The Michigan wrestling team earned an 11th-place finish at the NCAA Championships in March with two-time national champion Kellen Russell and All-American Zac Stevens on its side.
But with the graduation of three seniors — Russell, Stevens and Justin Zeerip — Michigan coach Joe McFarland seems to be shorthanded in the upcoming season.
Though the Wolverine trio will be hard to replace, McFarland has recruited six top wrestlers — Rossi Bruno, Jordan Thomas, Taylor Massa, Angelo Latora, Conor Youtsey and Cory Lester — and Michigan’s freshman class is ranked No. 7 nationally by InterMat Wrestling.
“We are very excited about having these six guys join our program,” McFarland said. “We have a well-balanced class as far as filling some of our weight needs, and I really like the attitude, work ethic and approach that each of these guys brings.”
As the No. 13 overall recruit, Bruno brings a long list of experience in Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling, and is predicted to compete at 133 pounds at the collegiate level. He logged a 289-3 record en route to a first-ever-five-time state champion title in Florida, including undefeated seasons as an eighth grader, sophomore and senior.
“I really think his folkstyle wrestling is as good, if not better, than his freestyle and Greco,” McFarland said. “He’s good in all three positions. He rides really tough on top, which is a great neutralizer in college, and he’s good on his feet and on bottom. With him, we’re getting a solid, all-around wrestler.”
After their fathers wrestled alongside McFarland in the early 1980s, Lester and Latora found their place at Michigan. The two combined for a strong 396-31 record and eight state level honors in their prep careers.
Massa was the top 170-pound pick, finishing his high school career with a 223-0 record. He claimed a pair of Junior National Champion crowns through the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles (FILA) and wrestled for the 2011 FILA Junior Freestyle World Team.
With a combined 17 state titles, the rookie grapplers bring promise to the already well-established team. The four returning wrestlers — 165-pound redshirt junior Dan Yates, fifth year senior heavyweight Ben Apland, 149-pound redshirt junior Eric Grajales and 197-pound redshirt sophomore Max Huntley — remained ranked throughout last year and look to continue defending Michigan mats.
The Big Ten has seen a long history of top-tier wrestling programs, claiming seven of 10 weight-class crowns at the NCAA Championships last season. Iowa and Nebraska take the No. 1 and No. 6 ranked incoming classes, and are the only two Big Ten teams above Michigan.
REPLACING RUSSELL: The two-time national champion will be missed on Michigan mats. Russell was the most reliable wrestler in the lineup last season, and headlined the Wolverines’ 11th-place finish at the NCAA Championships.
Russell posted exceptional numbers throughout his career, including four Big Ten titles, a near-perfect 71-1 record in his last two seasons and an avenged loss to Ohio State’s then-freshman Hunter Stieber.
He finished with a 134-12 record, ranking him eighth amongst the Michigan wrestlers — his .918 win percentage stands as the second highest in Wolverine history.
He also captured the national crown in his senior season against Iowa’s Montell Marion in sudden victory. Shortly after, Russell earned the freestyle wildcard bid to the U.S. Wrestling Olympic Team Trials.
“It’s kind of a new chapter I’m starting in my wrestling career,” Russell said after concluding his stint as a Wolverine. “But it’s definitely going to be much different than my last five years.”
At the Olympic Trials, Russell won his first match against Derek Moore at 60 kg — 0-1, 2-1, 5-3 — but he fell in the first two periods of the quarterfinals to former Hawkeye and 2008 Olympian Mike Zadick.
Even after Russell’s collegiate career came to a close, the Detroit Athletic Club named him the 2012 Michigan College Athlete of the Year. He also collected the National Wrestling Coaches Association All-Academic honors alongside Zeerip.
“The NWCA All-Academic Team and Individual Team is one of the best acknowledgements that we can give to our coaches and athletes at the end of a physically grueling season,” NWCA Executive Director Mike Moyer said. “These … young men have proved that they are not only talented competitors but are leaders in the classroom as well.”
Trying to find someone with the same hunger and talent that Russell has will be nearly impossible.
“I’m very proud of him,” McFarland said. “Ever since we walked into our room, he’s been a low-maintenance guy, totally focused on doing the right things, and he’s been a great role model and leader in program. … What an outstanding career.”
SALAZAR SHINES IN FREESTYLE: Redshirt sophomore Jake Salazar claimed the 74 kg crown at the ASICS University & FILA Cadet National Championships on May 31-June 3. He led the Michigan contingent with a perfect 6-0 record and automatic seat in the best-two-of-three finals of the 2012 University World Team Trials.
“He didn’t lose a period,” assistant coach Donny Pritzlaff said. “He was attacking a lot more than we’ve seen him attack this year, and I think that was key to him winning. He just looked really solid and really strong.”
Yates and Huntley also placed in the 79 kg and 96 kg, respectively. Yates pinned his opponent in the first round, but dropped his second-round match in the first two periods. After six-straight wins in the wrestlebacks, he earned a fifth-place finish and also qualified for the World Team Trials in August.
Huntley snagged a seventh-place finish with a narrow loss in the quarterfinals. After splitting a pair of consolation matches, he dominated in the first and third periods against Josef Rau for seventh place — 8-0, 0-2, 5-1 — with a pancake, putting Rau on his back.
A handful of other Wolverines competed in the tournament, including Russell, who withdrew after a 1-0, 2-0 loss to Jason Chamberlain of the Broncs Wrestling Club.
“For the most part, I was pretty pleased with the way our guys competed,” Pritzlaff said. “Not many of them have extensive freestyle experience. It was 10 more guys than we brought to this tournament last year, so I think that’s a step in the right direction.”
CLIFF KEEN CLUB CLIMBS: The Cliff Keen Wrestling Club was founded to assist the growth of the international sport on a mission “with the primary goal of cultivating champion wrestlers.”
Located on Michigan mats at the Bahna Wrestling Center, a group of devoted Wolverines came back to their roots to develop what is now an internationally recognized program.
On April 21-22, Cliff Keen sent six wrestlers — Russell, Tyrel Todd, Mike Poeta, Jimmy Kennedy, Josh Churella and Jake Herbert — to the U.S. Wrestling Olympic Team Trials.
Churella competed in the 66 kg freestyle weight class, dropping the semifinal match against Brent Metcalf. Though he bounced back with two-straight wins in the wrestlebacks, finishing with a 4-1 record, it was not enough to earn him an Olympic berth.
“It was the heartbreaking loss,” Churella said just minutes after coming off the mat. “I’ve been training four years for this moment, for this opportunity.”