On wrestling: In championships, Grajales gets gratification, youth not ready

James Coller/Daily
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By Zach Shaw, Daily Sports Writer
Published March 23, 2014

Not this time.

By the time fifth-year senior Eric Grajales warmed up for his match Saturday night, patience had worn thin. It was the Round of 12 match at the NCAA Championships in Oklahoma City, meaning Grajales would be named an All-American with a win.

Making it there was an accomplishment itself, but Grajales was far from finished. Twice before in his career had Grajales fallen in the Round of 12, coming just short of being an All-American. As Grajales was introduced to the crowd, Grajales was sure of one thing regarding his past failures.

As he and No. 3 Chris Vollalonga of Cornell walked toward the center of the mat in what could be the last match of his career, Grajales was on a mission.

Less than two minutes in, the ninth-seeded Grajales proved he was serious, taking down Vollalonga on the edge of the ring. With the honor he had been working toward his entire life within grasp, Grajales refused to let go. Grajales remained on top for 3:12 of riding time, each second bringing him closer to redeeming the past.

When the final buzzer sounded, Grajales had stolen the match and the honor from Vollalonga. With blood dripping from his lips, the senior couldn’t help but smile when the official raised his arm in victory.

“It’s a great feeling,” Grajales told MGoBlue.com following the match. “I’m happy, and I’m satisfied. I’ve got a smile on my face, and it’ll stay there for a little while.”

On a team that has seen a youth take over this season, Grajales rarely recieved the credit he deserved. But as his teammates were eliminated one-by-one, Grajales kept pushing. Even after being named All-American, he kept pushing, taking down three more ranked opponents to claim third in the 149-pound weight class. The Wolverines took 17th at the tournament after being seeded inside the top 10, but the story of the weekend was Grajales, not the touted freshmen.

The weekend was supposed to belong to freshman Adam Coon. After going 29-1 in his first regular-season campaign, Coon had established himself as the best wrestler in the country. Even when showing a human side on the mat for the first time when stumbling to a 1-2 record at the Big Ten Championships, many figured it would only refuel his hunger before taking it out on the rest of the country.

It wasn’t until a four-overtime loss to Iowa’s Bobby Telford in the quarterfinals that losing was even considered as an option. But as Coon fell into the loser’s bracket, something else disappeared too. The man many thought could — would — win the national heavyweight title fell to Ohio’s Jeremy Johnson in the Round of 12, failing to be an All-American in his first of four tries.

Over the summer, the wide-eyed freshmen who walked through the Bahna Wrestling Center doors to begin their careers as Wolverines carried more than just their bags. The 11 of them combined to make up the nation’s No.1 recruiting class, expected to one day deliver the program’s first-ever national title.

In the redshirt-heavy sport, the group was supposed to bulk up in the practice room and prepare to explode on the scene next season. But as the weeks wore on and reigning starters fell victim to injury or slumping performance, the talent on the bench became too much to contain. With Grajales and Dan Yates as the only seniors in the lineup, the Wolverines beat six top-12 teams en route to their best regular season finish since 2006.

But on the biggest stage last weekend, the young Michigan squad proved it wasn’t ready.

“It was a great experience for our young guys to come in here,” said Michigan coach Joe McFarland. “But historically, this tournament has been tough on freshmen.

“It should be a motivator for them. None of these guys are happy at all about not making the podium. You’ve got to carry that feeling and remember it every time things get difficult in a training session, every time you need to get up early in the off-season for a run.”

There’s no denying bluer skies lie ahead for the Wolverines. With three more years of Coon, five other NCAA qualifiers back in the lineup, 2013 freshman sensation Taylor Massa coming back from a redshirt and junior captain Max Huntley returning from season-ending surgery next season, Michigan will be eyeing its first top-10 finish in seven years. Michigan wrestling will return to greatness soon and finish among the best in the country for years to come.

Just not this time.

This time, the story and glory belong to Grajales. After five years in Ann Arbor, the veteran finally got his taste of glory.

This time, Eric Grajales finally ended his season a winner.