PHILADELPHIA — The Michigan wrestling team — with the exception of redshirt junior Kellen Russell — came up short of its personal expectations this weekend at the NCAA Championships.
But all eight members of this very young championship team came away with much more than they could have ever expected — experience on the national stage to prepare for what looks to be a promising 2011-12 season.
Each of the players remarked that what set this tournament apart, aside from the high-caliber talent across the board, was the fans. The team competed in front of the largest crowd of the season.
The Wells Fargo Center was packed to the brim with rabid wrestling enthusiasts, streaking the aisles with their school’s colors all the way up to the nosebleed section of the massive arena. While maize and blue were greatly underrepresented, it didn’t seem to bother redshirt freshman Eric Grajales.
“It’s really a unique experience to compete out here,” Grajales said. “I’ve learned that out here I have to fight through all adversity, and put any blame on myself and no one else. Sure, I would have loved to be on the podium, but that’s extremely rare for a freshman to do. I’m just really excited that I have three more years, and hopefully I’ll find myself at the top of the podium every year.”
Grajales led the charge for the underclassmen this weekend by making it all the way to the quarterfinals, coming up just one win short of the All-American title.
Redshirt freshman Dan Yates had a much tougher time with his competition, losing both his matches to extremely talented opponents by two-point margins. Instead of dwelling on the loss, Yates is already hard at work structuring a plan to get him ready for next season.
“First of all, I need to focus on getting stronger,” Yates said. “I’m planning to stay around Ann Arbor this summer to work with our strength coach. I’m also going to focus on adding new styles to my arsenal. I’ve stuck to one style for my entire career, because it always worked for me. Out here, you need to be ready for anything and everything. I need to be one step ahead of every one of these guys in order to compete where I want to.”
In wrestling, as in most sports, experience and success tend to go hand-in-hand. National champion Russell, like Grajales, had a 2-2 NCAA Championship his freshman year. At his final press conference of the season, Russell echoed the importance of experience and familiarity.
“One of the biggest things is being familiar with where you’re wrestling at,” Russell said. “I thought I had been to big tournaments before, but after stepping foot on the mat for the first time my freshman year here, it was a huge shock to the system … I would tell (my younger teammates) to come and be familiar with here and be confident in their wrestling.”
Michigan coach Joe McFarland was extremely proud of his team this weekend and shares the high hopes and expectations for next year.
“One of the biggest things we tried to concentrate on this season was making sure our young guys competed how we wanted them to compete, and I think we saw a lot of that this weekend,” McFarland said. “The championship experience has been really important for these guys. It’s a great starting point. Kellen didn’t place his freshman year, and look at how much he has achieved. This experience was key to that continued success. I’m really proud of how are young guys competed overall this year.”