This has been both the longest and the shortest season for the Chadron State College wrestling team since the Eagles began competing in the sport in the late 1950s.
Coach Brett Hunter said the Eagles have had more practices, nearly 100, including the first one on October 10, compared to about 76 most seasons. But the team has competed only seven times, all in duals, compared to 18 of them in 2019-20. And, the Eagles have not entered any open tournaments because nationwide they were a victim of the COVID-19 pandemic that has affected every sport and every other segment of society the past year.
“It’s been a really challenging year,” Hunter said. “Much different than usual, but we’ve kept on track and are happy we’ve been able to compete as much as we have. Now we’re getting ready for the Super Regional and hopefully will have some national qualifiers.”
The Super Regional 6 Championships will be Sunday, February 28 at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction. Regionals provide the lone opportunity to qualify for nationals, and it’s going to be more difficult than ever to make that happen this year. More about that later.
Mesa has announced that each student-athlete will be allotted two tickets to purchase for his parents. All tickets are $15 and are good for all sessions.
Every spectator in attendance must arrange to have a Covid test performed within 96 hours of the event, and be prepared to show documentation of a negative result. Those who have received a Covid vaccination must be two weeks removed from the administration of a second dose.
Hunter, a two-time national champion while wrestling for the Eagles, and his 2020-21 troops, who have a 4-3 dual record, are currently experiencing another of the challenges that this year has wrought. It will have been three weeks since they wrapped up the regular season on Feb. 5 by defeating Western Colorado 27-13 at home until they compete at the regional showdown.
Hunter said keeping everyone healthy, in shape, at the optimum weight, competitive and sharp is testing his coaching expertise.
“We’re changing things up so we’re not in a rut,” Hunter said. “We go pretty hard (wrestle) four days a week, do mostly cardio things like running and lifting weights twice a week and swim (at the Chadron Aquatics Center) on Sundays,” he explained.
“We try to be creative on the days we wrestle by going longer, sometimes 10 minutes straight with no breaks against the same guy, then sometimes going just one or two minutes at a time, and have different matchups when we wrestle. We’re also working a lot on technique because we’re a young team that is still learning.”
Hunter also said that because wrestling is necessarily intense, he tries to make the workouts fun.
“We don’t want anyone to get mad at a teammate or take everything too seriously,” the coach noted. “These guys already know how to compete or they wouldn’t be college wrestlers.”
The Eagles have been fortunate. While they have practiced more than usual, they haven’t had many injuries. Only one of last year’s 10 varsity starters with eligibility remaining, 184-pounder Terry Winstead of Hallah, Okla., has been unavailable this year and that’s because of a knee injury he suffered a year ago.
Two younger team members, Javan Palmer of Casper and Jackson Eklund of Gregory, S.D., also have missed the season because of injuries sustained in early practices, but, fortunately, both were at weights where the Eagles had another wrestler with comparable talent.
Initially, there were 30 names on the roster and there were still 25 following the final dual. Soon after that dual, Hunter and his assistants kept the 10 starters and four others active to tune up for the regional showdown, while allowing the others to take a break from the practice routine. The latter group will rejoin the team for off-season workouts this spring.
The regional lineup is not set in stone. For the second year in a row, senior Tate Allison of Moorcroft, Wyo., who has filled the 165-pound weight class this season, is striving to lose enough weight to compete at 157 at regionals. It paid off for him last year when he lost his first match at regionals, but won the next four and finished third to qualify for nationals.
If Allison can drop to 157 again, he’ll challenge redshirt freshman Preston Renner of Westminster, Colo., for that slot in the Eagles’ lineup. Two highly-regarded freshmen, Dean Neff of Jefferson, Wis., and Travis Waldner of Dexter, Mo., will then challenge one another for the 165 opening.
In addition, sophomore Joe Taylor of Glenrock, Wyo., the team’s 133-pound varsity contestant all season, is being challenged by redshirt freshman Kobe Lepe of San Fernando, Calif., for that spot in the regional lineup.
The Eagles’ most successful grappler during the seven duals this winter has been true freshman Rowdy Pfeil at 174 pounds. He was pinned in the final minute of the second dual by Seth Latham of Colorado Mesa, but has won his remaining six matches and is ranked No. 6 nationally in the weight class.
Pfeil is the only Eagle who is ranked and is the only true freshman who has been ranked since Hunter became the head coach nine years ago.
“He’s wired a little differently than most guys,” Hunter said of Pfeil. “He doesn’t get rattled, can overcome his mistakes and doesn’t care who he’s going to wrestle. He’s got a lot to look forward to as a college wrestler, I believe.”
Sophomore Eli Hinojosa of Imperial lost his first two matches, but has won the last five at 197 pounds after shedding about 65 pounds in the last year to compete at his new weight class. Both Preston Renner and heavyweight Mason Watt of Bloomfield, Colo., are 4-3.
In addition, Taylor at 133, Joe Ritzen of Chadron at 141 and Sebastian Robles of Port Arthur, Wash., at 149 are 3-4, while Tate Stoddard at 125 and Allison at 165 are 2-5 and freshman Joe Renner of Englewood, Colo., is 1-6.
As noted previously, qualifying for nationals, always a daunting task, is going to be more difficult than usual this year. That’s because three–New Mexico Highlands, San Francisco State and Simon Fraser of Canada–of the 10 schools in Region 6 don’t have wrestling teams this winter.
With just seven teams vying at this year’s regional tourney, the NCAA has reduced the number of national qualifiers from the usual 30 (three from each weight class) to only 17.
“They’ve really hit us hard,” said Hunter. “That means our region will be able to send only the winner of each weight class and seven others to nationals, while in the past we’ve sent three from each weight class. Everybody in our region is disappointed by the (NCAA) decision, but there seems to be nothing we can do about it.”