In Joe Heskett’s second year as the head coach at Army, the Black Knights sent three wrestlers to the NCAA tournament and had six placers at the EIWA championships. Two of last year’s national qualifiers, Jordan Thome and Coleman Gracey, are back and the return of three starters whose seasons ended early due to injury a year ago make Heskett and his staff enthusiastic about a successful 2012-13 campaign.
Coach Heskett talked to New York Wrestling News about the upcoming season, starting with a weight-by-weight look at the lineup.
125 Pounds – Hunter Wood will be the starter at this weight for the Black Knights, taking over for Scott Filbert, who won 21 matches and was seventh at EIWAs. [Filbert won’t be wrestling this year.]
Coach Heskett: “Hunter and Scott went back and forth last year – Hunter was right there. We think Hunter will step in do a good job.”
133 Pounds – Jordan Thome returns after winning 28 matches a year ago, including a victory over All-American Chris Dardanes of Minnesota. Thome won a pair of bouts at the NCAA tournament and led AJ Schopp 5-0 going into the third period of his fourth match at nationals. However, the Edinboro wrestler turned Thome for back points twice in the final stanza to earn a close decision. The Ohio native returns, looking to take the next step onto the medal stand.
Coach Heskett: “I think last season was one of gradual growth for Jordan. He was wrestling as well as he could have at the right time. I was very proud of his NCAA performance. His second loss against Schopp was heartbreaking, going into the third with a solid lead, but he has a chance to redeem himself. The fire that invigorated him after he took seventh at EIWAs led him to have a good NCAA tournament. Now he’ll use the fire from NCAAs last year to finish up his senior year on the podium. We’re expecting a lot from him. He’s definitely looked up to by the guys on the team, especially with the light-hearted, jovial spirit he brings. He’s fun to be around but he’s also focused on doing great things.”
141 Pounds – A two-man race has emerged between Connor Hanafee and Ryan Bilyeu for the nod at 141. Hanafee won 12 bouts a year ago before suffering a season-ending injury that required surgery. Bilyeu is making the move down from 149 pounds.
Coach Heskett: “This will be an interesting weight. Connor’s season was cut short – he had to stop wrestling in January. We’re glad to have him back. Bilyeu is a grinder who came out of nowhere. He was fourth on the depth chart last year at 149 at one point, but kept pushing to get on the mat. He had some very good matches, including a 6-5 loss to Steve Santos of Columbia that was extremely controversial. Those two wrestlers and some others will have the opportunity to shine.”
149 Pounds – Daniel Young began last season 11-4, including 5-1 in duals, with a pin over Iowa State’s Trent Weatherman and a major decision against EIWA runner up Kevin Tao. His season came to an end in December, however, when he required surgery.
Coach Heskett: “Daniel was on pace to be at the national tournament and it looked like he would be doing some damage there before he got hurt. He took Donnie Vinson down at least four times in their match before losing 16-10. He’s athletic and looking really strong now. He’s also one of our team captains. We’re looking for big things from him. We’re also excited to see how John Belanger and Javier Rodriguez wrestle. 149 will be a nice, interesting weight class for us.”
157 Pounds – Some young guns, Chandler Smith and Brian Harvey will look to make an impact at this weight after the departure of Jimmy Rafferty.
Coach Heskett: “I’m looking forward to seeing Chandler develop. He’s done a phenomenal job and is so athletic. Brian Harvey is another guy to watch. He went 7-0 at the Junior Duals in Oklahoma City this year. We have some really young, tough guys scrapping it out. With the youth we have, we should be solid here for years to come.”
165 Pounds – With NCAA qualifier Cole Gracey likely moving up to 174, Ryan Marble and Patrick Marchetti are looking to step in at 165.
Coach Heskett: “Marble is a freshman who took an Olympic redshirt last year in freestyle. He spent the year at the Olympic Training Center and is looking really tough. He’s definitely one of the frontrunners. We also have Marchetti, who is a seasoned veteran. Between 157 and 165, we probably have 12 guys trying to win spots, so we feel like we’re in a good place.”
174 Pounds – Cole Gracey began his freshman year 7-11. He went 18-4 the rest of the way to take third at the EIWAs, win a match at the NCAAs and capture EIWA Freshman of the Year honors. Another rookie to look out for is Pennsylvania placer Austin Wilding, who Heskett said has already shown dramatic improvement in his short time at West Point.
Coach Heskett: “Coleman is one of the most enjoyable young men I’ve ever been around. He is extremely coachable and he has the special ability to learn and be open-minded, on top of being a really hard worker. Those are strong attributes to succeed on the wrestling mat and in life. The exciting part is that he’s still finding himself as a wrestler. He’s unorthodox and is working on solid fundamentals to incorporate into his style. His upside is huge because he still can become more fundamental in the sport. He has a style that’s entertaining and really fun to watch. We’re focused on getting him on the podium because he has the ability to get there this year. He’s a winner and he’s resilient.”
184 Pounds – Collin Wittmeyer, the third grappler who had season-ending surgery a year ago, is back. He’ll battle with freshman Travis Mallo to represent the Black Knights at 184.
Coach Heskett: “Collin had two top 10 wins in the first week of the season – Boston’s Hunter Meys and Rider’s Jim Resnick. He was looking great but then he was injured. He’s a team captain and leader. Mallo is a very tough young man who went to MAPS last year. We’re really expecting big things out of 184 with those guys.”
197 Pounds – Derek Stanley was an NCAA qualifier a year ago at this weight. Who will step in? It looks like it will be Bryce Barnes, who had a very good year at MAPS, according to Heskett.
Coach Heskett: “He has been exceptional in his first few weeks back here at West Point. There’s something different about the way he trains, fights and leads out there. I’m really excited to see him compete. He’s very athletic and loves to scramble.”
285 Pounds – Stephen Snyder saw some time at heavyweight and will try to secure the job, as will Curtis Garner.
Coach Heskett: “Snyder came to me after last season and told me he was on mission. He’s been working like an animal. He had a rough year, but his mentality and his effort were very good. He’s working to become one of the best conditioned heavyweights in the country to meet his goals. Garner will fight for the spot as well as a junior.”
A few more questions . . .
You’ll be going into your third year. Where do you see the program going?
Coach Heskett: We feel like we’re making a lot of progress. When I took over the program, we didn’t have returning national qualifiers or high EIWA placers. Last year we had three qualifiers and we’re in a situation where we have freshmen coming in and taking starting spots away. That’s something we need to have happen to build a top 15 program.
We also felt we needed some other things to be a top 15 program and there are so many people behind the scenes who are helping us get there. I can’t thank LTC Todd Messitt and the Staff of the Officer Representatives enough for all they’ve done. We’re excited about things like the West Point Wrestling Club, money for a volunteer coach and a Regional Training Center.
We also have a coaching staff that I’m really excited about. Paul Young and Danny Mitcheff are outstanding. They’re all in for what we’re trying to build. They have a huge impact on the guys and their mentalities. I can’t thank them or the administration enough for their support.
We’re also happy with what we’re doing off the mat. We were proud to be honored for our APR scores last year. [Army was one of eight Division I programs honored by the NCAA for their Academic Progress Rate]. It was awesome for our program and our institution to get recognized because it’s so important for us to enhance these young men in all aspects of life.”
What are your goals for the team this year?
Coach Heskett: “We look for an incremental growth in fight and the rest takes care of itself. We have to be known as fighters and our Cadets have to know themselves as fighters. We need to be resilient. When we do that consistently, we’ll get to the places we need to go. Our everyday goal is to train with that ferocity and fervor and mindset that I am the guy that is going to be the toughest guy on the planet.”