AJ Voelker left his recruiting trip to Bloomsburg with an interesting dilemma.
“After visiting and meeting Coach Stutzman [at Bloomsburg], AJ felt the coach was the right fit, but not the school,” said Bob Voelker, AJ’s father.
So Voelker continued to look around, focusing on institutions such as George Mason until he heard that Stutzman was leaving the EWL college to take the reins of the Buffalo program.
“I started looking at Buffalo right away,” AJ Voelker said. “Once I saw the campus and talked to [Stutzman] again, that was pretty much it. The campus is unbelievable. It’s just what I wanted. The facilities are very nice. Coach Stutzman is very intense; his practices are very tough and give me the best chance of placing at Nationals. He reminds me a lot of my coaches now [at Monroe Woodbury].”
Voelker saw a lot of success for the Crusaders throughout his career, placing in Section 9 multiple times. But 2012-13 was a breakthrough year, as he made the podium at the Eastern States Classic, won the Sectional crown and took fourth in New York in his first trip to the state tournament.
That success came as a result of a lot of offseason effort. After missing out on a spot in Albany as a junior, Voelker wanted to make sure he was ready to make the most of his last chance. He said he worked out at Apex Wrestling, trained with Champion Athletes, lifted on his own and spent a lot of time with Coach Johnny Gartiser.
He also continued his move up in weight, going from 112 as a sophomore to 145/152 as a junior to 170 for his last high school run.
“I cut a lot of weight my freshman and sophomore years,” he said. “Since then, I grew a lot and my coaches recommended that I cut less weight because they thought I wouldn’t be as tired at the end of the season. It worked out. Size wise, I wasn’t the biggest guy out there at 170, but I felt strong and I thought I could wrestle with anyone.”
He set his objectives: to be top four in New York, to control everyone in Section 9 and to join the 100-win club. He accomplished all of them, spurred by his performance at the Times Union Center in February.
After winning his opening two matches against Sonny McPherson of Indian River and Cedrick Stephens of Wingate in Albany, he said he injured his knee in the semifinals in a loss to St. Anthony’s Johnny Vrasidas. In order to make the bronze medal bout, he needed a victory against Franky Nassivera of Queensbury in the consolations.
“That was a really big match for me,” he said. “My knee was all messed up and I was down by four. I had to wrestle different because I couldn’t put pressure on my knee, I couldn’t really shoot the way I normally do. I hit a throw with about 30 seconds left to take the lead and rode him out to win it.”
That 5-4 triumph pushed him into the third place match, where he was defeated by Wantagh’s Dan McDevitt.
So with all those victories, what was the highlight of Voelker’s final high school season?
The future MAC grappler discussed Monroe Woodbury placing at the Union-Endicott Duals and earning a state ranking. And of course, he talked about winning the Section and making the medal stand at his last high school event. However, when asked about the top moment of the year, Voelker mentioned something else.
“The first highlight was seeing Vinny [Vespa] step on the mat,” he said of his teammate, who fought cancer to return to action about six months after being diagnosed with Stage 4 Lymphoma. “I absolutely knew we’d see him wrestling again sometime because he’s the toughest kid I know. But for him to do it this year, it was insane.”
Voelker and his family were deeply involved in the fundraising activities for the Vespa family. At the Takedown Tournament held last summer, Voelker stepped on the mat against Vinny’s older brother Michael in an exhibition match. In an entertaining bout, Vespa hit a “flying squirrel”.
“It was a lot of fun,” Voelker said. “We were just going out there to goof around and [the flying squirrel] happened. It was actually something I was teaching him earlier that week and he did it.”
Voelker clearly did a good job of teaching and that’s something he hopes to do a lot more as he plans to pursue a degree in early education at Buffalo.
In addition to his academic path, Voelker also expects to pursue success on the mat – right away. He said he will compete for a spot in the lineup as a true freshman.
“I don’t plan to redshirt my first year,” he said. “I talked to Coach Stutzman and he thinks I’ll be fine after working out in the room with the way I push the pace on my feet and my top and bottom wrestling. I trust him. I can’t wait to get back on the mat. There aren’t a lot of guys that go Division I from Section 9. I want to rack up wins at the college level.”