By Brandon Scalea
After Chad Walsh’s final match last weekend, the crowd of over 19,000 in the Scottrade Center rose to its feet and roared. The sold-out building wasn’t only cheering for Rider’s junior All-American, though. It was sending off retiring Head Coach Gary Taylor with a tremendous showing of appreciation.
When Taylor took over as head coach in 1978, he told news outlets that he wanted to bring “local and national recognition” to Rider’s wrestling program. This year, his final season, he produced a Bronc team that finished 13-1 in the regular season, took second place in the Eastern Wrestling League (EWL) tournament and left the NCAA Championships with multiple All-Americans for the first time in two decades.
Taylor also eclipsed the 440-win mark this season to pass Minnesota’s J. Robinson for third on the all-time Division I wins list.
“The way he was able to end his career, with two All-Americans and four guys at nationals, it’s just a testament of what he’s been able to do with this program,” Walsh said. “To take over a really small program 39 years ago and have the kind of success he’s had here, it’s pretty amazing. I’m happy that we sent him off the way we did.”
Walsh, at 165 lbs, and senior Ryan Wolfe, at 197 lbs, both finished No. 7 in the nation in their respective weight classes and achieved All-American status. It was the second year in a row that Walsh, who finished No. 5 at 157 lbs last season, achieved this feat. He became just the second wrestler in program history to be a two-time All-American, with the first being current Associate Head Coach John Hangey.
It was the first time for Wolfe, who became the program’s 16th All-American.
Junior B.J. Clagon, who was an All-American as a freshman, suffered an early exit from the consolation bouts for the second year in a row. Junior Michale Fagg-Daves went 0-2 on the weekend.
Day one of the national tournament was a historic one for the Broncs, as they sent three wrestlers — Walsh, Wolfe and Clagon — to the quarterfinals for the first time.
Clagon started as an unseeded wrestler at 157 and won his preliminary match over Colt Shorts of Cal Poly to place into the bracket. Clagon then used a late takedown to upset the eighth seed from Minnesota, Jake Short, 4-2. Later that evening, the junior from Toms River picked up another upset, this time over James Shields of Arizona State. Clagon’s last two wins came on takedowns in the final 30 seconds of the match.
Walsh opened the tournament as the fifth seed and dominated No. 12 Johnny Sebastian of Northwestern in his first match for an 8-0 shutout. In the second round, Walsh met conference rival Austin Matthews of Edinboro for the third time this year. Matthews was the runner-up behind Walsh at the EWLs.
For the third time this season, Matthews couldn’t seem to figure out Walsh. The Bronc earned a pin in 43 seconds to move on to the quarterfinals for the second year in a row.
Unfortunately, Walsh’s bid for Rider’s first national title ended there. He faced fourth-seeded Isaac Jordan, a former national finalist, on day two. Jordan secured a pair of late takedowns to knock off Walsh, 7-3, sending him to the consolation matches.
“Once you get to this level, you start to realize that a lot of these matches are decided by one point,” Walsh said. “They can really go either way. It’s tough that the difference between finishing seventh and potentially making the finals could be a point or two, but that’s the way it is.”
At 157, Clagon had the challenge of facing No. 1 Jason Nolf of Penn State, a national finalist last year and this year’s national champion. Nolf pinned Clagon in 4:07, en route to an undefeated sophomore season. Wolfe also faced the eventual national champion at 197. He fell in a 10-1 major decision to J’Den Cox, an Olympic bronze medalist, of Missouri.
The three losses in the quarterfinal round sent the Broncs to the so-called blood round, where the bottom eight wrestlers in each weight class battle for All-American status. The top four from that group reach the podium.
Walsh secured a 4-2 win over No. 15 Drew Hughes of Michigan State to earn his second All-American status. Wolfe defeated Shawn Scott of Northern Illinois, 10-7, to become the 16th Rider All-American. Both moved into the top eight with the wins.
Wolfe, a fifth-year senior, said he worked his whole life for this achievement.
“The feeling is indescribable,” he said. “Running up to my parents and hugging them in the stands after I won that match was the best feeling of my life. Everything I’ve worked for finally paid off in my final year. It’s a feeling that will never go away.”
Clagon was beaten by Sal Mastriani of Virginia Tech.
On day three, Walsh and Wolfe won their last matches to secure the No. 7 spot in their respective weight classes.
As a team, Rider finished 21st to make the final top 25 for the second year in a row. The Broncs were notably in front of Princeton and several Big Ten schools. Rutgers, which produced a pair of its own All-Americans, finished two spots ahead at No. 19.
Penn State cruised to its sixth team national championship in seven years under Head Coach Cael Sanderson. Five Nittany Lions placed in the national finals and five Nittany Lions went home national champions in an unprecedented showing of dominance on day three.
Walsh said his team aspires to wrestle at the level that Penn State, and other top programs like Oklahoma State and Missouri, reach every season.
“It seems to be the same guys every year that make the finals, from the same programs,” he said. “It’s going to take a really strong individual effort for a Rider guy to make it that far, but it can be done. A few of us had good seasons this year and we were really confident one of us could make it.”
Next season, John Hangey will take over as Rider’s head coach after several years being mentored by Taylor. With two All-Americans returning, Walsh and Clagon, the Broncs will look to do something they’ve never done before — produce a national champion.