Jeff Marsh made a promise to himself.
Two weeks after losing his starting spot at 157 pounds during a wrestle-off with former teammate Rob Sulaver last season, the Dexter native was a spectator in Auburn Hills for the NCAA Championships. While contemplating how to rebound from a mediocre 10-11 season record, the redshirt junior found his answer while watching Josh Churella during the semifinals.
“I knew that every day in the wrestling room, we had good, solid matches,” Marsh said. “And then I saw guys I had beaten becoming All-Americans and NCAA finalists. And I was like, ‘I should be here. There’s no way I shouldn’t be at this tournament and shouldn’t be an All-American.’ “
This year, as a senior, Marsh fulfilled the first of his vows, placing fifth at the Big Ten championships and qualifying for nationals earlier this month. Now Marsh, along with five teammates, will look to carry Michigan’s momentum from a third-place team finish in the conference championships to this weekend’s NCAA Tournament in St. Louis.
Of those six national qualifiers, Marsh and freshman Kellen Russell are the only two who aren’t returning All-Americans. And with Russell receiving Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors, Marsh is the lone Wolverine lacking the lofty accolades of his teammates – which makes his unlikely turnaround even more surprising.
Marsh wrestled in just 14 dual meets in his previous four years. This season, he has already won 14 dual matches, including an upset victory over then-No. 1 Mike Poeta of Illinois.
Marsh’s quick-strike offense has catapulted him to a 21-12 overall record this season and makes him a dark horse to capture the 157-pound title this weekend.
“When Jeff’s aggressive, when he goes out and stays on the attack, he can beat anybody in the country,” Michigan coach Joe McFarland said. “I want him to keep the pedal down and just keep scoring points. Good things are going to happen to him, and he’s proved that all season.”
McFarland’s confidence in Marsh hasn’t always been this steady.
Marsh considered transferring shortly after losing his starting spot last season. But having just one year of eligibility remaining hurt his stock with potential suitors, so he flirted with quitting wrestling altogether. But his revelation in Auburn Hills sparked momentum few thought Marsh would still be riding one year later.
“When we’d be in the wrestling room, people were yelling, ‘You want a national title,’ ” Marsh said. “Before that, it’d just be a word. Then (after the NCAAs), I had something concrete to put behind the image.”
Marsh recalled feeling pangs in his stomach while driving home from a workout the week after the national tournament, “and it wasn’t for food.” Marsh craved a national title, but his determination was again tested before the season started.
After a vigorous off-season, Marsh was told his scholarship wouldn’t be renewed. But Marsh’s response to the news was even more surprising then the timing of the withdrawal.
“That’s not what I’m here for,” Marsh told the coaches. “I’m here to lead this team to a National Championship.”
Twenty-one victories later, Marsh looks to follow through on his promise.