By Mike Ricchione
As the calendar turns from February to March, the college wrestling world switches from the regular season to the postseason.
For the Rider wrestling team, the first stop on their playoff tour will be Northern Illinois. There, it will compete for the automatic qualifying bids for the NCAA tournament that are up for grabs in the Mid-American Conference (MAC) tournament on March 7 and 8.
One thing different from years past is that Rider wrestlers will have more bids to compete for. This comes from being in a bigger conference — the second biggest in Division I wrestling.
The MAC was awarded 41 automatic bids for this year’s tournament.
Automatic bids for the NCAA tournament are determined by three factors: the coaches’ poll, Rating Percentage Index (RPI) and winning percentage at the Division I level at the weight class.
A conference is allocated as many NCAA tournament automatic bids needed to match the number of wrestlers who meet at least two of the three factors needed for an automatic bid.
To show how this would work, take redshirt senior Jesse Dellavecchia as an example. Dellavecchia meets all three benchmarks as he’s ranked fifth by the coaches, seventh in RPI and has a winning percentage of .929.
Therefore, Dellavecchia counted towards one of the conference’s six automatic qualifiers at 157 pounds.
This does not mean that Dellavecchia automatically qualifies for the national championships, however. He still has to wrestle his way there.
Dellavecchia is undefeated in conference competition thus far and is ranked No. 1 in the MAC Wrestling Coaches Rankings, but has only faced one out of the five others ranked at the weight.
That wrestler was Old Dominion’s Larry Early, a returning All-American who is ranked fifth by MAC coaches. Dellavecchia beat Early, 1-0, during the Broncs’ 22-10 win over the Monarchs on Jan. 19.
Dellavecchia is not worried about wrestling someone he has never faced before.
“That’s how it’s going to be at nationals and that’s the big picture,” Dellavecchia said. “You wrestle guys, usually once a year anyway so just going into it, I’m going to focus on what I do best.”
Redshirt senior Dean Sherry and junior Ethan Laird, who won last year’s EWL conference titles at 174 and 197 pounds respectively, are ranked second by MAC coaches at the same weights.
Sherry and Laird each suffered one loss in the conference and look to avenge those losses in the tournament.
Sherry lost his EWL championship rematch to Edinboro’s Jacob Oliver in a high-scoring affair, 13-11, on Jan. 17. Since then, Sherry has won six straight matches, including two by bonus points.
Laird’s lone loss in the conference came against Clarion’s Greg Bulsak via decision, 8-1, on Feb.16. Although Head Coach John Hangey suggested that Laird was not exactly 100% at the time, he would have sat him if Rider had a larger lead after the match.
Laird did not wrestle in the Maryland dual as Rider forfeited the 197-pound weight class.
Although he did not wrestle, Laird was focused on getting healthy in preparation for the conference tournament.
“I didn’t let those losses affect anything too much,” Laird said. “So I know the stuff that I have is good enough to beat anyone in the country. I’ve just gotten healthy, feeling good, good mindset.”
Redshirt sophomore George Walton replaced Michale Fagg-Daves at 184-pounds this season. He went 6-2 in the conference, including 2-1 against the MAC’s top six wrestlers in his weight class.
Walton occupies the fourth spot in the MAC Coaches Poll.
“George [Walton] had to adapt to the weight class a little bit more because he was 74 [pounds] last year and it’s [the 184-pound weight class] a different style a little bit because they’re stronger but they’re slower and that actually benefits him,” Hangey said.
Redshirt senior Ryan Cloud rounds out the Broncs wrestlers ranked by MAC coaches, slotting in at fifth. Cloud has a 6-2 record in the conference and shattered his career-high in wins with 24. His previous career-high was 17.
Cloud is 1-2 against the top six wrestlers in the conference, with his lone win coming against Clarion’s Tyler Bagoly via pinfall in his last appearance in Alumni Gym.
With Cloud’s last opportunity to qualify for the NCAA tournament looming, he insisted that he isn’t concerned about the pressure surrounding it.
“There’s a little bit of pressure. I’m not too worried about it though,” Cloud said. “I’m confident in my abilities. I’ve worked my [butt] off, and the big thing for me is that I’ve just gotten better at wrestling, and I haven’t put too much pressure on myself to get there [the NCAA tournament]. I’ve just put pressure on myself to get better every day.”
Redshirt senior Pete Lipari was left off the poll at 141-pounds but posted a 4-1 conference record with a win against Old Dominion’s Sa’Derian Perry, who was an All-American in 2018.
Lipari, who transferred from Rutgers in the middle of the season, has gone 9-4 since donning the cranberry and white.
As far as team success goes, Rider will be looking to end Missouri’s run of seven-straight conference titles. In their poll, MAC coaches have Rider tied for second with Central Michigan, who they lost to earlier in the season on Dec. 8.
Coach Taylor returns
Former Head Coach Gary Taylor has been around with the team this season and the team appreciates his presence.
“It’s really cool to see him around,” Dellaveccchia said. “I wasn’t on the team when he was head coach here. He still comes around, helps me out and it’s real cool seeing him around here.”
Coronavirus + Wrestling?
With the coronavirus escalating itself to pandemic level, there hasn’t been any threat to the MAC tournament. Cloud, who is a health science major, doesn’t think that it will impact the wrestling postseason.
“I don’t look too much into all that stuff but I’ve just seen figures of how much bigger the flu is, even this year.” Cloud stated. “Hopefully, it doesn’t touch anyone in the wrestling community at all, especially at such a huge time of the year for us.”
On Feb. 29, the National College Players Association released a statement suggesting that the NCAA’s March Madness Tournament be held without any fans, but no word has been said of the wrestling championships.
“I haven’t heard anything related to that for the NCAA wrestling championships,” Hangey said. “That could be 40-plus-thousand very angry wrestling fans if you make that policy.”
The MAC tournament action is scheduled for 10 a.m. on March 7 and can be streamed on ESPN+.