On Wrestling: Senior night loss shows how far wrestling has come, where it can be

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By Zach Shaw, Daily Sports Writer
Published February 2, 2014

Eric Grajales raised his arms up in the air, nodding his head in smug satisfaction. All around him, the Michigan fans of Cliff Keen Arena stood and cheered.

Trailing 13-9 with less than a minute remaining in his match against Penn State’s Zach Beitz, Grajales began a frantic comeback. Takedown after takedown, Grajales took the lead with 10 seconds to go, but at the end of a grueling and controversial 6:50, the senior was far from finished.

As he twisted Beitz just three seconds from the buzzer, Grajales delivered a much-needed pin to earn the Wolverines six points and win his final match in Ann Arbor.

“I was tired,” Grajales said. “But I knew if I kept going that I could break him and continue to score some points. I tried my best to stick to simple takedowns early on and it worked as he got more and more tired, then at the end I got the pin.”

Michigan would go on to lose the match, 32-9, but senior night showed far more than the score. Losing to the three-time defending NCAA champions before a crowd sold out days in advance provided a glimpse at how far the team has come in four years and how far it has to go.

When Grajales and fifth-year seniors Dan Yates and Sean Boyle arrived at Cliff Keen Arena for their first collegiate home meet, there wasn’t much to see. It was November 2009, and before a half-empty crowd, the Michigan wrestling team fell to Lehigh 21-14.

The match was the beginning of a 4-15-2 campaign, the Wolverines’ worst since 1925. The blunders included a 0-8 Big Ten record, a 36-0 loss to top-ranked Iowa and a school-worst 43rd-place showing at the NCAA Championships.

Just four years after finishing second in the nation, the Wolverines had fallen to a historic low, and did so dramatically fast.

Boyle, the only current member of the team who wrestled that day, was not only shutout by his opponent, but spent 2:43 of the match in his grasp. Going a combined 24-5 in exhibition matches, Yates and Grajales were confined to the stands, redshirting through the miserable season.

“My redshirt year, it was embarrassing,” Grajales said. “We were supposed to be one of the most prestigious programs in the country, and to have (us) perform that badly wasn’t enjoyable to watch. Even the guys on the team didn’t want to go and watch their teammates.”

As the years went on, the Wolverines slowly climbed out of their hole. The trio went 275-131 as it carried the program back to the national stage. The efforts paid off as recruits took notice, bringing more and more talent into the program, culminating in this season’s No. 1 recruiting class.

“It hasn’t been easy,” said Michigan coach Joe McFarland. “It’s recruiting the right kind of kids into our program, working with them, seeing them develop and compete. But you have to get the right kids first, and I think we’ve been doing that lately. We aren’t where we want to be, but we’re moving in the right direction.”

Where Michigan wants to be could be found on the other side of the mat. At 12-0, the Nittany Lions are well on their way to a fourth consecutive NCAA title. With a bench that could compete with any team in the country, Penn State is the ideal of what a collegiate wrestling is all about.

“They’re the No. 1 team in the country, and they deserve that,” McFarland said. “There’s not a lot of teams that have been able to compete with this team lately. I have a lot of respect for what they’ve done with that program.”

Penn State’s success didn’t happen overnight. Building a perennial powerhouse requires years of progress — recruits, coaches and every wrestler must buy into the program each and every year.

After four years of progress, the efforts have come to fruition. This year, the 12th-ranked Wolverines (5-1, 9-3) have worked their way up the rankings, beating four ranked teams — including No. 2 Minnesota — along the way. After four years of progress, Michigan finally has the talent to compete with the nation’s elite.

After four years of progress, Grajales and the rest of the seniors can walk away from Cliff Keen Arena one final time, knowing that they are leaving the team in a better place than they found it.

“It’s very hard to describe,” Grajales said. “I can’t even describe the experiences I’ve had here, and can’t imagine what life will be like without this team. To see this team slowly transform to a team that can compete with anyone in the country is an amazing feeling.”

The Wolverines have come a long way since 2009, and still have a ways to go. But as Grajales took a slow victory lap around the mat, soaking up the cheers, it’s clear that thanks to this group of seniors, nowhere is too far to go for Michigan wrestling.