked up over two and a half minutes of riding time through two periods. To close the bout, Porter escaped and added the riding time bonus to make the final 6-1, giving Liberty its third individual champion on the evening.
Porter finishes his East Region career with an unscathed 20-0 record, which includes the East Regional Dual and East Regional Championship events, as well as individual dual meets with East Region teams.
Freshman Royal Brettrager II turned out to be the Flames’ final qualifier at 174 pounds, and the third first-time qualifier for the hosts. Brettrager II started with a dominant opening performance, handing Gardner-Webb’s Erin O’Dell a 12-3 major decision. After building a 6-1 lead through one period, Brettrager added a reversal in the second. He escaped, scored a takedown and gained the riding time advantage for his final tallies.
Brettrager then met Campbell’s Peter Comis in the finals, after Comis upset two-time defending regional champion, Shane Smith of Millersville, in the opening round. The Flames’ freshman was on the wrong end of two takedowns early, but that wouldn’t matter, as one move and a throw from Brettrager late in the opening period resulted in a pin (2:31).
The win marked the sixth win by fall this season for the Kirtland, Ohio, native and the Flames’ fourth and final weight-class title on the evening.
Aaron Kelley entered the finals the quickest of anyone, just needing 54 seconds to pin Zachary Moran of Sacred Heart in the 184-pound semifinals. Kelley then met Gardner-Webb’s Jonathan Velazquez in the final, who had defeated Campbell’s John Merickel, 5-2.
After finding themselves knotted 1-1 in the final period of the championship bout, Velazquez came out on top after a scuffle for position. The takedown in the final 10 seconds of the bout ended the match 3-1, in favor of Velazquez, giving Kelley his second regional runner-up finish in his career.
Kelly wraps up an outstanding career, posting a 75-60 career mark in a Liberty singlet. This gives the Parkersburg, W. Va., native a spot at the Bronze level of Liberty wrestling’s Eagle Medal Club, which honors grapplers with 60-79 career victories.
At 197 pounds, Aaron Thompson advanced to the finals of his weight class with a 10-3 performance against Daniel Cox of Millersville. Three takedowns in the opening two periods led to a 6-3 lead for the Vinton, Va., native. In the final two minutes, he’d add an escape, a takedown and the riding time bonus for his 10 points.
In the title bout, Gardner-Webb’s Travis Porter held the upper hand over Thompson for the second time this season, earning a win by fall (4:56) for the championship. With the defeat, Thompson was the Flames’ third runner-up finisher on the day.
Redshirt senior Josh Pelletier faced a rough day in the tournament, after suffering a knee injury in warm ups. Paul Schweighhardt avenged a 4-0 loss to Pelletier at the East Region Duals earlier this year, this time defeating the injured Flame, 6-0. Pelletier then posted a medical forfeit in the third-place match.
The Charleston, Maine, native completes his career with Liberty posting a 41-26 mark.
At the conclusion of the event, Castro was named the 2011 NCAA East Region Coach of the Year. This is his fourth time being honored with the award, after receiving it in 2007, 2008 and 2010.
Gardner-Webb’s redshirt senior, Jonathan Velazquez was named the event’s Most Outstanding Wrestler, winning both of his matches by decision at 184 pounds.
The Flames’ four national qualifiers will now set their eyes on Philadelphia for the 2011 NCAA National Wrestling Championships. The grapplers will have 11 days to prepare for the event, which begins competition on March 17 at the Wells Fargo Center.