With three out on Olympic redshirts, Michigan wrestling learning to adapt
Shortly after the World Wrestling Championships ended, Michigan coach Sean Bormet met with his competitors in a hotel room. They had 24 hours to make a decision.
At the week-long competition, two Michigan wrestlers had qualified for the Olympics. Two others had a shot at Olympic Trials. But now, they had to decide if they wanted to remain with the Wolverines or disenroll from classes and take Olympic redshirts.
Worlds ended on Sept. 22. The add/drop deadline was Sept. 23. Each wrestler had put this choice aside for a bit, but now, they had to make a decision.
The NCAA offers Olympic redshirts to wrestlers who meet certain conditions: past national team members, top-3 finishers at NCAAs, top-8 finishers at the Senior U.S. Open or previous medalists at Cadet, Junior or U23 Worlds. This year, Michigan — coming off a fifth-place finish at the NCAA Championships in 2019 — had four wrestlers who met those conditions.
Myles Amine and Stevan Micic both finished fifth at Worlds — competing for San Marino and Serbia, respectively — and punched their tickets to Tokyo. Logan Massa and Kanen Storr both compete for the United States and would have opportunities throughout the year to qualify.
Because they compete for European countries, Micic and Amine had travel obligations that would make attending classes difficult. Olympic wrestling has just six weight classes compared to the NCAA’s 10, so Micic needs to drop a weight and Amine is moving up one in preparation.
The four decided that whatever they did, they would do it together. Amine, Micic and Massa were set to be fifth-year seniors, and they wanted to complete their last year of eligibility together to ensure the team was as strong as possible that year. Storr, a redshirt junior, had two years left, so he could go either way.
By the end of the day, they’d made their decision: All four withdrew from classes to chase their dreams. And with that, the rest of the Wolverines entered uncharted territory.
Though he’s just in his second year as head coach, Bormet competed for Michigan in the early 1990s and returned as an assistant coach in 2011. Through his years with the program, Bormet doesn’t remember an instance of the Wolverines using even a single Olympic redshirt. At the start of the season, Bormet had to take a team with high expectations and navigate through the loss of four of its top wrestlers.
Michigan scuffled out of the gate, dropping a dual to North Carolina and finishing in the middle of the pack at invitationals. Meanwhile, Storr realized his chances for the Olympics were dwindling — his main hope to qualify for Olympic Trials was to win an NCAA title. So he registered for classes for the winter semester and pulled his redshirt at the Midlands Championships in December.
“Midway through the (fall) semester, I thought, ‘I really don’t wanna put off school any longer. I wanna wrestle a long time, so there’s no point for me to delay my career,’ ” Storr said. “And ... I think me coming back was just a good little kickstart to kind of start the second half strong.”
Storr’s return helped, but the results for the team have nevertheless been mixed. Michigan still has three top-10 wrestlers — Storr and redshirt freshman Will Lewan are both ranked No. 9 in their respective weight classes, while sophomore Mason Parris is No. 2 in the country at heavyweight. But there’s only so much three wrestlers can do.
Many of the Wolverines’ matches tell similar stories: Michigan starts out stong and builds up a lead, but that cushion evaporates as the middle of the lineup comes up — the spots Massa, Amine and Micic usually fill. Young wrestlers try their best to hold their own against tough Big Ten competition. Then Parris comes and tries to save the day. Sometimes it’s enough. Sometimes it isn’t.
Bormet admits that he’s a competitive person and he’s not fully satisfied with Michigan’s results. But he also views this season as a challenge to his entire staff — how can they get the most out of a depleted roster?
Sometimes, wrestlers have had to compete in higher weight classes than normal — redshirt junior Tyler Meisinger has wrestled at three different weights this year and junior Reece Hughes has wrestled at four.
Michigan knows it’ll take its lumps at times. From there, it becomes about limiting damage. Even in losses, individual wrestlers can mitigate the blow by keeping opponents from earning bonus points or major decisions — potentially allowing a teammate like Storr or Parris to aid in a comeback later.
Meanwhile, Amine, Micic and Massa are still in Ann Arbor. They go through individualized workout regimens, but still occasionally practice with the team, along with providing moral support and offering advice. That gives the wrestlers a chance to learn from some of the best in the sport — and an extra year to compete with them, too.
“It’s not the end of the world cause it’s … just a redshirt,” Lewan said. “They’re gonna get back and be able to wrestle for us still. It just gives me a longer time to get people that good in the room.”
It’s not hard to see the flip side of the struggles this year. Amine, Micic and Massa plan to return for their final year of eligibility next season. Storr will be back too, along with Lewan and Parris. That’s 60 percent of Michigan’s lineup spots going to top-level wrestlers. With that much talent and experience, the Wolverines have a good chance to contend nationally.
There are a few roster complications, of course. Losing three wrestlers to the Olympics wasn’t part of any long-term plan for Bormet; rather, it was something that the athletes and staff only started discussing in the last 6-8 months. That would throw a wrench into even the best thought out recruiting plans, but the nature of wrestling scholarships mitigates that issue somewhat. Division I wrestling teams get 9.9 scholarships to work with; Michigan has 33 athletes on its roster this year. So most wrestlers are on just partial scholarship, if they’re on scholarship at all.
On the other hand, the redshirts mean there are people who believed they would have lineup spots next year who suddenly won’t. But any wrestler knows that intense roster competition comes with the territory, and Bormet believes the idea of a powerhouse team next year will be just as enticing.
“Even in the recruiting process, that’s talked about a lot,” Bormet said. “And when you go to a school that has a really good wrestling program like ours and a really competitive program, next year we’re trying to put our best lineup on the mat to win a national championship, guys know that it’s gonna be competitive to get a starting spot.”
Bormet sees it as a two-way street. Of course it’s a sacrifice for any college coach to lose three of his best wrestlers for a season. But wrestling is also one of the most difficult sports to make an Olympic team in — just 16 athletes make it at each weight.
When a wrestler commits to Michigan, he’s committing to give the team his all. But Bormet made a commitment, too: By coaching these wrestlers, he’d help them reach their highest goals, at the NCAA level and beyond. The Olympics are the pinnacle of this sport, and Bormet knows as well as anyone that it’s not an opportunity to just let pass.
Redshirt years, after all, are temporary. But when Bormet goes to Tokyo this summer with the opportunity to potentially coach three wrestlers he’ll have on his college team when he gets back? Well, that feeling lasts a lot longer.
“Part of this was following through with our word and our commitment to them,” Bormet said. “And we also knew it’s not just an investment in them for their run this year, but we’re also making a huge investment into the younger guys on our team and some opportunities for some of our freshmen and redshirt freshmen to get into the lineup and get some experience and development and for us to really focus on that development within our program.
“And then next year, it all comes back together.”