USA Greco

Merkin, Morrow, Amos, & IRTC Duo Among Final 12 Olympic Trials Berths

merkin, last chance qualifier
Lenny Merkin -- Photo: Sam Janicki

12 more active, enthusiastic candidates have now been added to the 2020ne US Olympic Trials after one of the most action-packed domestic Greco-Roman tournaments of the past five years.

The final round of the Last Chance Olympic Trials Qualifier began at 6:30pm EST and aired live on FLOWrestling

60 kg: Rice & Miranda

The final at 60 pitted two similarly-skilled and credentialed athletes against one another. Travis Rice (NYAC/IRTC, 5PM #9) navigated a tumultuous top half of the bracket, defeating David Stepanian (NYAC/NTS), the out-of-nowhere new Greco stud Nic Bouzakis (X-Calibur), and reigning National champ Alex Thomsen (Nebraska Wrestling TC, 5PM #13). Randon Miranda (NYAC/CYC, 5PM #10) had put in some serious work, too, by outlasting Dylan Koontz (TMWC/Ohio RTC), tech’ing Chayse La Joie (Spartan RTC), and piling on in the second period against a very game Gabriel Townsell (Little Huskies) in what wound up one of the more contentious bouts of the tournament.

Equally problematic paths, equally severe objective.

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Rice and Miranda, who were once teammates at Northern Michigan, had only met in competition during an exhibition setting back in ’18. They were always a weight apart, until they weren’t. But even when Rice dropped to 60 from 63 last season, Miranda was in the midst of a forced hiatus.

Their first legitimate bout came Friday evening with a whole lot on the line. And they wrestled like it. Rice lasered short arm drags to keep Miranda’s feet moving, but the Californian wasn’t betraying vulnerable footwork off of the ties. The picking and pecking wasn’t doing too much other than providing for some fun yet futile exchanges, so passivity rang in. Miranda was dinged, Rice got his lock, and nothing was available. Back to the feet, and before the end of the period was a unicorn. The rare usage of a second passivity in the first period was put in play with Miranda the beneficiary. Again, the bottom guy hardly budged — and the pair walked into intermission deadlocked at 1 but with Miranda holding criteria.

The second period demanded change, as it always does. The direction didn’t veer with regards to on-the-feet concerns, however. They were just too evenly-matched on this day for that to happen. But perhaps there was just a little more intent on Rice’s part, for it was Miranda the officials chose to go prone. Rice didn’t let this opportunity slip away. Clasping high, he rotated one gut; and then he reset and pulled Miranda up and over for another exposure via high-gut-lift. The four points, they did the trick, as Rice guaranteed himself a spot in the US Olympic Trials for the first time in his career — which is the same scenario for 11 of the 12 qualifiers from Friday.

Miranda was not done following the Rice match. The Last Chance Qualifier observed the “true second” stipulation where if the runner-up and third-place wrestler had not met prior in the tournament, then they would have one more match to decide who gets into the Trials bracket.

The opposition for Miranda was ’20 U23 National Champion Dylan Gregerson (UVRTC, 5PM #14), who recently made some waves overseas…and rebounded from a loss in the round-of-32 to Stepanian and proceeded to wrestle all the way back to take third.

What was a sweet-tasting come-from-behind victory for one athlete was a bitter defeat for the other. Gregerson held a 2-0 advantage entering the second but Miranda surged back following passivity by yielding four off of a reverse lift. He then added two more points to his total for a 7-2 decision that gains him entry into the altogether crowded 60 kg field next weekend.

67 kg: Merkin Breaks Through

In order, ’19 U23 World Team member Lenny Merkin (NYAC, 5PM #12) had to go through: Mason Lewis (Modern Day Gladiators); ’16 National champ/multi-time National Teamer Hayden Tuma (UA, 5PM #5); and ’18 US Open runner-up Jessy Williams (NYAC/Spartan RTC, 5PM #13). And in order, he won by tech, tech, pin.

Not bad.

For the final, or “first place bout”, the road wasn’t going to get any smoother with ’20 National Champion “Mr. Fantastic” Benji Peak (Sunkist/NTS, 5PM#11) standing in the way. Peak had defeated Merkin twice prior, most recently in November and was on another roll in Fort Worth, though he did receive quite the fight courtesy of Robert Perez III (Sunkist) in the semis.

It was an intense but surprisingly brief dustup. Merkin powered doubled overs for two, which got the party started. Peak answered back with two himself following a skirmish near the boundary. Upon landing, Peak knocked his head and required a moment to shake it off. After the reset, Merkin wrapped the body and launched; on the back-end of the throw, Peak again banged his head, in almost the exact same spot as before. He was wobbled, to say the least, and could not continue. As unfortunate as that might have been, Merkin’s offense did factor into the 6-2 outcome — and Peak still qualified for next week’s spectacle by placing second (with a win over the third-place wrestler, Perez).

The victory and its gravity were not lost on Merkin after the tournament wrapped.

“This was the best showing of my career, by a longshot,” Merkin said. “Mainly because I was able to control matches and not get crazy. I got to pick and choose spots where I wanted to attack, or defend. I felt like every second of every match — in some way, shape, or form — was within my control. I had to go through some of the best wrestlers in my division purely because of the seeding from this tournament. I honestly think I had the toughest draw I could have had and I’m really proud of the way I handled it. I was super-focused and lasered in. Something about today was just different.”

Now a full-fledged Trials contender, Merkin is also keying in on the idea of momentum and how to harness his increased degree of confidence.

“I’ve wrestled all of the guys who are qualified, or at least most of them, so for me it’s about recreating the mentality that I had today along with the tactics and strategy,” Merkin offered. “Everyone in the US is at a pretty high level, but there is no much variation. I think if I did pretty well this weekend, and I can recreate it next weekend, then I’ll have a pretty good shot.”

77 kg: Morrow Rises to the Occasion

No one had a bigger day than Austin Morrow (NYAC/NTS, 5PM #13). For all of the various setbacks he has encountered, on and off the mat and which are great in number, his attitude and conviction have time and again proven to be just enough to carry him a little bit further along his journey.

Oh, and this was his first-ever tournament up at 77 kilograms after spending his entire career until today between 66 and 71.

The final round (the potential Trials-clinching round, that is) brought forth ever-explosive three-time U23 World Teamer — and fellow NMU’er — Jesse Porter (5PM #11), a wrestler whom everyone knows can turn a match around in the blink of an eye once he spies even the smallest opportunity for a eye-popping score. With that in mind, Morrow simply couldn’t let himself become cannon fodder for Porter’s clutches in the tie-ups.

Passivity/par terre in the first period went to Morrow. He hastily achieved his clasp and rotated a gut. That wasn’t enough for Morrow, so after Porter returned to his stomach, a side lift was attempted. Morrow didn’t have it all the way, though he was still able to grab correct hold points. Porter immediately scrambled and reversed, catching Morrow on his back near the line. Two were lofted in his direction and the action resumed on the feet.

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A Porter headlock try was countered by Morrow for a takedown. Again with top control, Morrow struggled to gain his lift but somehow steadied his heave and executed for two more. Then a challenge. And another after that. A lengthy review process followed. The scoring, which started at 5-2 for Morrow, was two for the takedown and two for the throw — 9-2. Porter’s corner challenged the sequence, a risky choice given that an upheld call in Morrow’s favor would mean the end of the bout. Which is exactly what transpired.

Morrow, on the heels of several serious injuries and hefty work schedule away from wrestling, cemented his candidacy for the Olympic Trials with a win he won’t soon forget.

“This lets me know that I’m going to keep wrestling,” said Morrow. “I was up in the air last year. Do I keep competing? Am I wasting my time? And then ten days ago I partially tore my labrum again. (Coaches) Andy (Bisek) and Jamie (Segorski) sat down with me and said, Hey, let’s just keep a positive attitude. So I went to my trainer and I have so many dang anchors in there that he said I’ll be fine. I just recovered it. I feel like anything I come across I can get through it, so I’m going to keep wrestling until I don’t want to anymore. That’s what I’m taking out of this.”

When it came to his strategy for Porter, Morrow kept it simple: get on top first and bet on his side lift.

“My gameplan all along to force the passivity and get ahead by a comfortable amount to where if I got thrown, it’s okay because I had a cushion,” Morrow recounted. “I had wrestled him (Porter) for a couple of years and I knew that if he got on top, he would try to lift and throw a million times. If he tries to get to my body, he’s going to throw a million times. So I figured, Beat him to the punch and get on top first. I’ve been feeling very confident in my lift, I have really been working on it. I just trusted in the process of it and was like, Well, if I get on top, I can lift. And it just coming and coming, so I was like, Awesome, I’m going to keep doing it.

Like Miranda and Tommy Helton (Southern Illinois RTC, 5PM #12), Porter still had one more match to go. The returning Britton Holmes (All-Army) raced out in front 5-0 in the first — but no lead is safe when Porter is the one staring at a deficit. 14 unanswered points are ample evidence to that effect. It might not have been the showing Porter would prefer, it doesn’t change the fact that the ’16 National runner-up will be a name to watch next weekend when the main event of the quad gets underway.

87 kg: Vera Dominates

Four matches. 36-1. Math is easy sometimes. Alan Vera (NYAC, 5PM #1) entered the Last Chance Qualifier as a prohibitive favorite and did not suffer a letdown. Christian DuLaney (Minnesota Storm) also had a very strong tournament prior to the final, including a decision over ’18 Junior World silver Andrew Berreyesa (NYAC/Spartan RTC). But he did not have a workable strategy against Vera.

Oddly, none of the action involved par terre. Step-outs was the name of the game for Vera, with a pair of cautions in the mix, as well. Vera plowed forward, sticking mainly with two-on-ones, and repeatedly escorted DuLaney to the boundary to earn the tech along with what could end up as the top seed for next Friday’s Challenge Tournament.

97 kg: Amos Takes Down Clark

Two-time World Team member Jake Clark (Minnesota Storm), who made his long-awaited return this morning after five years away from competition, is 41. Braxton Amos (Wisconsin RTC, 5PM #9) is 19. Discuss.

Yet, age was not so much a factor for Clark throughout on Friday considering that he had notched three victories on his march to the final and surrendered precisely zero points in doing so. His patented “expose or get choked unconscious” front headlock made a few appearances, too; as for Amos, he was lights-out all the way through in his own right, a performance punctuated by a 10-0 drubbing of a very tough Guy Patron (Dubuque WC) in the semis.

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Amos (blue) and Clark waged a positional battle through the majority of their 97-kg final, a bout Amos won on the strength of two timely takedowns. (Image: FLOWrestling)

Clark’s craftiness, a staple dating back two decades, made for some rather intriguing positional exchanges in the early going, and the first passive/PT chance was all his. A fine window for that front headlock was closed quickly. Clark settled into his lock and cranked and cranked — and Amos eventually countered and reversed. Back standing, and soon Amos was around back with a takedown. No follow-up and, again, a reset. Just before the break, Clark dipped for an apparent arm spin only to be countered on the line by Amos, who now enjoyed a 5-1 cushion.

There is still quickness inside of Clark’s bones. Less than a minute into the second period, Amos had a good run on a high dive but Clark was ready with a fast slide-by takedown. He then circled around for a front headlock but Amos did not capitulate.

They jousted in the hand-fight for most of the remainder. As time wore on, it started to seem as though their styles weren’t so different. Maybe their ages were, but Amos and Clark battled with a chemistry. Both didn’t mind fending each other off from collar ties, and both seemed to have a feel for where the next pummel would come together and then break away. It was an entertaining run to the whistle, and one that ended with Amos securing his first Olympic Trials bid while Clark is back in the show once again with an eye on making history.

130 kg: Farmer & Helton Own the Narrative

Vera, four matches and 36-1 in outscoring the opposition. Tanner Farmer (NYAC/IRTC, 5PM #10), four matches and 36-1 in outscoring the opposition.

In just his second Senior Greco-Roman tournament, that just so happened to be the Olympic Trials Last Chance Qualifier.

Former Illinois age-group star and promising prospect Helton had bit down on a grueling 1-1 decision over Lee Herrington (Nebraska Wrestling TC) to even make the final. That match — tension-building and furiously-yet-tactically fought — brought to light some of the intangibles Helton has to offer. But against Farmer, they were not given the opportunity to surface.

No step-outs. No takedowns. Passivity is where it began and ended. Helton got dinged, and Farmer’s improved gutwrench took care of the rest. A 9-0 technical fall was the result. Although still but a neophyte, Farmer is seen as a significant threat to the more established names who will be occupying bracket space one week from now.

Helton was part of the “true second” trio. His opponent was Courtney Freeman of the Marines. There is a lot to like about the way Freeman competes, and the manner in which he conducted himself during this tournament. That said, this match, this day, belonged to Helton as much as it did for any of those who walked away with gold.

The scoring kicked off with a step-out point. Helton had driven Freeman towards the edge and didn’t stop until it was well-confirmed. A restart, and they were pawing in the ties. It seemed unlikely that a wide open lane would be availed and both wrestlers were content to divvy around in search of better position. Helton came out on top in that little physical debate as he crashed towards Freeman and took him off of his feet for a four-spot.

Later in the first, Helton recharged for another orange-line ramming, after which Freeman was docked an additional point. That made the score 7-0. With just over a minute remaining, Helton generated one more burst of forward movement to body Freeman out of bounds, thus forcing an 8-0 stoppage.

Emotion has its place in this sport, particularly during meaningful moments the box scores fail to include. Helton, a Greco “lifer” since youth, had endured a major knee injury last year and worked hard on rehab in an effort to continue competing. Then this past December, he lost his father, and wrestling was one of many shared loves in their close relationship. So, as Helton received his plaque awarding him an Olympic Trials berth, he looked up to the sky a few times. A wrestler sharing one more meaningful moment with his father.

NOTES:

  • For all but one of the 12 athletes who placed first, the 2020 Last Chance Qualifier represented their first Senior tournament victory.
  • Five of the nine Trials-qualifying bouts ended via tech fall. There were no pins.

A full list of Greco-Roman Olympic Trials entrants and other notes/perspectives will be available in the next Monday Roundup. 

2020 Last Chance Olympic Trials Qualifier

March 26 — Fort Worth, TX

FINALS RESULTS

60 kg: Travis Rice (NYAC/IRTC, 5PM #9) def. Randon Miranda (NYAC/CYC, 5PM #10) 5-1
67 kg: Lenny Merkin (NYAC, 5PM #12) def. Benji Peak (Sunkist/NTS, 5PM #10) via inj. default
77 kg: Austin Morrow (NYAC/NTS, 5PM #13) def. Jesse Porter (NYAC, 5PM #11) 10-2, TF
87 kg: Alan Vera (NYAC, 5PM #1) def. Christian DuLaney (Minnesota Storm) 8-0, TF
97 kg: Braxton Amos (Wisconsin RTC, 5PM #9) def. Jake Clark (Minnesota Storm) 5-3
130 kg: Tanner Farmer (NYAC/IRTC, 5PM #10) def. Tommy Helton (Southern Illinois RTC, 5PM #12) 9-1, TF

TRUE SECOND RESULTS

60 kg: Randon Miranda (NYAC/CYC, 5PM #10) def. Dylan Gregerson (UVRTC, 5PM #14) 7-2
77 kg: Jesse Porter 
(NYAC, 5PM #11) def. Britton Holmes (All-Army) 14-5, TF
130 kg: Tommy Helton (Southern Illinois RTC, 5PM #12) def. Courtney Freeman (Marines) 8-0, TF

THIRD PLACE RESULTS

60 kg: Dylan Gregerson (UVRTC, 5PM #14) def. Alex Thomsen (Nebraska Wrestling TC, 5PM #13) 9-0, TF
67 kg: Robert Perez III (Sunkist) def. Farrokh Safaeinejad (FL/SWAT) 8-0, TF
77 kg: Britton Holmes (All-Army) def. Duncan Nelson (NMU/NTS) 5-0
87 kg: Andrew Berreyesa (NYAC/Spartan RTC) def. Tommy Brackett (USOPTC) 3-1
97 kg: JD Souza (Army/WCAP, 5PM #13 at 87 kg) def. Michael Rogers (NLWC) 14-4, TF
130 kg: Courtney Freeman (Marines) def. Lee Herrington (Nebraska Wrestling TC) 9-9 (criteria)

SEMIFINAL RESULTS

60 KG

Travis Rice (NYAC/IRTC, 5PM #9) def. Alex Thomsen (Nebraska Wrestling TC, 5PM #13) 5-2
Randon Miranda (NYAC/CYC, 5PM #10) def. Gabriel Townsell (Little Huskies) 10-1, TF

67 KG

Lenny Merkin (NYAC, 5PM #12) def. Jessy Williams (NYAC/Spartan RTC, 5PM #13) via fall
Benji Peak (Sunkist/NTS, 5PM #10) def. Robert Perez III (Sunkist) 6-3

77 KG

Jesse Porter (NYAC, 5PM #11) def. Ryan Epps (Minnesota Storm) 4-1
Austin Morrow (NYAC/NTS, 5PM #13) def. Alec Ortiz (Minnesota Storm, 5PM #9) 11-4

87 KG

Alan Vera (NYAC, 5PM #1) def. Tommy Brackett (USOPTC) 10-1, TF
Christian DuLaney (Minnesota Storm) def. Andrew Berreyesa (NYAC/Spartan RTC) 7-2

97 KG

Jake Clark (Minnesota Storm) def. Chad Porter (Sunkist, 5PM #8) 2-0
Braxton Amos (Wisconsin RTC, 5PM #9) def. Guy Patron (Dubuque WC) 10-0, TF

130 KG

Tanner Farmer (NYAC/IRTC, 5PM #10) def. Courtney Freeman (Marines) 10-0, TF
Tommy Helton (Southern Illinois RTC) def. Lee Herrington (Nebraska Wrestling TC) 1-1

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