Sophomore Josh Churella has been poised to wrestle for Michigan all his life. His father and two older brothers, including current co-captain Ryan, excelled on the mat for the Wolverines. But because of NCAA rules and an ankle injury at the start of this season, Churella hasn’t been able to wrestle for No. 4 Michigan (5-1) until recently. He could not wrestle for Michigan as a redshirt freshman but made his debut this year against Cleveland State on Dec. 10. Churella has taken full advantage of his opportunity, going 5-0 this season at the 141-pound weight class. Churella will get his first taste of Big Ten competition at 7:30 p.m. today when the Wolverines take on No. 16 Penn State at Crisler Arena.
Churella and his brothers were groomed to be top collegiate wrestlers by their father, Mark, who was a three-time NCAA Champion for Michigan. Mark Jr. was a letterwinner for the Wolverines in 2001, and Ryan finished third at the NCAA Championships as a junior last year.
Churella was redshirted for his freshman year, which is a common practice in collegiate wrestling.
According to NCAA rules, wrestlers in their redshirt season can only wrestle in open tournaments and must pay their own way. Redshirt freshmen can train with their team, but they cannot represent their university. This meant that Churella could not compete for the Wolverines last season in any dual meets, in any Big Ten meets or in the NCAA Championships.
Despite the limited mat time during his redshirt campaign, Churella was immensely successful. He recorded a 14-0 record in open tournaments, including the 133-pound championship at the Michigan State Open, where he was named Most Outstanding Wrestler of the tournament.
“What the redshirt season did for me was it prepared me — got me a lot better over the year — to compete at the next level, which is the top guys in the nation this year,” Churella said.
When this season rolled around, Churella was again prevented from donning the Maize and Blue. During a practice session, Churella suffered a high ankle sprain that, ultimately, kept him off the mat until December.
Churella debuted this season by winning his first two matches in Michigan team victories over Cleveland State and Central Michigan.
But his breakout performance came last weekend at the Lone Star Duals, where he upset then-No. 6 Matt Murray of Nebraska, 4-3, and finished with a 3-0 record at the meet.
The upset win helped Michigan upend then-No. 4 Nebraska, which in turn propelled the Wolverines to a 3-0 team record at the 22-team tournament.
“It’s always a big confidence booster to beat someone that highly ranked,” Churella said. “It’s just another week. It’s over. I beat him, but it doesn’t mean anything now. I’ve got to go on to the next week: There are tough kids week in and week out.”
Churella’s impressive weekend resulted in a surge in his individual rankings. He is now ranked No. 13 according to InterMat and No. 8 in Amateur Wrestling News.
Churella’s emergence has given Michigan coach Joe McFarland confidence that his team can build momentum early in matches with the lower weight classes.
“You win, and it helps the team out big,” Churella said. “If I can get the team going after (the 125- and 133-pound guys), and we’re having success, I can keep that success high and get my hand raised. It can gain momentum for the rest of the team.”
For Churella, getting his hand raised — after each match the referee raises the hand of the victorious wrestler — is what drives his training regimen.
“He’s willing to do whatever it takes to get his hand raised, as far training and preparation goes,” McFarland said. “It’s a great thing for a student athlete to possess that kind of attitude.”
Churella’s work ethic and recent successes have given more confidence to an already confident wrestler.
“It doesn’t matter what age you are,” Churella said. “If you want to compete at the highest level, you’ve got to believe you can beat anyone in the nation. That’s just what my mindset is right now.”
Churella’s sights are now set on his first Big Ten Dual season, which kicks off tonight. But even that is just a prelude to Churella’s and Michigan’s main goals, the Big Ten and NCAA Championships.
“I’m just anticipating having a good tournament — doing well at Big Tens and Nationals,” Churella said. “Everything right now is leading up to the success you could have at those tournaments.”