AUBURN HILLS – Michigan hosted the NCAA Championships for the first time since 1934 this past weekend.
It feels like it has been just as long since they had a strong performance this season.
But despite qualifying just five wrestlers for the tournament, the Wolverines finished sixth (62 points), with each qualifier earning All-America honors.
“We really had a good weekend, there’s no doubt about it,” Michigan coach Joe McFarland said. “When you come in here with five guys and do what we did, it’s pretty hard to do. We didn’t come in here with numbers like some other teams did.”
Wrestling in front of an NCAA Wrestling Championships single-session record crowd (17,780 people) at the Palace, Michigan didn’t fail to impress.
The five All-America honors were the most in the tournament (tied with National Champion Minnesota). Each of the Wolverines either tied or set career-bests at NCAAs.
Two weekends ago, Michigan finished eighth at Big Ten Championships. The team boasted just two dual meet wins this season and came into Auburn Hills ranked No. 15 in the country.
But at the end of Nationals Saturday night, Michigan found itself behind just the nation’s top-five teams and third among Big Ten squads.
“I think that it surprised a lot of people that we finished in the top 10, probably more people outside of Michigan,” sixth-place finisher Steve Luke (174 pounds) said. “But for us, we knew that these five guys that came could place, and we knew that if all five of us lived up to our potential, we could place really high.”
But one Wolverine stood out from the rest.
Third-seed Josh Churella (149 pounds) battled all the way to the championship match.
After defeating Ohio State’s Lance Palmer 5-2 in the semifinals, Churella faced Edinboro’s fifth-seeded Gregor Gillepsie, who had upset top-ranked Dustin Schlatter in the previous round.
Churella and Gillepsie exchanged escapes in the second and third periods before the match went to a sudden-victory period. Churella came out firing and registered what many in the boisterous crowd felt was a takedown. But the official was patient and gave Gillepsie time to scramble out of it.
“I’m pretty sure if he had given that quick two it would’ve been all over,” Gillepsie said.
Whereas the Edinsboro wrestler stood atop the podium and went to the winner’s press conference Saturday night, the Northville native stood on Gillepsie’s right and was at a loss for words.
Churella scoffed at the question of whether there could be any positives taken from the match.
“You can take positives away from anything,” the redshirt junior said. “This will just drive me for next year to win a national title.”
Following the loss, the downtrodden middleweight walked along the edge of the Palace floor to the warm-up room, trying to ignore the ESPN camera just feet in front of his face. Once Churella was embraced by his father, three-time NCAA Champion Mark Churella, he sat on a treadmill in the back of the room, barely able to be consoled.
“I told him that I loved him and that I’m very proud of him,” Mark Churella said. “I thought he wrestled with a lot of heart. I felt that at the end there he was close to having that two and that in fact it was one of those calls that he just didn’t get it.”
McFarland was also visibly shaken by the loss.
“It hurts right now,” McFarland said. “I feel bad for him. There’s nothing that I can say or do that’s going to make him feel any better right now. He’s just heartbroken, just heartbroken.”
But after such a rough season, it’s tough to not consider Michigan’s performance at the NCAA Championships great.
“It was a frustrating season for us,” McFarland said. “We went through some things that we weren’t accustomed to.
“For our guys to do what they did is outstanding.”