Grunts could be heard from outside the gym. Inside, two Michigan wrestlers in sweat-soaked gray shirts took turns pummeling each other. It was 20 minutes before practice was set to start, but sophomore Taylor Massa and his opponent were fighting at an intensity usually reserved for the most important matches.
The four coaches watching created a wall outside the ring, but beyond the mat over their shoulders, junior Max Huntley could be seen helping a teammate with his technique. Though not wrestling, Huntley’s facial expression also held the same intensity as those on the mat.
Lost in Michigan wrestling’s breakout season are the leaders of last season, who, for different reasons, must watch the season unfold from the sidelines. Massa, last year’s freshman sensation, is taking a painfully long redshirt season. Huntley, the journeyman who had battled his way through the ranks to be named captain, is recovering from his second season-ending injury in four years.
The pair are two of the Wolverines’ best wrestlers. But in a year high on patience and low on glory, Massa and Huntley must lead their teammates from the sideline. Coaching, cheering, waiting for their own opportunity to shine again.
Massa was fuming, but anger can’t turn back time. After losing 17-2 to unranked Iowa State wrestler Michael Moreno with an All-American spot on the line, Massa was set to begin a 20-month hiatus from competing for Michigan.
Forcing his way into the starting lineup as a true freshman, the former No. 2 high school wrestler in the country showed he belonged, winning a team-best 27 matches. But from the moment the buzzer sounded and ended his 2012-13 campaign, Massa knew the loss would sting for a long time.
A mid-college non-medical redshirt — a common practice among elite wrestlers — is designed to help athletes develop their bodies and skills without the obstacles of making weight every week or dealing with a daunting schedule of competition. While it appears Massa will emerge stronger in November, having to watch the season unfold without being in the ring has been difficult.
“I love to compete, and I want to be out there bad,” Massa said. “Going to the home duals; sitting in the bleachers, watching everyone else is hard. Especially against Stanford when we had a close loss and not being out there really eats away at you. I want to be wrestling, but I know I still have my best years coming.”
Added Michigan coach Joe McFarland: “It’d be nice to have him in our lineup, no doubt about it. But (senior Dan Yates) is doing a nice job in that weight class right now, so it’s working itself out really well. But no question, he’s a great competitor, and we can’t wait to have him back.”
Huntley couldn’t help but feel good. After a less-than-stellar 17-16 campaign last season, he had charged full force into his junior year with one goal: to be an NCAA All-American. A long shot, Huntley made tremendous strides during the summer, which he spent training in Ann Arbor. The efforts didn’t go unnoticed by the coaches, who named Huntley team captain despite being just a junior and though other teammates had superior records.
“We felt that the way he approached everything and the work he put in showed he had matured a lot,” McFarland said. “He did a great job and was really turning into a great leader. He worked hard all summer, made some great sacrifices to get himself ready for a great year. He was doing well in practice, on his own, in the classroom and we just felt he had the maturity, so we selected him as our captain for the year.”
Responding well to the leadership role, Huntley had cruised to a 4-1 start, looking like the All-American he had long dreamt of becoming. After winning the first round of the Cliff Keen Invitational in Las Vegas 17-5, Huntley was up four points on Northern Iowa’s Kyle Lux. With Lux on his back and a pin well within reach, Huntley clenched his grip, preparing for the kill.
Then, it happened.
A desperation kick by Lux, a shift of weight just large enough to matter, stretched Huntley’s hold, tearing his pectoral muscle. Huntley’s grip released. Though not known at the time, it was Huntley’s last hold of the season.
“It happened quickly,” Huntley said. “He did the kick, and I lost all the strength in my arm and heard a pop, but I didn’t think it was that bad. My left side cramped up and they stopped the match, but I didn’t really know why. My arm hurt, but I thought it was something minor. Then I got an MRI and learned my whole pec was completely torn off, and I’d miss the rest of the season.
“I was really mad for a while, but there was nothing I really could do.”
Wrestling is a sport of quantitative leaps. There’s a clear separation between the elite few in each weight class and the rest of the pack. “Even the rest” is far ahead of even the best high-school wrestlers. The divide and detail-oriented nature of the sport makes it hard for wrestlers to dictate where they belong in the rankings without taking time to rebuild their bodies and refine their skills without significant time off.
The last wrestler to make such a jump was Kellen Russell. After being named All-American as a sophomore, Russell took a long year off, preparing for the leap. The wait paid off: Russell won back-to-back championships to close out his career.
Massa shocked many by nearly joining the elite directly from high school a year ago before falling just short of being an All-American. Now, he’s taking a year off in hopes of mirroring Russell’s success.
“When you’re competing all the time, you’ve got to train smart because you don’t want to wear your body down and be beat up for the tournaments coming up,” Massa said. “We talked about it and thought it would be a good year to just focus on developing my stuff and come back even stronger next year.”
In the gym, McFarland has seen a more focused and driven Massa. That’s translated to an 18-1 record in non-varsity action. But in order to make the leap, McFarland knows Massa will have to do more than just grunt work.
“He’s responded very well,” McFarland said. “But there are some habits we still want him to focus on this year. Training at the right weight, nutrition, all those little things that great athletes do, even outside of the room, add up to being the best you can possibly be. It’s a 24/7 lifestyle; you have to live it every day.
“What we’ve been trying to stress to him is that it isn’t just working hard, which he does, but it’s about doing the little things and living the lifestyle.”
Unfortunate as it is, this isn’t Huntley’s first experience with a season-ending injury. Minutes into his collegiate debut, a fateful turn tore his anterior cruciate ligament, delaying his time as a Michigan wrestler another year. The ACL injury had a longer recovery time, but there’s no doubt the pectoral tear hurts more for Huntley, for he too was ready to make the leap.
“I worked my ass off all last year and all summer thinking that this year would be the year,” Huntley said. “I was ready to make a name for myself, to be an All-American. Before, I didn’t have the confidence to go as far, but this year I had it. Everything was there. To just have it all taken away so quickly is beyond disappointing.”
Despite the setback, Huntley is determined to stay optimistic. With what both McFarland and Huntley deemed a “pretty good shot” at obtaining a second redshirt year, Huntley will likely have two seasons left as a Wolverine. With another year comes another chance to elevate his game.
“This could end up being one of the best things to happen to me,” Huntley said. “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about wrestling, and I have two years left, maybe one. And in no other time in my life are people going to come from all over and watch me compete.
“If I’m a businessman or a lawyer, no one’s going to come watch me write papers all day. It sounds corny, but it’s my chance to be a hero. I’m also starting to realize how quickly you can lose it all too, and I was taking that for granted before. I’m twice as driven now realizing the opportunity I have to do something special.”
The cheers can be heard from outside the gym now. As Michigan freshman sensation Adam Coon slams a Purdue wrestler to the mat, nearly pinning him, the crowd at Cliff Keen Arena rises to its feet.
Among those standing and cheering in the stands is Massa. That glory was once his, but today Massa is confined to a seat behind the Wolverine bench and a uniform of a dark gray hoodie and darker jeans.
Closer to the action is Huntley. He’s remained the team’s captain, and he cheers passionately in khaki pants and a blue polo, an outfit normally reserved for coaches.
As the Wolverines defeat Purdue 22-12 to win their Big Ten debut, the two sidelined leaders of the team remain standing. It’s a tale of two different stories in one long season. One stands in anticipation for greatness to come; the other hopes that an unfair, year-long setback proves to be a mere detour to a long, legendary journey.