It’s put up or shut up time for all of the college-aged Greco Roman wrestlers in the country, as the University Greco Nationals begin today at the Louis & Freda Stile Athletic Field House on the campus of the University of Akron. Some of the country’s most established competitors along with a vibrant mix of young stars looking to make a name for themselves are ready to do battle with a World Team spot on the line. As per usual, a lot of the athletes may already be familiar to you, since many of them have competed at the Junior level. But while many of the wrestlers have been there and done that, this time around there is a whole crop of new challengers looking to assert their presence.
Yes, there are several returning champions and yes, nailing down yet another national title is surely the goal for each of them. But there is a different mood in place this time around. Over the past year, we have seen mighty climbs by many of these athletes. There are even a few Senior National Team members getting into the mix. And being that this is an Olympic year, the intensity level sort of trickles down into the age group levels anyway, for just about every major player at this tournament has their eyes set on being around for the next quad.
The question is, who should you have your eyes on at the University Greco Nationals? We’ve picked out a few to get you started.
University Greco Nationals Preview
This weight would seem to be as up for grabs as any other. Last year’s runner-up Trey Andrews (Grit Athletics WC, University of Northern Colorado) is back, as are Ibrahim Bunduka (Patriot Elite), and 2016 Junior World Team member Dalton Roberts (NMU-OTS). Andrews is fast, strong, and confident, but his opposition is all a year older and a year wiser. Roberts, for instance, is no longer the slightly-gawky youth who showed up last time around. He’s been battle-hardened and has the benefit of coming from a room of full-timers just like him. Fellow NMU tough guy Isaiah Varona has also sharpened up. If Andrews is under the impression he’s sauntering in as the heir apparent, he might be in for a surprise. Or not.
Once again, two Northern Michigan athletes are at the forefront, with both Sammy Jones (NYAC) and Dmitry Ryabchinskiy (NYAC) widely recognized as the two favorites. This isn’t the most packed weight class of the tournament, but that doesn’t mean it is barren, either. Jamel Sharp (Packer Wrestling Academy) was an NJCAA champ and Hunter Starner (Peninsula Wrestling Association) has experience to draw from as a former Cadet. New Jersey native Paul Galipeau (Eclipse) is also throwing his hat into the proverbial ring. A sleeper could definitely emerge from this field, it’s just not likely. Jones has been on the verge of serious contention at the Senior level and Ryabchinskiy sports enough experience to overlap the entire bracket. Chances are, it’s those two who will navigate through to the finals.
Rodney Clevenger (Greater Heights) wants to take a step up this year and he has the tools to do so. He adapts well on the feet, doesn’t stay wrankled when things go south for a second, and just oozes energy. The problem? He’s not alone. Clevenger may have been to the party before, but Travis Rice (NMU-OTS) enjoys a good time, as well. Rice has solid experience against international competition and has learned to stay in the fight when jostling for position. He’s also got leg strength for days. None of this is to discount Austin Morrow’s (NMU-OTS) chances. Morrow takes on kind of a “grinder” role, and he can wear you down and knock you out. If you’re in town, this is probably one weight class you’ll want to watch every match of.
Returning champ Anthonie Linares (NMU-OTS) has his sights set on making another World Team, but it’s going to be an uphill battle. Teammate Alejandro Sancho has earned a host of statement-making wins as a Senior, including an impressive third-place finish in April at the Olympic Trials. Simply put, Sancho is beastly. Some wrestlers are made for Greco and the 22-year old fits the bill. He’s aggressive in the ties and most of all, displays an even level of maturity and poise in both phases of par terre. And that’s what it takes to be successful with the big boys. Linares can brawl it up and he likes big points, too. He has also had his own Senior level successes. It’s just that in what looks to be a two-horse race, Sancho is the thoroughbred most are going to point towards.
Crowded, crowded, crowded. Colin Schubert (NMU-OTS) took third at the 2015 University Greco Nationals at 71 kg, Jesse Porter (NYAC-OTS) has come on like a ball of fire, and Josh Greer (OTS) is a gunslinger when he gets going right. Will these three be challenged by the collegiate outsiders filling out the rest of the bracket? Perhaps. Things would have to break weirdly for that to happen, though. Should Porter and Greer win their first matches they will meet up in the quarterfinals, effectively canceling one of them out. JayShon Wilson (Marines) took seventh at last year’s event and he poses the biggest threat (on paper, anyway) to Schubert in the upper half of the bracket.
Bruiser Barrett Stanghill (NMU-OTS) would have been a heavy favorite to lock this one down had it been any other year. Stanghill is a monster who is dangerous everywhere and one has to wonder where he’s going next. But 2016 Olympic Trials runner-up Geordan Speiller (Florida Jets) has decided to compete, which right off the bat elevates him to the head of the field. A Stanghill/Speiller final would make for some great theater, as it’s a contrast in styles that is too good to pass up. One is a high-powered Greco machine with razor-sharp mat sense (Stanghill); the other is a next-gen super-athlete who has some big wins against both international and domestic competition (Speiller). Should this go down, it could be the match of the tournament.
Hayden Zillmer won the University Greco Nationals in 2013. Okay, great. And then he walked away from Greco for the next few years before showing up at the Last Chance Qualifier and winning it. Now we’re onto something. And then he had the audacity to just go right ahead and take third at April’s Trials. In that event, he defeated 2015 World Team member Patrick Martinez (NYAC), one of the toughest, most capable dudes at any weight you’ll find. Well, Martinez is here on the opposite side of the bracket. But then again, so is Brandon Marshall (NMU-OTS), who actually meets Martinez first round. 2015 winner Jason Grimes (American University) doesn’t deserve to be relegated as an afterthought here. However, it’s an unusual bracket and Zillmer and Martinez make it too difficult to see past their participation here.
Orry Elor (NYAC-OTS) saw for himself what G’Angelo (Tracy) Hancock (NYAC) was all about in the consolation finals at the Olympic Trials. The hype is real. Hancock offers a multitude of problems for anyone at this weight, regardless of age group. Can Elor slow down Hancock? Can anyone? How about Spenser Wilson (NMU-OTS), who digs in like a bull and fights through pressure like a seasoned pro, despite not having really made his mark just yet? Most are going to shake their heads and figure that all of this is just another stepping stone in Hancock’s surging career and they might be right – Hancock is certainly expected to get through this tournament to add even more credits to his already-considerable resume. But who knows? Elor is no novice and will certainly want to exercise some payback if he finds himself in a final with Hancock. Only, it all just feels like we’re witnessing the birth of a star in Hancock, and that is not an easy thing to ignore.
Along with Adam Coon (Cliff Keen WC), Parker Betts (Minnesota) looks to be part of a very promising future at heavyweight for the US and he stood at the top of the podium here last year. However, another University Greco Nationals victory shouldn’t be seen as a shoe-in, as there is a handful of competitors who were also part of this deal in 2015. Notable returning place winners include Zack Wilcox (MWC), who picked up 6th last year and Matt Voss (Patriot Elite), who claimed 4th. Both are motivated and back at it again. It’s Betts’s tournament to lose, we all get that. But it’s heavyweight. These things can change fairly quickly.