It seems like a long while ago, but it was only two seasons ago that MTSU Wrestling finished as the NCWA National Runner-ups on the strength of 6 NCWA All-Americans and 2 NCWA Mid-Atlantic Conference champions that left them behind only National Champions Liberty University. Heading into last season, the program was left with the unenviable task of trying to replace 5 of those 6 All-Americans and 6 seniors in all. No small task, but with a strong recruiting class and a now-experienced group of sophomores and juniors that accounted for starters in 7 of the NCWA’s 11 weight classes, it was a task that seemed to be not only attainable, but more a matter of when, not if. That was until the mid-point of the season, when the proverbial bottom seemed to fall out for the 2015-16 campaign.
Following an uncharacteristic rash of injuries, departures, and missed weights at key events, MTSU sent only 6 wrestlers into the NCWA Mid-Atlantic Conference Championships, qualifying 5 of them for the NCWA National Championships to close out the season. It was a team low for both since 2008, but despite the low numbers MTSU still finished the season with 2 Conference Champions in sophomores Tyler McClendon (197) and Austin Wells (285) with fellow sophomore Lawrence Cotton missing the top of the conference podium narrowly, making the 165lb finals. Wells was also joined by freshman Mike King (157) as NCWA All-Americans following their 4th and 8th place finishes at the National Championships to close out the season in Allen, TX with an 8th place team finish, the lowest in three seasons.
“We were good last year,” assistant coach Troy Steffy said of the season. “But you’ve got to be healthy before you can be good, and we couldn’t seem to pull that off.”
Now, with the entire offseason to get healthy at key spots for the returning wrestlers, this season’s recruiting class and in-coming transfers could push the Blue Raiders back into contention this season.
East Hamilton High stud Briar Potter and University of Memphis All-American and Conference Champion Byron Smith join redshirt Sophomore Cage Hargrove at 125. Since the NCWA Mid-Atlantic Conference only allows two wrestlers per weight class to qualify for nationals, it seems likely that one of the three wrestlers will bump to 133 by the end of the season to fill the void at 133 left by injured freshman Kaleb Gonyea, who may be out deep into the season should he return.
Wilson Central stand-out Nick King joins All-American and 2013 Conference champion Carlos Garcia at 141lbs. The two will likely split time at the spot to give King college experience and to keep Garcia healthy to close out the season.
There will be two new additions at 197 this season with incumbent Tyler McClendon bumping up to 235lbs this season. 2016 TSSAA AAA 195lb State Champion Brett Brown, a member of last season’s Bradley Central state championship team, joins Newberry College transfer Sean Kennedy, a former 2-time state champion and Super 32 All-American in an embarrassment of riches at that weight.
“The incoming class was small this season,” Steffy explains. “But when you add these guys with the ones we have coming back from injury or redshirts, we look really nice. We only have one senior in Los (Carlos Garcia), but we have 4 All-Americans on the roster and 4 conference champions. If you combine that with what some of the new guys have accomplished, then we have a lot of guys that have been in a lot of big time matches. It should be fun. We are all really excited.”
With due reason. Hargrove along with Jonathan Stickler, Jordan Russell, Tyler Chatman, and Jon Silveri, all missed the conference championships last season. Josh Feuerbacher and Daniel Devers also both wrestled with nagging injuries in the postseason that prevented both from finishing the season the way they would have liked. With the entire roster returning and key incoming additions, it looks like another strong finish could happen in Murfreesboro.