By Thomas Albano
From earning a national ranking after the season opening Hokie Open/Duals, to a battle with then No. 1 Penn State on regional television, to Head Coach Gary Taylor’s 400th career win, to sending five NCAA qualifiers to Oklahoma City where the team would finish in the top 40 of 72 teams, the wrestling team’s 2013-14 season was filled with memorable moments.
Now, the Broncs, who are in their second season as a member of the Eastern Wrestling League (EWL), already have high expectations before the first match of the new season, as the Associated Wrestling Press has ranked the team 22nd in the nation.
Associate Head Coach John Hangey, ’93, says that the No. 22 ranking is a good way to open the season, but thinks the team can do better, proving last season that they could compete with anyone on any given day.
“Our ranking is a good starting point but not where we want to ultimately end up,” Hangey said. “We will have numerous opportunities to improve upon that ranking with our challenging schedule.”
Four of the five NCAA qualifiers from last season return to the team: juniors Robert Deutsch (125 lbs.) and Conor Brennan (165 lbs.), and seniors Chuck Zeisloft (133 lbs.) and Clint Morrison (184 lbs.).
The 2013-14 season was Deutsch’s first official as a Bronc, following redshirting the 2012-13 season after transferring from Old Dominion. He went on to have a season so successful he was named the male Rider University Athlete of the Year. Deutsch went 32-6 overall, with a 21-1 record in dual meets. Key moments from his last season include finishing runner-up in his weight class at the Keystone Classic, winning the EWL Championships in his weight class and going 2-2 at Nationals.
Brennan went 27-9 overall in 2013-14, going 18-3 in duals with a 6-0 record in EWL duals. He was an EWL Champion at 174 lbs. last season, as he had to move up two weight classes in order to fill an empty spot on the team due to injury. Originally, he was to compete at 157 lbs., but he ended up competing at 174 lbs. He will wrestle at 165 this season.
Zeisloft’s 2013-14 campaign was a rebound one, as he had to redshirt the 2012-13 season due to an ankle injury. He won a total of 24 matches last season, with third place finishes in his weight class at both the Keystone Classic and EWL Championships.
Despite those successes, Zeisloft wished for more than just third-place finishes.
“[The] 2012-13 [season] wasn’t a good year for me but I got through it and had a decent season last year,” Zeisloft said. “But I didn’t end up where I wanted to. We train to be conference champs and All-Americans, not national qualifiers or third place finishers.”
Morrison’s appearance at the national championships last year made him the fifth of his family to represent Rider at the event. Despite missing a month of action due to injury, he managed a 15-3 record in dual meets, and had his own third-place finish at the EWL Championships.
However, Morrison has one important goal in mind: to be an All-American.
“The only thing that can validate any athlete at Rider, and especially for wrestling, is being an All-American,” Morrison said. “That’s been my goal since I started wrestling many years ago, and if that doesn’t happen my career is a failure.”
Rider has two other former national qualifiers on this season’s roster. One is 197-pound senior Donald McNeil, who finished with a 13-8 overall record and 6-4 dual meet record. However, an injury forced an early termination of his season.
The other is 133-pound junior Jimmy Morris, who despite redshirting last season, finished the 2012-13 season with 25 wins and a team-high eight pins to qualify for Nationals. Morris looks to continue the success that started his freshman year, when he upset a wrestler who was ranked 12th in the nation and top-ranked in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA), which Rider was a part of before joining the EWL.
The 2014-15 season might be only the Broncs’ second in the EWL, but their home, Alumni Gym, has already been given the honor by the EWL to host the 2015 EWL Championships on March 7.
“Hosting the EWL Championships this March is a tremendous opportunity for our wrestlers, program and university,” Hangey said. “The EWL is a very prestigious wrestling conference with a long standing history of success producing national champions and All Americans.”
However, the path to the EWL Championship won’t be easy, even for a team that is ranked nationally pre-season. The Broncs will open up the season on Nov. 9 in Champaign, Ill., as they battle with Northern Illinois, Southern Illinois Edwardsville and Illinois. They then will have their first meet at home against Wisconsin on Nov. 20. Out of all their matches in the first two months of the season, the team will only have one conference showdown. That comes at home on Nov. 30 when they square off with Clarion, while also facing the University of Pennsylvania in a non-conference match up later that day.
The rest of the schedule is filled with events that the team usually competes in, including the notable Keystone Classic and Midlands Championships. According to Hangey, the team will wrestle three Big 10 Conference and five top-20-ranked schools. One of these key matchups is the team’s final bout before the EWLs — another battle with four-time defending NCAA Champion Penn State in State College, Pa.
This will mark the third year in a row that the Broncs match up against the Nittany Lions. On Feb. 17, 2013, then-unranked Rider was swept completely by then No. 1 Penn State 48-0 in State College, Pa. On Nov. 16, 2013, things were slightly different as the Broncs had a No. 25 ranking and were the hosts of the televised meet. However, Penn State, still top-ranked nationally, defeated Rider 34-8.
“We feel that we have the team that can handle these challenges,” Hangey said. “It will help them get prepared for the EWLs and the NCAAs. Having Penn State at the end of the year is good for our team as it helps them prepare at a very high level right before the EWLs. It also puts us in an NCAA-like environment of intensity so nothing is too big for our guys.”
Morrison believes the team can be successful as long as they stay out of the trainer’s room.
“The key for our team this season is staying healthy,” Morrison said. “If we can do that and keep our morale high as it is now we can be the best team Rider University has ever had. And what will validate how good we are will be our tough schedule which will prepare us for what really matters in March.”
Finally, those fortunate few Broncs who qualify can earn a trip to the three-day NCAA Championships, which starts on March 19, 2015, at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.
While the schedule looks to be a tough one, seemingly appropriate for a ranked team, Zeisloft has hope that this could be one of the best seasons Rider wrestling has ever had.
“We have a very tough schedule this year but with the amount of talent on our team I believe we can compete with and beat the best teams in the country,” Zeisloft said. “If we stay healthy, I believe we could be one of the best teams Rider has ever seen.”