2003 Freestyle World Team Trials preview at 74 kg 163 lbs

By Gary Abbott | June 06, 2003, 12 a.m. (ET)
Is this the big year for Joe Williams of the Sunkist Kids? Named the John Smith Award winner as the U.S. freestyle wrestler of the year for two straight years, Williams continues to wrestle as if he is the class of American wrestling. A 2001 World bronze medalist, Williams was also fourth at the 1999 World Championships and has won four straight World Cup titles. His pedigree is impeccable, with three NCAA titles for the Univ. of Iowa and an ASICS Tiger High School Wrestler of the Year award from his prep days. Strong, fast, smart and technical, Williams is a proven winner in the prime of his career. What Williams seeks is a World and Olympic gold medal. First, he must still stay on top of one of the more talented divisions in U.S. wrestling. Many of these athletes also have the skills to make an impact on the World level. Learning how to beat Joe Williams will be the most difficult task of their international career. Placing second to Williams at the U.S. Nationals this year was Joe Heskett of the Gator WC, a young star on the rise. A NCAA champion at Iowa State and three-time finalist, Heskett is now concentrating full-time on freestyle. He was a Cadet World medalist as an Ohio youth, and has been a freestyle champion on the age-group ladder. He is already winning medals at international events, capturing the Sunkist International, winning a silver medal at the 2003 Dave Schultz Memorial International and a bronze medal at the 2003 Kiev International in Ukraine. Making the U.S. Nationals finals was a big step forward in his development. Placing third at the U.S. Nationals was Casey Cunningham of the Sunkist Kids, a young star who has considerable freestyle talent and has gained confidence over the past year. Cunningham was second behind Williams in the World Team Trials. He won the gold medal at the Dave Schultz International, beating Heskett in the finals. His bronze medal at the U.S. Nationals certainly a letdown for Cunningham, but something he plans to fix at the World Team Trials. He was the first NCAA champion at Central Michigan Univ., a trailblazer who has Olympic goals and dreams that are quite achievable. Returning to prominence at this division is Byron Tucker of the Sunkist Kids, who placed second behind Williams at the 2001 World Team Trials and is returning to top form. Tucker, a star at the Univ. of Oklahoma, placed fourth in Las Vegas, losing a 1-point match to Cunningham, and will be a serious factor in the Challenge Tournament. Tucker has the ability to put together a strong tournament, and is looking to make the finals once again. Ramico Blackmon of Team Excel, a U.S. Nationals champion at 152 pounds in 2001, moved up in weight and has become a factor. His fifth place at U.S. Nationals this year puts him in position to make a serious run at the championship finals. Blackmon is competitive with everybody at this division. Kirk White of the Dave Schultz WC, a past NCAA champion at Boise State, is also a talented freestyler. White was second at the Pan American Championships this year and also looked strong at the World Cup. The final qualifier from the U.S. Nationals was Donny Pritzlaff of the Dave Schultz WC, who placed seventh in Las Vegas. Pritzlaff won a pair of NCAA titles for Wisconsin, and was a Junior World freestyle champion. When he is competing well, he can match any of the young stars in this division. A strong World Team Trials could help put Pritzlaff back near the top of the list of top contenders. Pritzlaff was ahead of Heskett not very long ago, and lost a close match to him at the Dave Schultz International this year. A new force in the division is Josh Koscheck of the New York AC, who qualified by winning a medal at an international event. A past NCAA champion at Edinboro, Koscheck was also eighth at the U.S. Nationals this year, and has placed well in freestyle events in recent years. Leading the pack of NCAA finalists is Matt Lackey of the New York AC, who claimed the NCAA title for Illinois as a senior this year. Lackey is already a nationally respected freestyle star. He won this year's University National Championships and was eighth at the U.S. Nationals a year ago. The other NCAA finalists who are eligible to participate include Michigan's Ryan Bertin, Illinois' Alex Tirapelle and Lehigh's Troy Letters. At this point, this trio of college athletes have still not made an impact on the Senior level. Joining the pack are Regional champions Clint Musser of CMWC and Joey Clark of the Minnesota Storm. Musser made his name in college at Penn State, and Clark was a Greco-Roman star with the U.S. Marines. Both will have challenges keeping with this deep field of talented stars. Who's it gonna be? Can Joe Heskett remain ahead of his many opponents in the Challenge Tournament for another shot at the best Joe in the nation? Or will somebody else from the strong field earn their way into the finals series? Casey Cunningham will be expected to be in the mix, as will Byron Tucker. Young Matt Lackey could be a disruptive force. Donny Pritzlaff, who many expected would be hitting his stride in this Olympic cycle, must also be given respect. This is a division that makes the "All-Session" pass a great purchase for wrestling fans. Then comes the Championship Series, something that Joe Williams has owned for many years. Williams has already achieved great things in international wrestling, but still has higher goals for his career. To get to that dream, he has to continue to defeat his American challengers. 2003 U.S. Freestyle Nationals results at 74 kg/163 lbs. 1st - Joe Williams (Iowa City, Iowa/Sunkist Kids) dec. Joe Heskett (Grover Beach, Calif./Gator WC), 5-2 3rd - Casey Cunningham (Mt. Pleasant, Mich./Sunkist Kids) dec. Byron Tucker (Norman, Okla./Sunkist Kids), 8-7 5th - Ramico Blackmon (Colorado Springs, Colo./Team Excel) dec. Kirk White (Tacoma, Wash./Dave Schultz WC), 4-2 7th - Donny Pritzlaff (Madison, Wis./Dave Schultz WC) dec. Josh Koscheck (Buffalo, N.Y./New York AC), 6-1 2003 Freestyle World Team Trials qualifiers at 74 kg/163 lbs. National champion - Joe Williams (Iowa City, Iowa/Sunkist Kids) National placerwinners - 2. Joe Heskett (Grover Beach, Calif./Gator WC); 3. Casey Cunningham (Mt. Pleasant, Mich./Sunkist Kids); 4. Byron Tucker (Norman, Okla./Sunkist Kids); 5. Ramico Blackmon (Colorado Springs, Colo./Team Excel); 6. Kirk White (Tacoma, Wash./Dave Schultz WC); 7. Donny Pritzlaff (Madison, Wis./Dave Schultz WC) NCAA Div. I finalists - Ryan Bertin (Ann Arbor, Mich./Cliff Keen WC); Alex Tirapelle (Champaign, Ill./Illinois WC); Matt Lackey (Champaign, Ill./New York AC); Troy Letters (Bethlehem, Pa./Lehigh WC); Regional champions - Clint Musser (Canton, Ohio/CMWC); Joey Clark (Quantico, Va./U.S. Marine Corps); Medalist at Group A Tournament - Josh Koscheck (Buffalo, N.Y./New York AC)