LEWISBURG, Pa. – The Bucknell wrestling team is on the rise, and head coach Dan Wirnsberger believes the 2017-18 season is shaping up to be one for the ages.
“We’re ready to take that next step,” Wirnsberger said. “We want to have both team success and individual success, and we’ve set ourselves up to have both. The best way to have success is to wrestle the best competition, and we’re certainly going to do that.”
To challenge his team, Wirnsberger assembled a grueling schedule. In the first two months of the season alone, the Bison will face four teams ranked in the preseason top 25: unanimous No. 1 Penn State (Nov. 12), No. 10 Lehigh (Nov. 10), No. 24 Pitt (Dec. 17) and No. 25 Edinboro (Nov. 5).
“We’re going to be challenged very early in the competition schedule, and we set it up that way intentionally,” Wirnsberger said. “We want our guys to see the best competition they can possibly see. This will help prepare them to perform at their best at the end of the season. We’re judged in the sport of wrestling by how many guys we get to the NCAA championships and how many guys we get on the medal stand at the NCAA championships. Facing the best competition will put us in position to have success at the NCAA championships.”
Below is a preview of each individual weight class. The Bison begin their season this Sunday when they take on CSU Bakersfield (10:30 a.m.) and No. 25 Edinboro (1:30 p.m.) in Edinboro, Pa. They host No. 10 Lehigh in their first home meet in Sojka Pavilion on Friday, Nov. 10 at 7 p.m.
“They’ll battle it out for the spot,” Wirnsberger said. “They each bring good high school credentials to the table, and it’s going to be a matter of how quickly they develop and adapt to Division I wrestling.”
Barzona and Campbell enjoyed strong high school careers, each qualifying for three Pennsylvania State Tournaments and winning over 120 career bouts. Campbell finished as high as third in the state while Barzona twice took sixth. At the Bison Intrasquad on Oct. 26, Campbell scored the lone victory by tech fall, an 18-1 decision over junior Mike Macklin.
“A freshman’s success often comes down to his work ethic, passion and self-belief,” Wirnsberger said. “Self-belief will take them a long way as true freshmen.”
A year ago, Joey Gould started for Bucknell as a true freshman. Over the course of the season, he became a key contributor, winning nine of his final 14 matches and placing eighth at the EIWA Championships. From Jan. 22 to Feb. 10, he strung together a six-match winning streak, which included his first victory over a nationally ranked opponent, a 2-0 decision over American’s No. 20 Esteban Gomez-Rivera.
“We expect Joey to have breakthrough season,” Wirnsberger said. “He has the ability to perform at a high level on the national stage, and we expect him to do that.”
Behind Gould, the Bison have solid depth in junior Frank Satriale and freshman David Campbell, the twin brother of 125-pounder Jakob.
“Both of those guys bring a great attitude and work ethic to our organization,” Wirnsberger said.
To say expectations are high for Tyler Smith entering his senior season would be an understatement.
“Tyler’s bar is set at the top,” Wirnsberger said. “Being an NCAA champion is his goal and his focus.”
A three-time NCAA qualifier who has won over 70 percent of his career matches, Smith was one match away from being crowned a 2017 All-American. At the NCAA championships, he went 3-2, scoring victories over Russell Rohlfling (CSU Bakersfield), Brock Zacherl (Clarion) and Johnathan Hathaway (Oregon State).
Smith has twice placed at the EIWA championships, taking third in 2015 and fourth in 2017. Over the course of the 2016-17 campaign alone, he racked up 31 wins, a total that is tied for 11th in program history.
“We’re looking for him to continue to lead by example,” Wirnsberger said. “How he prepares week in and week out and how he competes really motivates our guys to do their best.”
Nationally, Smith was ranked in the preseason top 10 by The Open Mat (8), Intermat (9), Flowrestling (9) and Amateur Wrestling News (10).
Like Gould, Seth Hogue started for the Bison as a freshman in 2016-17. Though he went 9-19, Wirnsberger said he showed flashes of excellence to come as a sophomore.
“He gained valuable experience last year and was committed to becoming a better athlete during the offseason,” Wirnsberger said. “Like Joey, we’re looking for him to have a breakthrough season as a sophomore. We believe he can to place high at the EIWA championships and get to the NCAA championships.”
Wirnsberger noted Bucknell boasts “talented depth” at 141 and 149, two weight classes he considers interchangeable. He highlighted freshman Matthew Kolonia, who he called a “preseason superstar” because of his work ethic, and juniors Ben Bliss and Kyle Greene, who he said bring experience and commitment to the program.
“We have a lot of depth at 141 and 149, and that makes our practice room much more competitive,” Wirnsberger said. “That helps our guys stay focused day in and day out, which only helps our team.”
For four seasons, Bucknell could rely on Victor Lopez to bring in points at 157 pounds. Each season, he finished with at least 20 victories, topping out at 30 in 2015-16.
“He was one of our best wrestlers,” Wirnsberger said. “He did a lot for us, and we will definitely miss him this year.”
A two-time NCAA qualifier and four-time EIWA place winner, Lopez graduated with 108 wins, which is tied for seventh in school history. While replacing Lopez won’t be easy, junior Zach Kelly, who went 5-5 in a 2016-17 campaign shortened by injury, is currently the favorite to step into his shoes.
“We have very high expectations for Zach,” Wirnsberger said. “He’s been hampered by injury during his first two years here, but we believe he can be the guy for us at 157 if we can keep him healthy and continue to develop him over the course of the season.”
Fellow juniors Christian Bassolino and Andrew Millsap will challenge Kelly for the starting role.
“Zach is the frontrunner, but Christian and Andrew are right there with him,” Wirnsberger said. “It’s a very competitive weight class for sure.”
D.J. Hollingshead competed mostly at 174 in 2016-17. He represented the Bison at the EIWA championships at 174, and nine of his 12 dual-meet starts came at that weight class.
With Logan Kerin, who got the majority of starts at 165 in 2016-17, lost to graduation, Hollinghead will have the chance to step into a starting role at his natural weight class. Wirnsberger said the experience he gained while competing up a weight class will serve him well during his junior campaign.
“Being in our starting lineup and competing at the EIWA tournament will help him as he moves into his more natural weight class,” Wirnsberger said. “Any time you’re wrestling some of the best competition in the country, it will make you better the following year.”
Wirnsberger said Hollingshead, who is 33-29 in his career, will be able to wrestle his more physical and aggressive style when he’s not giving up size and strength to larger opponents.
“He’s had a tremendous offseason,” Wirnsberger said. “He committed to becoming better and improving his technical skills. We expect him to have a breakthrough season and put himself in a position to get to the NCAA championships.”
Senior Collin Boylan, who has competed primarily at tournaments during his time at Bucknell, could challenge Hollingshead for his starting spot.
“Collin is very talented,” Wirnsberger said. “He’s done an excellent job filling in for us throughout his career. He’s the kind of wrestler who’s made gains every year he’s been in the program.”
With no clear frontrunner, Wirnsberger said 174 is Bucknell’s most competitive weight class, by far.
“It’s a wide-open weight class,” Wirnsberger said. “We’re looking for one of these six guys to step up and grab ahold of that weight class and be the guy. Over the next four to six weeks, we’ll determine who that guy is based on who consistently performs well in the practice room and carries that over into a competition setting.”
At the Bison Intrasquad on Oct. 28, Stephani matched up against Inlander, pulling out a tight 6-4 decision.
As a freshman in 2016-17, Drew Phipps started out at 197 before moving down to 184 in December. He went 13-11 during his rookie campaign, placing second at both the Cleveland State Open and Navy Classic.
A four-time Pennsylvania State Tournament qualifier who placed as high as second, Phipps will now have the chance to start at Bucknell with Garrett Hoffman’s move up to 197 pounds.
“Drew had an outstanding high school career and was heavily recruited throughout the country,” Wirnsberger said. “He’s going to have a chance to start now, and we expect him to make an impact.”
Senior Chad Reese, who has been in and out of the lineup at a variety of weight classes, will provide depth at 184.
Smith isn’t the only Bison with aspirations of winning a 2018 NCAA title. Fellow senior and three-time NCAA qualifier Tom Sleigh also has that as his goal.
“There’s no question he can be an NCAA champion,” Wirnsberger said. “His goals are to win an EIWA championship and an NCAA championship, and he has the physical capabilities and the passion to do just that. He’s a physical specimen who can dominate his opponents, and we’ll continue to work on the small, technical details with him to put him in a position where he can meet his goals.”
Sleigh enters his senior campaign with 89 career victories, which is tied for 11th in school history. He has averaged nearly 30 wins a season, putting him on pace to crack Bucknell’s top five in career victories. A three-time EIWA place winner, he was the 2017 runner-up.
Like Smith, Sleigh is one of the team’s leaders, and Wirnsberger said his confidence and self-belief is contagious.
“He brings a tremendous amount of experience and leadership to our organization,” Wirnsberger said. “He’s very self-motivated, and he lives the right lifestyle to be successful. He’s very competitive, and he wants to be the best. Guys see that, and they try to emulate it.”
Sleigh appeared in five publications’ preseason rankings: Amateur Wrestling News (11), The Open Mat (13), Intermat (14), Flowrestling (15) and Wrestling Insider Newsmag (17).
Hoffman, who qualified for the 2017 NCAA championships at 184 as a freshman, is moving up to 197 pounds this season. He was ranked by Wrestling Insider Newsmag at 184, coming in at 18.
“Garrett is moving up a weight class and will back up Tom,” Wirnsberger said. “He obviously had a great freshman season at 184, and we’re excited to see what he can do at 197.”
Eric Chakonis won a pair of New Jersey State titles during his time at Don Bosco Prep, and Wirnsberger believes the true freshman will make an immediate impact at Bucknell.
“It’s going to be a matter of how quickly he can transition into Division I wrestling,” Wirnsberger said. “The sooner he can make that adjustment, the more success he’ll have early in the season.”