Maryland wrestling finished in 64th place out of 72 teams at the NCAA Wrestling Championships at Madison Square Garden. 64th out of 72. The Terps scored one point as Geoffrey Alexander went 1-2 and was eliminated Friday morning.
I was unable to find statistics for Maryland wrestling's NCAA Tournament finishes for every year in program history, but I can confidently say that this is one of, if not, the worst Maryland wrestling teams ever based on their final score at the conference and national championships.
Of course, Maryland only sent one wrestler to New York City. The Terps were obviously facing an uphill battle to do well at this tournament because all of their points had to come from Geoffrey Alexander. When Alexander was eliminated on Friday morning, other teams passed Maryland up.
Here's what is puzzling. Last season, Maryland wrestling lost all of its conference duals. The team finished with the third-worst score at the Big Ten Championships in the last 30 years. Only three of Maryland's 10 wrestlers qualified for the NCAA Championships. Spencer Myers lost in the round of 12, and the Terps finished in 39th place with six points.
This season, Maryland won its first-ever conference dual and was competitive at times in others. The team went to the Big Ten Championships and posted an even worse score than the year before, finishing with the second-worst score at the Big Tens in the last three decades. Alexander was the only wrestler to qualify for the NCAA Championships, and Maryland had what might be its worst NCAA finish in school history.
Can fans be comforted by the fact that Maryland showed some small signs of improvement during its dual season, or should they be angered because Maryland has regressed in the last two postseasons? Let's take a look at those two sides.
1) Maryland showed some improvement during the regular season
Maryland beat Michigan State for the school's first-ever conference dual win. The Terps put up 9 points on the road against Iowa, something only three other teams did all season. Two of those teams were top-five Oklahoma State and NC State. Only Nebraska and Illinois scored more points on the Hawkeyes in Big Ten competition, and no team in the Big Ten put up more points on Iowa in Iowa City than the Terps.
2) Maryland is a very young team
Wade Hodges, Garrett Wesneski, Brendan Burnham, Jaron Smith and Youssif Hemida all saw time as true freshmen. Alfred Bannister was a redshirt freshman. Six out of Maryland's 10 wrestlers had never started before and none of them had experienced anything like the Big Ten competition that they would face week in and week out. Hodges was competitive in most of his matches, and Smith had a three-match winning streak in Big Ten competition. These young guys can turn into solid wrestlers, but they need more experience and they need time to develop.
3) Maryland's chances at the NCAA Championships were shot when they only had one wrestler qualify
While some wrestlers can catch fire and score lots of points for their team, Alexander was seeded 14th. He was not expected to place based on his seed. While Alexander was a threat to get on the podium when the tournament started, the average 14th seed is expected to finish with a similar record as Alexander's.
4) Next year's lineup could and should be better than this year's lineup
Brandon Cray, a two-time New Jersey state champion, could start right away at 125, and Josh Ugalde, David-Brian Whisler, Jakob Restrepo and Shyheim Brown are all coming back from redshirt years. Dawson Peck has placed twice at the Midlands and probably has a chance to win the starting job at heavyweight if he can make a commitment to do the right things for himself and the team. Tyler Goodwin will likely take over at 133 pounds.
We might be looking at a lineup of Cray, Goodwin, Bannister/Rappo, Brown/Diehl/Hodges, Restrepo, Ugalde/Burnham, 174 is still up in the air, David-Brian Whisler, Garrett Wesneski and Dawson Peck. That's a pretty good lineup, and I think it will be an improvement over this year's team.
5) At least the Terps are better than Michigan State
The Spartans put a goose egg on the board at the NCAA Wrestling Championships, finishing with zero points and a tie for 69th place. Maryland beat Michigan State for its first-ever Big Ten dual win, but the Spartans finished higher at the Big Ten Championships. I think it is safe to say that both programs are struggling, but Maryland is better.
1) The regular season results are awful, but inevitable
The Terps have only won one dual match in their two seasons in the conference. It might take a decade or more for Maryland to beat schools like Penn State, Iowa, Rutgers, Ohio State, Minnesota, Nebraska or Illinois. That is a distinct possibility.
2) Location, location, location
Here are two numbers to keep in mind: 10 and 2. 10 is the number of consecutive national championships that the Big Ten has won in wrestling. 2 is the number of schools east of the Mississippi River that have won the national championship since 1967 when Michigan State won the title. Those schools are Penn State and Ohio State, and the Nittany Lions didn't win until 2011. Penn State has won five of the last six national titles, including this year's national championship. The Terps wrestle in the best conference in the country and are statistically on the wrong side of the Mississippi River as far as wrestling success is concerned. This is not a problem that can be solved, but rather an observation to give context to the challenge that Maryland faces.
3) Talent. Some Big Ten schools have a lot of it and Maryland doesn't.
Maryland doesn't have the talent to beat the best teams in the Big Ten right now. The Terps don't have the talent to beat the mid-level teams either. However, Maryland has to start somewhere and beating Michigan State shows that the Terps are clearly not the worst team in the conference. It's incredibly disappointing when beating lowly Michigan State is probably the highlight of the season.
The ugly (truth)
This was a rough season for Maryland wrestling. These last two seasons were hard to watch at times and were equal parts frustration and disappointment. Sports are a results business, and the results have been really bad.
Kerry McCoy is a very good coach and an even better man. You will be hard-pressed to find anyone in the wrestling community that doesn't have only the best things to say about him. He's one of the most well-respected and well-liked coaches in the country.
Here's the rub: His contract expires at the end of next season.
The athletic department wants to see progress. Is Maryland wrestling going to finish in seventh at Big Tens next year? I highly doubt it. Could the Terps finish in 11th or 12th? I believe they can. In fact, I could confidently pencil in three Maryland wrestlers to qualify for NCAA's at the start of next season.
Will we see progress? I believe so, but it requires an understanding of how difficult this sport is, the different moving parts that contribute to a program's success and a potential debate over what constitutes progress. If Maryland finishes last at the Big Ten Championships next season, but beats Michigan State and Northwestern, both of whom were awful this season, the Terps will have doubled their win total in conference play. Is that progress? If the Terps place 11th at Big Tens but don't finish with an All-American, is that progress? Progress means different things to different people. Does the department want big results fast, or are they looking for slow and sustainable gains?
Will Maryland wrestling "progress" next year, and will that progress be large enough and visible enough for the athletic department to keep McCoy on as the head coach? That is the question that will loom large over this program next season.