You’re not supposed to be able to find the words “Division I NCAA title” near the word “rebuilding.”
For Michigan, this season was all about rebuilding. The Wolverines graduated three All-Americans last year in Otto Olson, Andy Hrovat and Matt Brink. The trio was replaced by three unproven redshirt freshmen – R.J. Boudro, Willie Breyer and Greg Wagner. Another spot opened up at 149 pounds when All-American Mike Kulczycki decided that he was too big for the weight class, and another redshirt freshman, Ryan Churella, stepped up to fill the gap.
Michigan wrestled a total of five freshmen this season at the Big Ten Championships (the afore mentioned four plus Shaun Newton replacing an injured Foley Dowd). To put that in perspective, Michigan wrestled just one freshman last season in 157-pounder Ryan Bertin, and he later went on to become an All-American. This year, Bertin is older and more experienced, but he sits in one of the toughest weight classes in the country.
“I like where he’s at in the bracket,” Michigan coach Joe McFarland said. “He’s going to face tough competition, but I think he can meet the challenge.”
Michigan’s highest-seeded wrestler at this year’s three-day long NCAA Championship in Kansas City, Mo. is 125-pounder A.J. Grant. Grant was the only Wolverine to make it to the Big Ten finals this season. If the favored wrestlers win, Grant will have a tough quarterfinals match against Big Ten Freshman of the Year Nick Simmons of Michigan State. In their meeting in East Lansing earlier this year, Grant needed a last-second score to beat the freshman phenom.
Two Michigan wrestlers barely made it to the NCAA Championships, finishing seventh at Big Tens. This duo, 141-pounder Clark Forward and 174-pounder Pat Owen, will have to battle stiff competition to gain All-America status.
“Getting both of those guys through and qualifying for the NCAAs was great,” McFarland said. “For Clark, that was a monkey off his back, and he felt relieved. The last two seasons didn’t end the way he wanted, and for him to get over that hurdle was great.”
Kulczycki, competing this year at 165 pounds, is unseeded, but could come out of nowhere and surprise some people. An All-American in 2001 who has been battling injury all season long, Kulczycki looked good at the Big Ten Championships and hopes to finish his career on a good note. Kulczycki will square off against ninth-seeded Matt R. King in the first-round, and if he is able to make it to the quarterfinals, Kulczycki would likely face defending national champion Matt Lackey.
Another senior, 197-pounder Kyle Smith, is looking to put the memories of a bad regular season behind him and repeat as an All-American. Smith, seeded ninth, will square off against Wyoming’s Kevin Kessnar in the first round and then against the winner of Cleveland State’s Stipe Miocic and Sacred Heart’s Anthony Reynolds.
Oklahoma State, coached by Olympic gold medallist John Smith, looks like the team to beat this year. The Big Ten has won the last nine years, but may not have the weapons to gun down Oklahoma State.
“On paper, Oklahoma State is clearly the team to beat,” McFarland said.