COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Perhaps no Maryland sport will benefit as much from the move to the Big Ten Conference as the Terrapins’ already stout wresting team, which has four Top 20 finishes and three ACC titles over the last six years.
But as nice as all that is, wrestling is serious business in the Big Ten, so much so the Terrapins convened a media day Oct. 7 at the Xfinity Center to kick off their inaugural season in the storied wrestling alliance.
“We want to finish in the top half of the Big Ten and if you look historically, you can finish fifth in the Big Ten and finish fifth in the NCAA Tournament,” Coach Kerry McCoy told a room of about 20 media members. “Four of the top five teams are in the Big Ten. We want to get all of our guys qualified to the NCAA Tournament. The success we had in the ACC, we want to take that into the Big Ten. We don’t have any expectations of taking a couple of years to figure it out.”
That was the Maryland coach putting a headlock on any talk that Maryland would ease into the tougher competition laying ahead and need an acclimation period. McCoy is particularly pleased to have big home dates with the likes of Penn State on Dec. 11, Ohio State on Jan. 25, and Iowa on Feb. 6. All three of those matches could move from the back gym at Xfinity Center into the main arena. In fact Penn State and Ohio State will, and it’s possible Iowa will, as well.
They travel well in the Big Ten for wrestling and the sport is ingrained in the culture of the conference. “The level is definitely elevated,” said McCoy. “The biggest thing I talk about with wrestling in the Big Ten is that it’s a lifestyle. Eight of the 10 ranked schools right now are in the Big Ten. The transition from the ACC to the Big Ten is a mindset of understanding we’re in a better conference.”
McCoy said Maryland brings a mentality of having been the top program in the ACC to the move. His players are looking forward to making their mark, too. “Growing up a wrestler your whole life, you want to go against the best,” said sophomore Frank Goodwin. “You want to see the tougher competition.”
“It’s very exciting for all of us, being in the Big Ten and all that goes with that,” added senior grappler Ben Dorsey. “We’ve been working really hard and we feel like we’re ready for this.”
McCoy has a good nucleus –four NCAA qualifiers and seven returning starters -- back from last year’s 9-18 team that finished 19th at the NCAA Championships and had Jimmy Sheptock become the first Terrapin since 1969 to reach an NCAA finals match, ultimately finishing second and ending his senior season with a 32-1 mark.
The two-time All-American is gone, as is two-time ACC champion Christian Boley, the two biggest sets of wrestling shoes to fill this season. Stalwart heavyweight Spencer Myers is likely to miss some early action, too, now playing football for the Terrapins. Myers was 24-6 last season and earned All-ACC honors. He has qualified for the NCAA Tournament three straight seasons.
While Myers is finishing up his football commitment, redshirt freshman Sean Twigg of Glenelg is penciled in as the Terrapin heavyweight, though he might have to fend off a challenge from fellow redshirt freshman Ryan Kail of Berlin to keep the spot warm for Myers.
“The biggest thing for Spencer is he’s going to have had that big mental break,” said McCoy. “He has put so much time into wrestling. For four years he was just battling that pressure and stress of trying to win a national championship in wrestling. Now for the last three or four months he still has that in the back of his head but he’s out there trying to crush quarterbacks. I think that mental break will help him.”
Myers is a proven commodity and fellow-senior Tony Gardner at 184 pounds, looks primed for a bust-out season, but generally the Terrapins look stronger in the lower weights, starting with redshirt junior Geoffrey Alexander at 133 pounds.
Alexander, who has two NCAA Tournament berths under his belt, redshirted last year, in part for the opportunity to compete in the Big Ten. Wrestling in open competition last year, he still racked up a 25-2 record and is regarded a consensus Top 15 wrestler nationally in his weight class this preseason.
Sophomore Shyheim Brown had a breakout year at 141 last season, and he is ranked No. 20. He won his first 11 matches and was ranked as high as No. 8 in the nation last season, before finishing 20-9. He won two matches in the NCAA Tournament and earned All-America honors. Brown was third on the team with 44 total points in dual meets.
“Last year I think I got a little distracted,” said Brown, who also had a hamstring injury that hampered him in the postseason. “I wasn’t really aware of how long the season was and what a grind it is. This year going in I’m more focused taking it day by day.”
Another sophomore, Tyler Goodwin, also returns but drops to 125, to make room for Alexander at 133, but last year’s 125 competitor, Billy Rappo, is moving to 133 to compete with Alexander.
“They’re both veteran guys and their competition will elevate the level of intensity in the whole room,” said McCoy, who was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame this summer. “Those guys are leaders in our program.”
Tyler Goodwin was 15-10 at 133, including four ACC dual victories, and he finished second in he ACC and qualified for the NCAA Championships. Goodwin had six pins last year.
His brother, Frank, qualified for the NCAA Tournament as well, but at 149 pounds. Frank wanted to drop to 141 to compete with Brown this year, and that makes room for Dorsey. Dorsey was 10-11 at 157 in 2013-14, but had wrestled at 149 his first two years at Maryland. He will try to fend off freshman Toby Hague.
Another intriguing candidate at 141, may emerge, as well. Freshman Alfred Bannister from La Plata, became the all-time leader in Maryland high school history with 272 victories, 201 of those by pin at Bishop McNamara. He would have to beat out Brown and Frank Goodwin, though.
“He’s got two NCAA qualifiers in his weight class,” said McCoy. “If (Bannister) gets in there and he can compete and beats those guys, then he’ll definitely have an impact. If not, we’ve got a redshirt possibility for him.”
The highly-recruited Bannister came down to Virginia Tech and Maryland for his college decision, and McCoy said Maryland’s move to the Big Ten cinched him for the Terrapins.
“The big thing I talk about through the recruiting process and with our guys (is) Maryland being the flagship program,” said McCoy. “We want kids from instate to come here and be successful. There’s nothing better than winning a national championship with a bunch of Maryland kids on our team.”
At 157, redshirt junior Lou Mascola was 14-6 last year in open competition, including the Wilkes Open title at that weight. He was 12-13 the previous year for the Terrapins, placing fourth at the ACC Championships.
Sophomore Tyler Manion is back at 165, where he compiled a 15-8 mark a year ago. He won the Messiah Open title. Junior Josh Snook got the majority of work at 174 pounds, and was 5-12, after moving up from 165 the previous year.
Gardner is back to anchor the lineup at 184, moving down from 197, where he competed two years ago. He tied for the team lead with eight pins in 2012-13, going 18-7.
“Our expectations are the same as they’ve been every year,” said Gardner, “to put people on the podium.”
Senior Rob Fitzgerald is the favorite to land the starting assignment at 197. He was 8-3 at 184 as a freshman, and then 6-5 as a sophomore, but he sat out last year. He and Gardner could be keys.
“We’ve had guys that maybe haven’t had as much success step up this summer, guys like Tony Gardner and Rob Fitzgerald,” said the coach. “They have really committed themselves in the spring and summer to get to the level where they can be competitive.
Good-looking freshman Garret Wesneski could also be a factor at 197, but redshirt sophomore Dylan Devine, who wrestled at DeMatha, will be in the mix, too, working to unseat Fitzgerald.
And All-American Myers, of course, will be back at heavyweight once football season is over.
The Terrapins open up to the public Oct. 26 with the Red and Black Wrestle-offs, where some of these competitions will shake out before the official season-opener Nov. 2 versus Johns Hopkins, Davidson and Alderson-Broaddus at the Xfinity Center. The first Big Ten tilt is Nov. 14 at Wisconsin.
“It’s exciting, starting with a clean slate,” said McCoy. “We’ve got a lot of room to grow.”
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