One of the loudest ovations during the Saturday morning medal rounds at the 2013 NCAA Championships came after Steve Santos topped Dylan Ness for third place at 149 pounds. The announcer told the crowd that the bronze medal showing by Santos was the highest finish in the history of Columbia wrestling.
That stellar performance by Santos in Des Moines was one of the many highlights for the Lions in 2012-13. The squad sent five wrestlers to Nationals and had three EIWA finalists. Santos won the conference title while Matt Bystol (133) and Josh Houldsworth (165) nabbed silver.
Santos, Jake O’Hara (157) and Stephen West (174), all longtime starters and leaders for the Ivy League program, have graduated, but their final season with Columbia set the tone going forward.
“I think what happened last year paves the way for the younger guys,” said head coach Carl Fronhofer. “The expectations are now higher as a result. It’s a good thing – we don’t have to preach it all the time because the guys saw what was accomplished and they know what’s expected here. There’s a higher bar to jump over now.”
The squad will look to jump over that bar during a challenging schedule.
“Early in the year we’ll have some pretty big matches at the Northeast Duals,” Fronhofer said. “Midlands is obviously always a huge test – a good measuring stick. We have a solid dual schedule in February – Ivy duals are always exciting and important to us. We’ll be ready to go by the end of the year.”
What does he expect the team to accomplish after last year’s achievements?
“Our goals really don’t change,” he said. “We’ll be a younger team this year, but we always are trying to win the Ivy League title, the EIWA title and be a top 10 team nationally. We’ve put a lot of pieces in place to do that. We’ll be young and exciting this year with some fresh faces.”
Those fresh faces include a rookie group that has made an impact already in the room.
“We’re really excited about the freshman class that’s getting after it with a great work ethic and attitude,” Fronhofer said. “They’ve bonded really well. We’ll have a lot of spots up for grabs this year and there will be an opportunity for some of those freshmen to get into the lineup. We only started one freshman last year [Alec Mooradian at 141], but I’ll be pretty surprised if that happens again this year.”
The following is a weight-by-weight look at the Lions for the upcoming campaign:
Penn Gottfried has been the starter at this weight for multiple seasons. A year ago, he posted eight victories. Fronhofer expects Gottfried to be challenged in the room, but believes the Section 1 native has made significant strides going into the 2013-14 campaign.
“Penn looks good and strong,” Fronhofer said. “I expect him to make a jump this year. I’ll be really surprised if we don’t see better results. He does everything right and eventually that pays off for you. He will be pushed by a couple of guys. Johnson Mai, a California state champ and double Fargo finalist, made some improvements and put on some size last year. He’s still a little small at the weight, but he has the ability to win a bunch of matches at Open tournaments this year.”
Last year, Matt Bystol began the season at 141. However, in the second semester, Bystol made the transition down to 133, where he went on an impressive run, making the EIWA finals and qualifying for the NCAA tournament (He won a match in Des Moines over Davidson’s Anthony Elias). The same approach may be on tap again this year.
“The current plan is to follow a similar strategy,” Fronhofer said. “He’s big for 133, so he’ll probably start the year at 141. If he’s winning at a high level, he might consider staying, but the plan now is to have him be ready to get down to ‘33’ by Midlands. We have a few guys in the room who could see time at this weight. Joey Moita is also big for the weight, but he looks pretty good this preseason. We have two freshmen from Long Island, Chris Araoz and Matt Leshinger, who could see some time here.”
Alec Mooradian took over the 141-pound job in his first year as a Lion, picking up dual victories in Ivy action against Princeton and Brown. As mentioned earlier, Matt Bystol will likely be in this class initially as well.
“When all is said and done, I think we’ll see Alec at 141, at least in the second semester. He’s definitely a competitor. [Matt] Leshinger might find himself here as well. People keep asking me what the lineup will look like and I say – your guess is as good as mine,” Fronhofer said jokingly. “That’s a good thing because we have lots of guys competing hard in the room and lots of talented wrestlers.”
Taking over for the highest placer in school history (Steve Santos) won’t be an easy task. But both Ryan Ponte and Connor Sutton are looking to take on the challenge.
“Ponte had a great summer, put on some mass and trained really hard,” Fronhofer said. “Connor Sutton was at 157 last year but was small at that weight. He’ll be competitive for the spot as well.”
Longtime starter and multi-time NCAA qualifier Jake O’Hara graduated, leaving an open battle for the 157 slot. According to Fronhofer, there is a line of candidates looking to get the nod.
“We probably have 4-5 guys competing for that spot,” the coach said. “We have some guys who have been in the room for a while and have collegiate experience. They couldn’t break into the lineup because of Santos or O’Hara but they’re good kids who work hard and want their chance. I’m talking about guys like Chad Ryan, Jake Kazimir, Kevin Brown and Ben Villaret. We also have freshman Markus Scheidel [2013 Fargo Freestyle National Champion], who will be competitive right out of the gate. He has a big gas tank and will make the transition quickly. We’re going to hold a mini tournament and see what happens and then go to MSU Open and see what happens there. We have options.”
Josh Houldsworth had a breakthrough season in 2012-13, winning 20 bouts and taking second at the EIWA championships. He made his first appearance at the NCAA tournament and looks for another leap in performance this year.
“Josh had an awesome summer and put more mass on,” Fronhofer said. “Obviously, he made a big move from 149 to 165 last year and he has continued to fill into the weight. We expect a lot of big things out of him and he’s thinking the same way. His freshman year we needed a ’41’ pounder and he struggled with cutting so much weight. His sophomore year he was behind Santos at 149. We always knew he could wrestle and the potential was there. Last year, he didn’t have to worry about the weight and with growing and lifting he was able to do the things he did. He’s done some critical work this summer and I think you’ll see another big jump out of him.”
Like Santos and O’Hara, Stephen West was a mainstay in the Columbia lineup, starting for years at 174 pounds. His departure leaves an opportunity for wrestlers such as Adam Fondale, Eric Fajardo and Drew Rebling to see significant time.
“This is another place where we have a bunch of guys looking to step in,” Fronhofer said. “Adam Fondale has been in the room for three years. A few years ago he did a really good job as a backup ’65’ pounder – winning about 20 matches and placing at good tournaments like the Penn State Open. He’s grown into a 174. Eric Fajardo is coming off a medical redshirt. He’s a pretty talented guy – a good athlete who will certainly compete. Drew Rebling started for us at 184 last year, but he was never big enough for 184. We just needed him there. He’ll be a factor as well. We have some other guys who will wrestle off at 184 but will certify at 174 and be possibilities too.”
With Rebling going to 174, the next weight has an opening. A pair of returners and a fresh face will be among those looking to take the mat in that position for the Lions.
“Zack Hernandez is a great kid and great athlete who came in pretty inexperienced as a wrestler,” Fronhofer said. “He made some big jumps in the room last year as a freshman and will be in the mix. Shane Hughes is getting back to form. He started two years ago, but struggled a little last year. He seems focused and ready to go. Freshman Troy Hembury will certainly make things interesting. He’s very competitive in the room already.”
Nick Mills has been the 197-pounder for Columbia in recent years, but with his graduation, two Keystone State natives are among the contenders to take over.
“Matt Idelson has been in the room for two years and has some experience for us,” Fronhofer said. “Another freshman from Pennsylvania, Mike Fetchet, was a ‘70’ pounder this year in high school. But he hit a huge growth spurt and will battle it out with Matt for the spot.”
2012 Greco Roman Junior World Team member Wyatt Baker returns for the Lions, looking to be a regular for the first time. As a freshman, he trained while sitting behind NCAA qualifier Kevin Lester. A year ago, he battled injuries and senior Chris Manna. A transfer from Bucknell will also be available in the second semester.
“I thought Wyatt Baker would be in the lineup last year, but he really couldn’t stay healthy,” Fronhofer said. “He missed almost all of preseason, was pretty banged up and went into wrestleoffs with very little training. This spring and summer has been different – he’s had a long stretch of training consistently and stayed healthy. He looks better than he’s ever looked.”
Can Columbia send five or more qualifiers to the NCAA tournament again? Will the Lions once again have an EIWA champion? How many freshmen will break through to the starting lineup? We’ll find out when the Lions begin the campaign on November 9 at the Michigan State Open in East Lansing.