When the Michigan wrestling team travels to Las Vegas for the 34th annual Cliff Keen Collegiate Wrestling Invitational, it will find no shortage of links back to Ann Arbor.
The Wolverines have joined top teams from around the country in Las Vegas since December 1983, when head coach Joe McFarland was a junior on the team.
“It was real competitive when we started coming to the tournament,” McFarland said. “There were a lot of really good teams like there are today. I lost in the finals my junior year, and I wrestled a really good match my senior year and won it. Obviously you always have better memories when you win, right?”
The invitational, named after legendary Wolverines coach Cliff Keen, was started by former Michigan wrestler and three-time NCAA champion Mark Churella Sr. while he was serving as the head wrestling coach at UNLV.
Churella’s son Josh, a three-time All-American for the Wolverines, is currently an assistant coach for the Wolverines and is headed back to the tournament he spent his childhood attending, while his brothers Mark and Ryan, also former Michigan wrestlers, will be helping Churella Sr. run the event.
“It’s a neat deal for me now,” Churella said. “I grew up going to the tournament, and then I competed at the tournament, and now I’m able to coach at the tournament. It’s a pretty cool dynamic.”
For the wrestlers, the tournament provides an early-season measuring stick against a high level of competition that the Wolverines may not see again until the NCAA Tournament.
Most of the Michigan starting lineup will be competing in the tournament, including returning All-Americans Rossi Bruno, a senior, and Conor Youtsey, a redshirt junior. Bruno and sophomore Alec Pantaleo will be looking to improve on their runner-up performances from last year's tournament. However, the Wolverines will be without juniors Brian Murphy and Adam Coon, who are out with unspecified injuries.
“Everybody in the Big Ten knows each other,” Bruno said. “They know how each other wrestles. At this tournament, you draw from a wide variety of different styles of wrestling from all parts of the country, and you might run into somebody that you have no clue who it is. For me, that’s a big positive.”
Added McFarland: “There are a lot of quality kids here, kids who are highly ranked from across the country, so it’s going to be a challenge for our guys. For the most part, this is our first opportunity this year to compete in a big-time tournament like this against some of the top-ranked teams and nationally ranked individuals. We want our guys to see where we’re at this point in the season and then build from there.”
Despite flying to the West Coast and facing diverse competition, the Wolverines will find maize and blue connections everywhere.