By Betsy Veysman
When he was hired as the head coach at Army, Joe Heskett said he would work to “mentor and motivate the cadet-athletes, improve their technical and tactical skills on the mat and beat Navy.”
The last part, beating Navy, has proven to be an elusive task over the years. The Black Knights last topped their rival in 1997 and have won just five of the 55 meetings (with five ties).
The feeling in West Point, however, is that this could be the year.
“There is obviously an emphasis on the Army-Navy rivalry,” Heskett said. “The problem is, we haven’t won much. Something has to change; something will change. These young men are very focused and motivated to make that change happen now.”
“From day one here, you hear about beating Navy,” added freshman 165 pounder Cole Gracey. “Thinking about how we’ve done in the past makes you want to train harder so that when it comes time for Navy, you’re ready to perform. I think we’re ready.“
That readiness comes from a season that began with an upset over traditional power Iowa State. After some high quality competition at major tournaments such as the Las Vegas Invitational and the Southern Scuffle, the squad has picked up steam since the beginning of 2012 with five straight dual victories and the New York State team championship.
“I think starting with the win over Iowa State was important for us,” Gracey said. “We proved to ourselves that when we’re at our best, we can compete with the best and win. It set the standard for the rest of the season. Once you beat a storied team with tradition like Iowa State, you can’t accept anything less against everyone else.”
The Black Knights have posted a 5-1 record in the EIWA (8-5 overall), despite being hit hard with injuries which have necessitated contributions from over 20 different starters. In fact, only three Army wrestlers took the mat at the same weight on opening day against the Cyclones and in the last dual meet against Bucknell on February 7 (junior Jordan Thome (133), senior Jimmy Rafferty (157) and Collin Wittmeyer (174)). It was Wittmeyer’s first action in over two months.
“I’ve been around the sport for a long time and I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a team come together as well as this one has,” Heskett said. “We’ve had lots of injuries; probably 70% of our lineup changed around because of injuries. When you have to go three or four deep on your roster but you still win duals, that speaks volumes about the team’s commitment. You know the guys are willing to step in and fight.”
Heskett attributes much of the team’s cohesiveness and progress to a senior group that was recently honored against the Bison.
“The senior class really stands out to me,” the coach said. “For 18 months, I’ve gotten to know these guys and I know how much they’ve done for the program. They all have great leadership qualities.”
“You can’t say enough good things about the seniors,” Gracey added. “They are examples of everything our team should be. They are great leaders who step up when needed, work harder than anybody and help run the team. They set a perfect example that I hope to copy when I’m a senior.”
Fittingly, all four graduating grapplers that stepped onto the mat on Senior Night — Michael Gorman (184), Daniel Mills (heavyweight), Rafferty and Derek Stanley (197) — had their hand raised.
Rafferty, who has broken through with 23 triumphs this year, earned a come-from-behind 12-10 win in sudden victory over John Regan at 157 pounds. Even in a place known for developing leaders, Heskett thinks he stands out.
“Jimmy Rafferty is without question the finest leader of his age group that I’ve ever witnessed,” Heskett said. “He brings so much to this team. Everyone on this team bought in to what we’re trying to accomplish – the other seniors, the underclassmen – and in large part, that is due to Jimmy’s core leadership qualities. He also is doing phenomenal on the mat.”
Another grappler doing well on the mat is Gracey. The freshman began the campaign 7-10, but then reeled off 12 straight wins, including titles at the New York States and the All-Academies before a recent loss to Corey Lear of Bucknell stopped his streak.
“Early on, the first time in Division I, it was really tough,” Gracey said. “It was a lot to take in, not only in wrestling but also academically. I didn’t do so well in the beginning and it was kind of unnerving. But after Christmas break, I went to work with the coaches. I kept improving, got in better shape, improved my technique and once you get going, it’s hard to stop.”
The Oklahoma native pointed to his early January match with returning national qualifier Eren Civan of Columbia as a turning point. He was losing in the third period when he notched a takedown and back points to win the match 10-8.
“What stands out is how teachable he is,” Heskett said. “He’s one of the most open young men I’ve been around. He listens and adapts and continues to grow. He hung in there at the beginning of the year against good wrestlers, but didn’t beat them. But now he’s winning consistently and putting himself in a position to go to the national tournament if he continues.”
Also hoping to compete at the national tournament is Thome, an EIWA placer a year ago who made an appearance at NCAAs in 2011.
“Jordan is a competitor, a gamer,” Heskett said. “As we’re getting close to the end of the season, he’s had an extra gear clicking in. He wants to go back to NCAAs and get on the podium. He seems to be taking things to another level. He has another shot at [Navy’s] Aaron Kalil [who has defeated Thome twice this season] this weekend and we expect big things.”
That could be said about the entire team as the Navy dual approaches. The Black Knights know how their matchups with the Midshipmen have gone historically, but Heskett thinks they are going in with the right mindset.
“They believe,” the coach said. “The guys took the adversity that came our way, the injuries, the tough competition early on, and it made them stronger. The guys on the team feel like they belong and it shows. Now we’re in a unique situation where we can finish out the year on a special note, this weekend and the rest of the year.”
“If we go out and wrestle our best against Navy, we think we’ll beat them,” Gracey added. “If we fall short, I’ll be disappointed because I expect to win and continue strong into March.”