By Brandon Scalea
Over the years, Rider athletics has had plenty of success, but has never produced a national champion. Two juniors on the wrestling team represent the best shot at glory the university has seen in years.
B.J. Clagon and Chad Walsh are the 14th and 15th All-Americans, respectively, in the history of the program. This season will be the first time the Broncs have two returning players of such status. It is also the first time Rider has three wrestlers ranked in the national top 12 in their respective weight classes. Clagon is ranked No. 11 at 157, Walsh is No. 5 at 165 and senior Ryan Wolfe is No. 8 at 197.
Clagon said the biggest aspect of being a good wrestler is living a healthy lifestyle.
“It’s all about the grind,” he said. “You have to eat right and stay focused. We all have diet plans that we stick with.”
When the season begins, Clagon said, the team will usually have an early-morning lift or workout, class and then another practice in the afternoon.
For Clagon, this hard work has already led to many achievements. At Toms River South High School, he was a four-time national champion. In the 26 years of high school national-tournament history, only two other wrestlers have accomplished that feat. Clagon’s overall record in high school was an outstanding 155-6.
His freshman year as a Bronc only boosted his résumé, as Clagon was voted Rider Male Athlete of the Year in June of 2015. During the regular season, he became the first in program history to defeat the No. 1-ranked wrestler in the nation, earning Eastern Wrestling League (EWL) Rookie of the Week honors twice.
Clagon went on to win the EWL title at 149, earning tournament MVP and an NCAA bid.
At the 2015 National Wrestling Championships in St. Louis, he became the first Rider freshman to earn All-America honors, finishing fifth in the nation. He went 6-2 in the tournament, with his two losses both coming to the defending national champion from Northwestern.
However, in his 2015-16 campaign, Clagon failed to match the greatness he achieved as a freshman. He said last season he felt as though every opponent was giving him his best shot.
“Coming into a season where you’re a returning All-American is a little difficult,” he said. “You want to be better than you were, but I didn’t do a good job of adjusting. I went into every match trying not to lose instead of going in with a winning mindset.”
Clagon still won 21 matches, giving him 51 wins for his Bronc career. He lost in the EWL final, but still nabbed an at-large NCAA bid. At the 2016 nationals at Madison Square Garden, he upset eighth-seeded Evan Henderson of North Carolina in the first round. He ultimately went 2-2 in the tournament.
Heading into his junior year, Clagon said his coaches have prepared him to be a national champion. He thinks he can get there with a lot of hard work.
“It’s all about baby steps,” he said. “Obviously, being a national champ isn’t something that’s easy to achieve. But our coaches are a big reason why we are where we are as a program. I just need to work on my moves and just keep getting better.”
While Clagon strives to be No. 1 in the nation, Walsh nearly achieved that feat last March. At 157, he was one match away from being the first Rider athlete to compete for a national championship. In the national semifinal, he came up short against third-seeded Jason Nolf of Penn State, who was 33-1 on the year.
Walsh acknowledged it was tough to be that close to making history, but he feels great about what he did accomplish.
“It did hurt a lot to come up just short like that,” he said. “But it’s something I always look back on and I’m proud of it. To be an All-American as a sophomore is something I worked extremely hard for.”
His sophomore season was one of the best in Rider history. He won 28 matches, going 6-0 in conference duals to move his EWL career record to 11-0. Walsh won the EWL title at 157, earning conference Wrestler of the Year honors and his second NCAA bid. The Broncs also won the conference as a team, their first title in 16 years.
At Madison Square Garden, Walsh made a Cinderella-type run. As the No. 15 seed, he upset No. 2 Thomas Gantt of North Carolina State, 11-8, in the second round. In an ESPN-televised match, he then defeated No. 7 Cody Pack in come-from-behind fashion in the quarterfinals, to officially achieve All-America status for the first time in his career.
Walsh’s next bout was a 19-4 loss to the eventual runner-up, Nolf. After a 1-1 performance in consolations, Walsh finished the year fifth in the country.
As Clagon did last year, Walsh will face the hard task of overcoming complacency. He also has the challenge of defending a title in one of college wrestling’s most competitive conferences. Walsh’s goal, like Clagon, is to be the best wrestler in the country in his weight class.
“I write in my notebook every day that I want to be a national champion,” Walsh said. “Everyday I remind myself of that. I’m training to beat the top five percent in the country. When you train big, that’s what makes the difference at the end of the season.”
Wrestlers like Clagon and Walsh are the reason why Rider is on the national radar for college wrestling. Since Head Coach Gary Taylor’s arrival 39 years ago, 107 Broncs have won individual conference titles and 169 have qualified for nationals.
Walsh alluded to 1997, Rider’s best season in program history. The team left the national tournament with three All-Americans and finished seventh in the nation.
“We’re not worried about being overshadowed by big schools like Rutgers or Penn State,” he said. “We’re worried about being the best version of our team that we can be. Our best team ever finished No. 7. This year, we want to finish in the top five.”
The 2016-17 season is set to begin Nov. 6. The tools are in place for a historic year.