FEATURE Colonial Athletic Association wrestlers battle for limited opportunities to qualify for NCAA ChampionshipsIt is conference weekend in Div. I college wrestling, and the qualifying meets for the NCAA Championships (except for the Pac-10 Championships) are being held across the nation. Of all weeks of the college season, this one may be the most stressful. These are the tournaments that determine which wrestlers qualify for the NCAA Championships.
In the "major" conferences, the name of the game is to qualify as many wrestlers as possible for the NCAA Tournament, in order to have a better chance for a high team placement a few weeks later. There are more qualifying spots in some conferences, based upon past performance by their schools at the NCAA event as determined by an NCAA formula.
In some cases, the pressure to perform may be higher at the less prominent conferences, which have fewer qualifying spots. Although the field may not be as difficult in these meets, there is less room for error. Each individual knows that he must have a peak performance in order to advance to the next level.
One such conference is the Colonial Athletic Association, which is holding its annual championships at Drexel Univ. in Philadelphia, Pa. The conference includes one nationally prominent program, Hofstra Univ., which ended the dual meet season ranked No. 21, led by a number of nationally-ranked individual athletes. Two of Hofstra's wrestlers who are considered favorites to become All-Americans this year are No. 5 Mike Patrovich at 174 pounds and No. 8 Jon Masa at 149 pounds. Coach Tom Ryan has built a program that is now consistently competing on a national level.
This is an 11-team conference, with a number of respected programs and some talented individuals. Currently, the CAA has 23 qualifiers for the NCAA Championships. The teams have decided that the top two athletes in this tournament will qualify for the NCAAs, plus three wildcards selected after the championships.
The dream of competing in the NCAA Championships is the same for every Div. I college wrestler, regardless of conference.
Every athlete knows that if he makes the CAA gold-medal match, he will punch a ticket to Oklahoma City, Okla. for the NCAA Tournament at the Ford Center, March 16-18. That means today, the first day of wrestling, a wrestler needs to end the day unbeaten. The high-pressure semifinals are held on Saturday morning, and anybody who does not win there has to go back into the wrestle-backs and work back for third place and a 30% chance at a wildcard selection.
Everybody expects the athletes from Hofstra to do well for coach Tom Ryan. A few other programs come into the meet with high expectations. Rider, under coach Gary Taylor, was the last team other than Hofstra to win this conference tournament. Drexel, with Coach Jack Childs, has shown great improvement, setting a season dual meet win record this year with 20 victories.
"We have nine wrestlers here and I expect to get nine qualifiers," said Ryan. "If we wrestle to our seeds, we will have nine."
Some of the other teams are pumping up their programs. Old Dominion has brought in nationally-respected high school coach Steve Martin from the famous Virginia Martin family, and has made waves in recruiting circles. Binghamton, which dropped wrestling a few years back, was revived through support from the governor of New York and has hired a top young coach in Tony Robie to rebuild the team. Other teams in the conference have respected coaches, including wrestling legend Carl Adams at Boston University and 2004 Olympic Greco-Roman coach Andy Seras at Sacred Heart. Things are looking up at within CAA wrestling.
The number of NCAA qualifiers at this tournament is a hot subject for the coaches in the conference, who have seen the number drop in recent years. At one point, when the current conference was formed with the combination of the old East Coast Wrestling Association and the CAA, there were 30 qualifiers. Last year, they had 24 qualifiers, and now are down to 23. This is happening at a time when the conference may be getting stronger in terms of competitive wrestling.
The NCAA allows only 330 wrestlers in the national tournament each year and the qualifiers are divided up based upon a formula that is designed to measure performance. A key to this is how many athletes each conference place in the top 12 at the nationals. However, many will point out that the conferences that have more qualifiers have a better chance to get their wrestlers in the top 12 and retain or expand their numbers.
"We are not in the worst situation as a conference, but the situation isn't good. It doesn't improve for the smaller conferences," said Ryan. "With the formula, it doesn't take into consideration that the teams are getting more scholarships here. Hofstra went from six to 9.9 scholarships. There are other teams in the conference that are getting more support, also. As the school gives the team more money, it takes awhile for the performance to go up. Last year, 20% of the kids from this conference were in the top 12 at the NCAA meet."
Seras believes that the number of qualifiers may be close to what it might deserve at this time, but notes that the teams and athletes in the conference are continuing to improve.
"It may take a few years but it is getting stronger. The commitment of the administrations in the conference is making a difference," said Seras. "Everybody is fighting to get better."
Adams, who serves on the Rules Committee, understands the challenge in deciding who gets to attend the NCAA meet, but has to deal with the reality that his team faces.
"The way I look at it, if I get two or three athletes through to the NCAAs, it is a good year. Hofstra will have eight or nine qualifiers, so that leaves 14 spots left for 10 teams. It's not anybody's fault. It is that the NCAA only allows 330 spots. In the CAA, you have five or six fully-funded teams, and others who have funding. You have a lot of quality kids. It is hard to get to the finals. And you must make the finals. You can't count on getting the the NCAAs if you don't make the finals with only three wildcards. It is just very tough to qualify," said Adams.
There are some hotly contested weight classes in this tournament, where some quality Div. I athletes may be unable to advance to the nationals based upon the sheer numbers.
Coaches concur that the 197-pound division is the most loaded this year, and has numerous quality wrestlers. There is one athlete who is currently nationally ranked, No. 19 Adam Wright, a senior from Old Dominion. However, TJ Morrison of Rider, Chris Weidman of Hofstra and Jon Oplinger of Drexel have strong records, and one or more of these wrestlers may not advance to the NCAA meet.
Childs uses his wrestler Oplinger as an example of how tough it is for an athlete to qualify for the NCAAs at a deep weight class here.
"He's seeded fourth in the CAA," said Childs of his 197-pounder Oplinger. "This year, he was ranked No. 19 nationally at one time. He beat the 16th ranked wrestler from Lehigh in the dual meet recently. That shows the depth of this conference."
Childs has issues with the way the NCAA allots its qualifiers, and how it affects the teams in his conference.
"The formula is inequitable," said Childs. "We have 110 participants and we take 23. The Big Ten has the same number of wrestlers and takes 76. We have to rework the formula. We want the Rules Committee to use their head and do what's right for wrestling. The NCAA won't relent on adding more qualifiers for the NCAAs, even if the teams pay their own way."
Once the CAA Championships are over, the intense rivalries between the teams goes away. The coaches and athletes will start rooting for each other at the NCAA meet. For the CAA to get back some of the lost qualifiers, the athletes who emerge from this tournament have to get the job done at the NCAAs in two weeks.
Consider Payam Zarrinpour of Sacred Heart, who is currently ranked No. 10 in the NWCA/Intermat national rankings. Zarrinpour is a junior who came to the United States a few seasons ago from Iran, where he was a national-caliber Greco-Roman star. Zarrinpour had to learn the American folkstyle wrestling when he came here. He had a strong NCAA Tournament last year, falling one match short of All-American honors. Zarrinpour was a third at the Midlands Championships this year and has improved. Sacred Heart has not had an All-American in its wrestling history, and Zarrinpour is hoping to become the first this year.
"He still has all the weapons he has always had, the upper body, explosiveness and the ability to pin," said Seras. "He has added much more. He has better fundamentals. He is more familiar in all positions, but especially on the top."
If Zarrinpour is able to place at the NCAAs this year, Seras says it will help his program tremendously.
"It would be getting to the promised land," said Seras. "It would mean that we can compete with the best in the country. Hopefully, then our administration would support our program even more. Once the ice is broken, everybody will feel it is attainable. It is just so tough to break the ice."
Drexel was able to crack that barrier two years ago, when it earned its first All-American after lightweight Rob Rebman placed at the NCAA Tournament. It was a cause for celebration at the college and big boost for the program.
"It showed we broke the ice, and that it was possible," said Childs. "Four times before, we were in the top 12 but did not get an All-American. It had a positive effect on the athletes in the program at that time, and in recruiting, it has brought many others into the program."
Regardless of what CAA teams take wrestlers to the NCAA Championships, it will be the 23 individuals who travel to Oklahoma City who will carry the banner for the entire conference.
Ryan indicated that the conference coaches are considering changing the way it picks its qualifiers, taking the 10 champions then selecting 13 qualifiers. They are watching how other conferences determine their selections and taking another look at their procedures. The coaches know that whoever gets to go to the nationals will have to do the job if the conference is ever going to get more qualifiers.
"We are trying to get the best 23 guys at the nationals," said Ryan. "That is the goal of this tournament."
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