Armed with an experienced returning nucleus and top-20 nationally-ranked recruiting class, the Columbia wrestling team is looking to make itself known as a force to be reckoned with, both regionally and nationally. In a clear statement of intent, all senior wrestlers featured recently in the Columbia Wrestling Newsletter noted becoming All-Americans as their primary goal for the season. Head coach Brendan Buckley listed some of his goals for the season as winning more dual meets, qualifying more individuals for the NCAA tournament, and, yes, having the cream of the crop compete for the coveted All-American status.
To accomplish these goals, Buckley and the program will have to overcome the loss of junior Ryan Flores, who is mysteriously absent from the roster this year. Last season, Flores was the team’s star, winning 23 straight matches at one point and representing the Lions at the NCAA tournament after a victory at the EIWA Tournament. He was a unanimous first team all-Ivy selection. Also, last year’s group of key seniors has departed, led by Kenji Porter and Derek Sickles, who were top contenders for the Lions in 2008-2009.
Instead, the team will turn to its trio of current seniors for leadership. Cary Aldrich will be called upon to fill the 184-pound weight class. Before he hits the mat this winter, Aldrich will first have to deal with skilled freshman Nick Mills, a three-time Ohio state place-winner and fellow 184-pounder.
Matt Dunn will wrestle at 157 pounds this year after dropping down to fill the 149-pound slot in 2008-2009. Two years ago, Dunn was named a second-team all-Ivy nominee and an NCAA qualifier as a 157-pounder. His main competition will come from another talented freshman, Tyler Sheridan, a two-time California state place winner.
The final senior at 197 pounds is a name familiar to fans of Columbia Athletics. Lou Miller can be found terrorizing opposing offenses in the fall season as a defensive lineman for the Lions’ football team. In the winter, he returns indoors to the wrestling mat, and excels there, too. Miller is fourth in the conference in preseason rankings, following a third-place finish at the EIWA Tournament last year.
Buckley is excited about his two-sport star’s final year of competition: “Lou finished his season on an incredibly high note last year. We have high expectations for him.” However, Miller will face stout competition for his own spot from yet another freshman, Chris Manna, who will represent the Lions at 197 pounds until Miller finishes his football duties. Manna is a heralded wrestler himself, competing for the top-ranked team in the nation, Blair Academy, during his post-graduate year.
Manna proved his abilities in the Blue-White scrimmage recently, clinching an 8-6 victory over heavyweight Kevin Lester with a late takedown. Lester returns to the Light Blue wrestling program after a two-year Mormon mission trip. As a freshman, Lester was an honorable mention all-Ivy honoree. This year he is ranked fifth in the conference in the preseason polls.
In that same Blue-White match, another heralded Columbia freshman made his intentions known. Steve Santos, the crown jewel of the Lions’ star-studded incoming class, narrowly beat out incumbent Nick Standish in a wrestle-off to earn the starting spot in the 149-pound weight class. “It’s close,” Buckley said, “but right now Santos has the edge. I think you’re going to be hearing a lot about him, not just this year but in the years to come.” Santos’ illustrious high school career was highlighted by a sixth-place finish at the Junior National Tournament last summer, which, according to Buckley, is the most competitive youth tournament in the country.
The Lions also carry high expectations for junior Eren Civan (in the 165-pound weight class) and sophomore Andrew Grabfelder (133 pounds). Buckley is hoping for a breakout year from Grabfelder: “We’re really going to be relying on him to compete for us. He’s got a ton of talent. He’s very, very tough and he’s really good from the top position.”
Civan is also poised for a strong season. “We’re excited for him,” Buckley said. “He has a lot of skill, and now he has the confidence he hasn’t had in the past.”
The incoming class was not sitting idle leading up to the school year. “All of the freshman competed throughout the summer time, and the returners stayed here over the summer and came back in better shape,” Buckley said. “We didn’t have to spend too much time building a base. We hit the ground running.”
The Columbia wrestling team enters its season brimming with optimism. It will face some of the best competition the NCAA has to offer including national heavyweights Ohio State and Ivy League rival Cornell.
“We have two months of practice before our first competition,” Buckley said. “We’re definitely eager for payday.”
The Lions open their campaign in Binghamton, N.Y. at the Bearcat Invitational this Sunday. After the season opener, the Light Blue will compete in the Body Bar Invitational the following weekend in Ithaca, N.Y.