By Mike Ricchione
Thirty five tickets to the NCAA Tournament will be up for grabs when the wrestling team hosts the Mid-American Conference (MAC) tournament on Feb. 26 and 27 at the CURE Insurance Arena in Trenton.
Given the short season, NCAA Tournament allocations were given to each conference based on five-year averages from 2016-2020. Head Coach John Hangey was not pleased when the MAC’s number didn’t include the number of qualifiers allocated to the Eastern Wrestling League (EWL) before the two conferences merged.
“I gotta be honest with you, I was disappointed,” Hangey stated. “[The EWL] merged with the MAC last year and we brought seven EWL teams and they didn’t give us any credit for those qualifiers that we had earned in the past. We only got 35. We have 14 teams for 35 spots. That’s not a lot.”
Combining MAC and EWL bids, the average would be 47.4 total bids.
Last year in its first MAC tournament, Rider qualified four wrestlers for the NCAA championships, including its first MAC champion in graduate student Jesse Dellavecchia.
Two Broncs fell one spot shy of qualifying last year in redshirt senior Jonathan Tropea and redshirt junior George Walton. Neither of them was selected for an at-large bid.
Walton didn’t seem to mind not being selected and wanted to go to the tournament, “the right way.”
“I didn’t already make the [NCAA] Tournament so I wasn’t hoping to get in with [an at-large selection] because I didn’t get in already,” Walton said about last year. “I didn’t do my job so I wasn’t hoping for something to put me in if I didn’t earn it the right way. This year, I’m looking to get in the correct way and punch my ticket in.”
There’s not a lot to look at, as Rider only wrestled two conference duals this season, defeating Clarion and George Mason.
Wrestling at 184 pounds, Walton went 2-0 in those duals defeating Clarion’s Max Wohlabaugh and George Mason’s Eli Dickens, both by decisions.
Overall, Walton is 4-1 and has won four straight after suffering a season-opening loss to Binghamton’s Lou DePrez.
The top three punch their ticket to the NCAA’s at 184 pounds from the MAC. There are four MAC wrestlers ranked in the NCAA Coaches’ Poll, Walton, Cleveland State’s DeAndre Nassar, Missouri’s Jeremiah Kent and defending MAC champion Northern Illinois’ Brit Wilson.
Walton has a win over Wilson defeating him via decision, 7-6, last season on Nov. 17, 2019.
As for Tropea, he went 3-0 in the conference, all via bonus points over George Mason’s Josh Jones and Clarion’s Cameron Butler and Blake Jackson at 125 pounds.
With Lock Haven’s announcement that it was entering the MAC Tournament after being shut down most of the season, Tropea could cross paths with Luke Werner. In last year’s tournament, Tropea and Werner battled twice with Werner taking both matches.
The MAC is sending the top four at 125 pounds to nationals.
Dellavecchia, the defending MAC Champ at 157 pounds, will be good to go after sitting out the previous two duals. Dellavecchia went 4-0 in the regular season, all by bonus points.
Missouri’s Jarrett Jacques, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville’s Justin Ruffin and Bloomsburg’s Alex Carida are notable competition at that weight
Senior heavyweight Ethan Laird, gaining more momentum as the season goes, has his next big challenge at the MAC Tournament as he’ll look to come out on top in a field with Central Michigan’s Matt Stencel and Missouri’s Zach Elam.
“We have a plan that we’ve been doing for years and we typically hit that tournament really really well,” Hangey said of the team’s preparation. “We hit it healthy. We hit it hungry and that’s the plan.”
After the MAC Tournament is completed, the NCAA championship will take place Mar. 18 to 20 at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis, Missouri.