The day before the NCAA Championships began at Madison Square Garden, the six members of the wrestling team who qualified stepped out into the empty arena and took it all in. The venue was a little more cavernous than the 1,650-seated Alumni Gym.
Over the next three days, as the storied venue was filled to the rafters with 19,000 fans from all corners of the nation, sophomore Chad Walsh brought attention to Rider. As the No. 15 seed at the 157-pound weight class, Walsh came one win away from wrestling for a national title. He became the 15th Bronc in program history to earn All-America status, finishing fifth in his weight class.
Associate Head Coach John Hangey said the team as a whole did a good job of blocking out the hype and focusing on the task at hand.
“Obviously, the Garden is one of the most famous arenas in the country, and we certainly took the time to appreciate that,” he said. “But we were there to wrestle, and I think everyone was locked in when it mattered.”
In the first session of the tournament on March 17, Walsh faced Greg Flournoy of George Mason in round one. It was the third time this season he beat Flournoy, who also wrestles in the Eastern Wrestling League. The score this time was a dominating 11-2.
In the second round, Walsh pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the weekend when he defeated North Carolina State’s Thomas Gantt, the second seed, in a match that was televised on ESPN. Walsh’s 11-8 win advanced him to the quarterfinals and gave Gantt only his second loss of the year.
That avenged an overtime loss to Gantt earlier in the season.
“I really didn’t have to train harder or anything like that to be able to win,” Walsh said. “Our first match went the distance, so I knew I could beat him. I was just able to take control of the match better than the first time we wrestled each other.”
On March 18, Walsh officially clinched a spot on the podium when he came from behind to beat Cody Pack, the seventh seed from South Dakota State. Pack led 6-0 after the first period, with eight seconds of riding time, but Walsh responded by picking up 10 points in the second to take a 10-9 lead. He won 11-10, thanks to an extra point from over a minute of riding time.
Hangey said that Walsh’s success was no Cinderella story.
“Chad’s performance does not surprise us,” he said. “We know he’s one of the most talented wrestlers in the country. It may come as a surprise to these fans of bigger programs, and we gained so many fans over the course of the weekend because of him, but he’s just doing what we know he can do.”
The win left him in the final four of his weight class, along with Isaiah Martinez, the eventual national champion from Illinois, third-seeded Jason Nolf of Penn State and fourth-seeded Ian Miller of Kent State.
Nolf, coming into the semifinal match at 33-1 on the season, was the one who separated Walsh from becoming the first Rider wrestler to make it to a national final. Nolf went on the attack from the opening whistle and picked up a convincing win of 19-4. Nolf would lose in the finals to Martinez, who picked up his second consecutive national title at 157.
Walsh knows that Nolf is someone he’ll be seeing a lot of in the future.
“I respect the way he wrestles,” he said. “All of the kids from Penn State are really tough. But in order to beat them, we just have to keep going about our business the way we do. I’m confident we can do it.”
With the loss, Walsh was sent to the consolation bracket, where he dropped to fifth after falling to No. 8 Nick Brascetta of Virginia Tech. It was the second year in a row that the Broncs had a wrestler place fifth nationally, as sophomore B.J. Clagon did it as a freshman last year at 149.
Senior Conor Brennan came just short of his first-career All-America bid. He made a run to the quarterfinals at 165, defeating Jake Faust of Duke and fifth-seeded Jack Rohskopf of North Carolina State.
Brennan was knocked to consolations after a 3-0 loss to fourth-seeded Daniel Lewis of Missouri.
In the consolations, Brennan made it to the blood-round, the round where if you win you’re an All-American, but if you lose, you’re out. He was beaten by Anthony Perrotti of Rutgers. The final score of the match was 5-4, with Perrotti taking the late lead after a controversial takedown. Hangey challenged the original call, believing that Perrotti was outside the circle when he picked up two points, but the call stood.
Walsh said he was very disappointed with the way Brennan’s career ended.
“He’s a guy who worked his butt off to get back to nationals,” he said. “He went up there with one goal in mind, and that was to be an All-American. To see him come one match away, and to lose the way he did, it really breaks my heart.”
Like Brennan, junior Ryan Wolfe was also eliminated from All-America contention in the blood round. He went into the tournament as an unseeded wrestler, and went 3-2 for the weekend. He fell to No. 7 Conner Hartmann of Duke on March 18 to finish his run.
As for the defending All-American Clagon, he went 2-2 in the tournament.
As a team, Rider finished 24th overall out of 72 represented schools. Penn State cruised to its fifth national championship in six seasons under Head Coach Cael Sanderson, with Oklahoma State and Ohio State finishing second and third, respectively.
With wrestlers like Clagon, Wolfe and sophomore heavyweight Mauro Correnti also returning next season, Walsh sees the Broncs heading in a positive direction.
“We’re going to keep getting better,” he said. “This year, we had six guys represent us at the NCAAs. Next year, we’ll have 10.”