BUFFALO, NY - With 22 underclassmen (6 sophomores, 16 freshmen) and roughly five starting positions up for grabs, it would be easy to mistake the 2011-12 Buffalo wrestling team as young and inexperienced. However, when you factor in the best recruiting class in program history and a team-record five national qualifiers returning, Buffalo is a team to watch out for this season
Of the five national qualifiers making their way back to campus, three of them – Andrew Schutt, Mark Lewandowski and Brett Correll – are only entering their junior year. Kevin Smith and John-Martin Cannon, will be seniors and are expected to approach, if not reach, the 100-win plateau early in the season.
Joining the returners will be a recruiting class that has been ranked in the top 15 by every major wrestling publication: 11th by D1CollegeWrestling.net and The Open Mat, and 13th by InterMat. The rankings were released before the team added another six wrestlers, including two transfers from the Oklahoma Sooners. These young wrestlers and the 2010-11 redshirts will all be heavily in the mix to fill vacancies at 133, 149, 174, 184 and 197 pounds.
"It doesn't make a difference if you're a true freshman, an experienced wrestler or even a redshirt senior, we're going to start the best wrestler we can," said head coach Jim Beichner. "I like them all - this is a great team. They really have great personalities and they're all great people so it makes it difficult (who to start). The guys who will prove to us that they can take on any competitor will be the ones who are out there wrestling."
"It works out great that we've hired a new assistant coach for those middle weights," Beichner said, referring to new coach Matt Lackey. "Rickey Deubel is doing a great job in his second year with our lightweights and now Coach Lackey has a lot of young talent who will be able to feed off of a three-time All American and NCAA champion. You can't ask for any better for our wrestlers and coaches."
With the class having more depth than almost any other on the team, it will be a fiercely competitive division throughout the season. Last season's main starter was redshirt sophomore Sean Walton (Palmyra, NY/Palmyra Macedon). He earned the starting position in early December and performed well. He led the team with three falls in dual meets and 12 falls over the course of the season. He has the potential to be a high-scorer for the Bulls if he can again earn the starting spot.
Junior Taylor Golba (Buffalo, NY/St. Joseph's) opened the season as the team's starter and won 10 matches before a knee injury ended his season. He is expected to be back at full force for the 2011-12 season.
A pair of redshirt freshman will also be in the mix, brothers Max and Mike Soria (Kings Park, NY). Max won 10 tournament matches and Mike won 15 as both kept busy in their redshirt year. Decorated true freshmen Arik Robinson (Morrisonville, NY), Mohamed Abdulgawi (Lackawanna, NY) and Dan Gormley (Bainbridge, NY) will also add to a weight class that is one of the youngest and talented on the team.
"This is the deepest weight class we have, and it's a weight class we need to get better at," Beichner said. "We've got a lot of talented and hard-working young men at this weight and I'm confident that the depth will allow us to always be able to put someone out there that is going to be very competitive. It doesn't make a difference if you're a true freshman, an experienced wrestler or even a senior, we're going to start the best wrestler we can at this weight."
With Kevin Smith expected to move up to 141 pounds this season, sophomore Justin Farmer (New Lenox, IL/Lincoln-Way Catholic) was redshirted to prepare for a weight bump. After winning 16 matches as a freshman at 125, he won 20 matches as a 133 redshirt and is one of the front runners for the starting spot. His main competition will be Dan Gormley, and Beichner is excited for the potential at this weight.
"Dan Gormley is a great kid and a hard worker. He's scrappy, which means to me that he'll battle and won't give up," Beichner said. "In the sport of wrestling, toughness and the willingness to battle and keep wrestling will win a lot of times over talent. It's about who is tough and unwilling to quit. Farmer has that and a lot of experience so they'll be the top two."
Also competing at 133 will be incoming transfer Alex Ekstrom (Palmyra, NY/Palmyra [Oklahoma]), who comes from the perennial powerhouse Oklahoma Sooners. After winning 226 matches and four New York state titles in his career at Palmyra-Macedon High School, Ekstrom won six matches in his freshman season at Norman and redshirted last season, going 6-2 unattached. After transfering closer to home, Ekstrom now hopes to compete for a place in the starting 10 and be a difference-maker for Buffalo at either 133 or 141.
Senior Kevin Smith (Mexico, NY/Mexico) will again be expected to be one of the top performers for the Bulls in 2011 after making his second straight appearance in the NCAA tournament. Smith won a career- and team-high 35 matches, including 10 dual wins in 2010-11. His win total was one of the best in the nation at 133 pounds and with 93 career wins, he is set to become the seventh member of the 100-win club. He will make the move to 141 and is expected to start right away.
Junior Andrew Schutt (Greenwood Township, MI/Yale) won 24 matches as a sophomore and made his first-ever trip to the NCAA tournament despite missing almost a month due to injury, thanks to a surprising win of the 141 pound title at the MAC tournament. He will likely take a redshirt this season though, making way for junior Chris Conti (Fredonia, NY/Fredonia), who stepped up in a big way last season, winning five dual meets - two of which came in MAC bouts. Conti also led the team with four reversals last season and will be a solid backup to Smith. Ekstrom will also likely start the season at 141 pounds and make his way back down to 133.
Redshirt freshmen Rickey Bronson (Port Crane, NY/Chenango Forks) and Wally Maziarz (North Tonawanda, NY/North Tonawanda), and sophomores James Loomis (Mexico, NY/Mexico) and Josh Micek (Bemus Point, NY/Maple Grove) performed well in tournament action and will be pushing each everyday in the practice room to fill the vacant starting spot. Maziarz performed well in offseason tournaments and is expected to be a wrestler to watch in 2011-12. The team also welcomes in prized recruit Blake Roulo (Petersburg, VA/Matoaca), who is projected to possibly start at 149 pounds.
"We expect this weight to be a lot like 125 - a lot of talent, good depth and there will be five or six guys that are fighting for this spot. Blake is extremely talented and is the only wrestler to win four national championships and you bring a guy like him in here to win and that's what we expect from him," said Beichner. "Micek, when he is on, is as good of an athlete as we have on this team, and Bronson and Maziarz are very talented as well. Maziarz went out this summer and placed at the University National championships. He has been probably our most improved wrestler on our team from last season to now."
The team will throw in another Oklahoma transfer to provide big-time experience as Clay Reeb (Cheektowaga, NY/Cheektowaga [Oklahoma]) also makes his way to Buffalo. After an illustrious career at Cheektowaga HS that saw him winning 181 matches, Reeb went 4-4 in his freshman season at Oklahoma and redshirted last season.
"This is a weight class that a lot of people can win. Clay has two years under his belt at Oklahoma and he's strong and extremely hard-working. He has two years at a very high-level program so he's somebody who could find himself starting and doing very well for our program," Beichner added.
Redshirt junior Mark Lewandowski (Depew, NY/Lancaster) had the team's breakout performance in 2010-11, winning 33 matches and came just one win shy of becoming an All-American, securing a top-12 finish in his first trip to the NCAA tournament. He earned a spot in the tournament after winning the 157 pound championship at the MAC tournament. A master on top, Mark led the team in riding time points and three-point near falls. With his name now known on the national level, he is now ready to make the next step to become an All-American.
"He is our iron man in there. He has made significant improvements to become mentally and physically tough," Beichner said. "That's the reason why he progressed so well last season. He has always had the talent, but when you add this level of toughness, that's a great combination to have."
With Lewandowski returning to the starting position, the team will groom a group of freshmen to back him up. Ameen Harhara (Lackawanna, NY/Lackawanna) and Jeff Palmeri (Rochester, NY/Rush-Henrietta) will compete with returner Kris Duge (Clarence, NY/Clarence) for the backup role, with Duge projected to move mainly to 165.
John-Martin Cannon (Brockport, NY/Brockport) continued to improve in his junior year, making a second trip to the NCAA tournament after winning a MAC title at 165 pounds en route to a Most Outstanding Wrestler honor. He also set a career high with 27 wins and he earned his 100th career takedown mid-way through the season. There is a chance that Cannon could redshirt this season with the expectation of moving up to 174 pounds in the future.
With a possible redshirt looming, a handful of new wrestlers will be competing with redshirt freshman Matt Dehney (Dracut, MA/Dracut) for the starting spot. Dehney was a solid performer in redshirt tournaments, winning 17 matches through the season. He bounced between 157 and 165 pounds and will provide flexible depth while vying for a starting spot. Dom Montesanti (Medina, NY/Medina [RIT]) Pat Brady (Carthage, NY/Carthage), Duge and Harhara could step into the role or fill in at other weight divisions where needed.
"This is a really nice pool and we expect Matt, Dom and Pat to be in a dog fight for that starting position," Beichner said. "That's a weight class that is being evacuated by one of the more successful 165 pounders we've had in a long time (in John-Martin Cannon). "We're fortunate to have some depth to fill in for him, and talent. The work ethic is very strong in this group and one of those guys is going to turn out to be a stud for us."
True freshman Justin Lozano (Selma, CA/Selma) has impressed the coaching staff in the early going and is the front-runner for the starting position. He will compete with the veteran Pat Brady for the start, and possibly Cannon if the coaching staff deems it necessary. The main depth will be wrestlers moving up from 157 or 165 if needed.
"Justin is truly one of our hardest workers, not just among the freshman but throughout the whole team," said Beichner. "He has a strong desire to compete and win and he is a great athlete who was very successful in multiple sports in high school. We not only expect him to start, but we expect big things from him."
Coming in with extensive national experience and a decorated high school career, freshman Jake Waste (Ramsey, MN/Apple Valley) is expected to get the start, but he must be wary of redshirt freshman Zach Ward (Williamsville, NY/Clarence). He is a favorite of the coaching staff and is one of the hardest workers on the team, both in the classroom and on the mat.
"We've got an extremely talented young wrestler in Jake Waste who has wrestled in college tournaments through high school. He'll be battling with Zach Ward, who is one of our best student athletes and is the kind of dedicated wrestler who will stay however long it takes to get better," Beichner said. "We're looking forward to many years working with these two."
Tyler Peter (Mexico, NY/Mexico) will be the lone returnee to this division, but he will have two talented freshman pushing him early for playing time: Justin Heiserman (Monroe, MI/Dundee) and Pat Langworthy (Jamestown, NY/Southwestern). Langworthy won 40 matches in his senior season and has won two divisional titles for Southwestern, while Heiserman won two state titles and was runner-up once, winning 192 matches in his high school career.
"I can't say for certain who the starter will be, it's up to them to decide based on how they do against outside competition," Beichner said. "They're all big and strong, and best of all they work hard. Between the three of them we expect one to rise to the top and perform well. This is a weight that we really need to get better at if we want to compete for MAC Championships."
Junior Brett Correll (Shelby Township, MI/Eisenhower) returns to the team after gaining valuable experience in the NCAA tournament following his wild card bid. Correll won 20 matches and will likely continue to grow through this season. Backing him up will be junior Jedd Mason (Whitehall, NY/Whitehall), who only appeared in two matches unattached last season, but he won 13 matches as a redshirt freshman two seasons ago.
"Brett appears to be very healthy right now and motivated," said Beichner. "Jedd had a great summer of training and he has been working hard so we expect him to be much improved this season at heavyweight."
A Team Full of Leaders
Last year we elminated the title of captain because our guys know who the leaders are. We adopted a 'team full of leaders' mentality last year and it seemed to work very well for our program. What it means is that it isn't just upper-classmen or guys who are even accomplished. A team full of leaders is simply wanting every single guy to act like a leader for our team, and when that's the case how can you lose? You're always going to be a winner when you have everyone on the team believing that they're a leader. We definitely do have leaders that stand out and sometimes they take control but sometimes they never even say a word, they just come to work and does his job.
- Head Coach Jim Beichner