Beat the best to be the best
Mavs' quartet draws tough opponents at wrestling nationals
Despite two of his four wrestlers drawing the top-ranked wrestler in the nation in the first round of the NCAA Division II nationals, Colorado Mesa coach Chuck Pipher likes the Mavs’ chances.
“You bet,” Pipher said of CMU’s goal of finishing with top-three finishes and All-American status by Saturday night at the Division II Winter Sports Festival in Birmingham, Alabama.
“Some of these guys have 40, 50 matches and wrestled in big tournaments, Reno, Kearney, UNC, against a lot of DI programs. I know their expectations and my expectations and that’s to come out of there with two, three or four All-Americans. I know that’s what they’re striving for.”
Sophomore 133-pounder Juaquin Olivas (7-8) drew Michael Labry (31-1) of Ashland University, Ohio, in Friday’s opening round.
“Juaquin has a tough draw, the guy’s No. 1 in the country, but you’ve gotta go out and wrestle,” Pipher said. “Juaquin is dangerous as well; he can surprise some people.”
Olivas was injured much of the season, but once he got on the mat, he was a tough out in tournaments. He lost his first match at regionals and had to come all the way back through the consolation round to get to the third-place match, placing fourth. The sophomore transferred to CMU from Grand Canyon University after the Lopes dropped wrestling.
Jason Buhr (33-12) faces top-ranked Isaiah White (20-2) of Notre Dame, Ohio, in the first round at 165 pounds. White upset former No. 1-ranked Frank Mizia of Mercyhurst, Pennsylvania, in their regional title bout. Mizia is now ranked No. 2.
“Buhr has a good, tough draw. The guy he has ended up beating the No. 1-ranked guy in the nation in the finals of their region,” Pipher said. “It’s a tough draw, but Jason, when he goes out there, it’s seven minutes of fury. You never know what’s going to happen.”
They call him “Buhrricane” for a reason. The sophomore spent much of the season in the national rankings, but had a rough week during the RMAC championships, and then ended up going 4-2 and placing fourth in the region.
He had to wrestle for the fourth qualifier spot, and was nearly pinned before he reversed his opponent and pinned him to reach the national tournament for the first time.
One other first-time national qualifier, Bruno Nicoletti (31-14), is also a guy who can surprise people. The junior faces third-ranked Adam Cooling (32-2) of Minnesota State in Friday’s first round at 174 pounds.
“I’d say most of the time in my matches, points come easier to me when I haven’t wrestled an opponent before, when they don’t know my style,” Nicoletti said. “Usually that’s when I get my big wins.
“I took those close matches but came out and was able to qualify. That’s all I could hope for. Win by a point or by 10, still get that victory.”
That’s the mindset this weekend for every wrestler — win close or win big, but just win.
The one experienced wrestler in CMU’s contingent, senior Daniel Salazar, knows that’s the only way to go into the national meet. This is his third and final trip to nationals, and the Mavs’ 141-pounder from Palisade wants to make it count.
“That first time you know you’re a little star-struck, like any big tournament,” he said. “Being there twice now, definitely there’s pressure going in, but I feel I’ll be able to handle it better.
“The first couple times you make it you don’t expect to do anything, but being there for the third time now, and it being the last time I’ll get to go and get something done over there, it’s a different kind of pressure.”
Pipher hopes the Mavericks’ training program, which gave them time off to get healthy before the regionals, and a balance of rest and good workouts in the 10 days between regionals and nationals will have all four peaking.
“There’s a happy medium,” Pipher said. “It’s 10 days; you can’t give them 10 days of easy practice. You’ve got to get them in there and be productive. Then once you go on the road it’s trying to keep them healthy and in shape and their weight down.”
Salazar (27-9) drew sixth-ranked Chris Eddins (27-9) of Pittsburgh-Johnstown.
The other two wrestlers in Salazar’s quarter of the bracket are unranked. Salazar was No. 7 until placing fourth at regionals, then fell out of the rankings this past week.
“I’m glad that we all had pretty rough goes at regionals,” Salazar said. “From here on out, everybody you wrestle is one of the top guys in the country. There’s not a lot of room between the No. 1 and No. 16 guy, every match will be tough. It will get us ready to go.”