If optimism and confidence could win championships, we should all be ready to crown Maryland the new kings of Big Ten wrestling. Perhaps in a nod to the importance of wrestling in the Terrapins' new conference home, Maryland wrestling held its first ever preseason media day Tuesday afternoon and the atmosphere in the room - from head coach Kerry McCoy to the wrestlers on hand - was as thickly filled with confidence as Beijing is filled with smog. The coach, who was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame this past summer, and several Terps wrestlers were on hand to share their thoughts about the challenges and opportunities they will face in the coming season.
(Note: For those unfamiliar with NCAA wrestling, there are ten weight classes. The lightest weight is 125 pounds.The weight classes are 125, 133, 141, 149, 157, 165, 174, 184, 197, and heavyweight. The latter has the widest range with an upper limit of 285 pounds. To compete in any given weight class, the wrestler's weight must be less than or equal to the maximum weight. In the current story, we will use the top weight to describe a wrestler's position on the team. Thus, we might write that Tyler Goodwin is expected to start at 125.)
A look at the schedule
McCoy has an enviable
74-251 (Dual correction - the initial entry for McCoy's record should have been 74-25-1. This was a typo on my part. However, Maryland's website was not current. It now is The second correction is McCoy's actual record is 88-33-1.) in his five six years at Maryland and he has never shied away from tackling a challenging schedule regularly including traditional wrestling powers such as Cornell and Edinboro. In three of his five years, four of his six years Maryland has wrestled at least one dual meet against a Big Ten squad. In 2012, the Terps wrestled four B1G opponents splitting matches with Ohio State, Purdue, Illinois, and Nebraska. Last season, Maryland wrestled Michigan and future Big Ten foe Rutgers.
Although it's not a team competition, Terrapins wrestlers also regularly participate in the Midlands Championships. Northwestern hosts this tournament and it typically features wrestlers from five or six Big Ten programs. So, here again, the Terps have had some exposure to B1G wrestling. The question is will they be prepared to face the daily challenges that the Big Ten will pose.
Every Big Ten school, including the two newcomers has a wrestling program and the B1G is the only conference that can make that claim. In last season's final coaches' poll, nine of the Big Ten's then 12 schools occupied the top twenty spots. Individually by weight class the coaches placed 86 Big Ten wrestlers among the nation's top 330 wrestlers.
Maryland's schedule features dual meets against nine of the thirteen Big Ten teams. Four time defending national champion Penn State will join Rutgers, Ohio State (11), Iowa (3), and Minnesota (1) in visiting the Xfinity Center. The Terps will wrestle at Wisconsin (15), Nebraska (8), Illinois (20), and Northwestern (19). (Numbers in parentheses indicate where the school finished in the 2014 final coaches' poll.)
When McCoy talked about Big Ten wrestling he said, "In the Big Ten conference wrestling is a lifestyle. In the ACC people talk about the individual schools and not so much about ACC wrestling. In the Big Ten there's no distinction between Maryland wrestling and Big Ten Wrestling. So it's really the mindset of being in an elite, premier conference. For wrestling we all know that it is the premier conference. We know what we're coming into. So the transition is more of a mindset of understanding that we're in a better conference."
Expectations and goals
McCoy indicated that he and his staff have not yet met with his wrestlers individually so they had not discussed individual goals. Those meetings will happen this week before official practices begin. For his team, he said, "We want to finish in the top half of the Big Ten. If you look historically, you could finish fifth in the Big Ten Tournament and fifth in the NCAA Tournament. So top six, more specifically.
"We want to get all ten of our guys qualified for the national tournament and we want to be top ten in the country. That's what we want to start off with. We've finished in the top twenty of the NCAA Tournament four of the years that we've been here. So we know we can compete at the highest level. We're not taking a back seat to anybody."
In an interesting twist, perhaps fueled by some bravado, the individual wrestlers we spoke with all talked in terms of winning championships. Big Ten championships and national championships.
Asked about some of the newcomers who might have an impact this year, the coach said, "It's going to be interesting to see because we've got a really good freshman class coming in. One of our biggest recruits this year was Alfred Bannister from LaPlata High School. He's the winningest wrestler in Maryland history, a top ten recruit in his weight class and a top 100 recruit overall but he's got two NCAA qualifiers in his weight class (141) right now - a senior and a redshirt sophomore so if he gets in there and he can compete and beat those guys, he can have an impact. But there's also a redshirt possibility for him.
Another freshman we have is Garrett Wesneski at 197. He's a two time Pennsylvania placer and we've got Dylan Devine who's a local kid from DeMatha who's a redshirt sophomore. Those are the two guys who are probably the closest to getting an opportunity to compete but they've got some guys in front of them."
Look for Ben Dorsay to drop down a class. After wrestling at 157 last year, Dorsay will be returning to his more natural weight at 149 a spot that will likely keep freshman Toby Hague out of McDonogh High School from having an immediate impact. Tony Gardner will make the opposite move stepping up from 174 to his more natural weight of 184. Of course, he will have the biggest shoes to fill stepping into the spot occupied by Jimmy Sheptock whose only loss last season came in the NCAA Championship match to Ed Ruth.
In the heavyweight class, because they travel to Wisconsin on November 14th and to Nebraska two days later, the Terps will certainly face their first two conference opponents without redshirt senior Spencer Myers who will still be competing on the gridiron. For those early matches, McCoy will have to choose between redshirt freshmen Ryan Kail and Sean Twigg (and isn't Twigg an ironic name for a heavyweight wrestler!) or sophomore Dawson Peck.
Once Myers returns, McCoy hopes to find a rejuvenated heavyweight. "I think the biggest thing for Spencer is that he's going to have had that big mental break. He's going to have to make up some time for the conditioning aspect. Football is bursts that last seconds whereas it's a seven minute match in wrestling. But the mental break that he will have had from football will really help him to re-engage and get excited. If he comes back and does the work then he should be our guy."
And if not? "The two redshirt freshmen are both Maryland kids and they're both hungry and they don't want to take a back seat to anybody. But that's definitely one of those things that puts me on the spot because being a heavyweight myself I take a bit more pride in getting those guys ready to go."
No Maryland wrestling story is complete without
I asked several of the wrestlers present to give their gut reactions to the following two words: Robin Ficker. Here's what they had to say:
Frank Goodwin (smiled and chuckled): "He's a character. He's one of the most loyal fans we have, though. He's at every single match away or home and he's yelling the whole match. Even through the headgear and over the crowd, we definitely hear him."
Ben Dorsay: "That was my reaction. To laugh. He's a funny guy. We all love him. He can get at us a little bit when we're down but he's been around the team for awhile and he's always there to support us."
Tony Gardner (without being prompted): The wrestling's done on the mat so you really don't hear the crowd unless you have Robin Ficker. I love him. I don't hear him too much when I wrestle but I know other people do."
Geoffrey Alexander: "That was a smile and a chuckle. He's a good guy. He really is. He means well for the program, for the team even though he is a little crazy all the time. He really does support us and you really can't say anything bad about the guy because he makes you laugh when sometimes you're just sitting there moped over about something. Everyone asks 'do guys like this guy?' But he travels everywhere to see us wrestle and you can't complain about a fan who just wants to see wrestling and especially support the Terps."
Pin this date to your fall calendar: November 2, 2014. Don't grapple with any other plans. Earn your bonus points by making a major decision to round out the first weekend in November with Maryland wrestling at the Xfinity Center.