In front of 4,000 spectators the top wrestlers from Division II showcased their skills at the sport’s premier collegiate tournament. Unfortunately for the SF State wrestling team, hard work and persistence failed to earn trophies this season.
The Gators have sent at least one wrestler to nationals for the past 49 years; but for the first time in four years, this season’s three representing athletes failed to place in the top eight and achieve an All-American status for the team, despite close losses and high expectations. The National Collegiate Athletic Association Division II Championships in Pueblo, Colo. March 9 and 10, showcased the top 16 wrestlers in 10 different weight classes.
The double-elimination tournament proved daunting for SF State qualifiers Isaiah Jimenez, 165 pound weight class; Dylan Phillipy, 149 pound weight class; and Julian Perez, 133 pound weight class. They all cited mental pressure as a reason for unsuccessful performances.
“Last year we had three All-Americans,” said head wrestling coach Lars Jensen. “At nationals it’s all about who can handle the pressure and perform. They let their nerves get to them a bit.”
Perez faced a difficult draw in his 0-2 tournament mark. He came to nationals ranked eighth and lost 12-4 against Jason Jeremiason. He was unable to rebound against the top seeded Evan Yenelovich, losing the match 8-4.
“Perez didn’t wrestle that well, it was his first time there. He’s got another year left so that’s good,” Jensen said. “He seemed to have jitters. I think he let the situation get to him.”
Despite being the only qualifier with nationals experience, Jimenez also let the pressure of the competition affect his performance.
Jimenez’s matches came down to close calls; all three were decided by two points or fewer. He lost against fourteenth seeded Chris Watson from Central Oklahoma. After defeating Kutztown University’s Micah Bollinger 4-2 in overtime, Jimenez’s tournament appearance came to an abrupt end when in his next match, he lost 2-1 in overtime.
“I just froze up, the pressure got to me. You gotta perform at nationals and I didn’t,” Jimenez said. “I put a lot of pressure on myself going in number three in the country.”
Jimenez was ranked third after winning his weight class at the Regional 4 tournament. He led the team with a 24-8 season record leading up to his second trip to nationals. Despite the disappointing results, Jimenez said that the experience will allow him to calm his nerves for next season.
“Next year I’m not going to worry so much about nationals, just gotta worry about getting better,” he said. “You just gotta look at what you did wrong and fix the little things.”
Phillipy’s tournament experience started off better than Jimenez’s, but ended just as suddenly.
He won his first match against top seeded Ethan Swope, 3-0. However, he was unable to fully capitalize after suffering a narrow loss to Maryville’s John Hagerty, 7-6. Phillipy’s tournament experience ended after a decisive loss to second ranked Nathan Link, 18-4.
“I need to work on creating an offense,” Phillipy said. “It was definitely a letdown, but it’s just fuel for next year. I can’t wait to get back on the mat.”
Jimenez echoed Phillipy’s post-tournament sentiments. Jimenez feels that coming close to All-American status will only help motivate the qualifiers next season and inspire the rest of the team.
“Being so close to being an All-American makes you want it even more,” he said.
Their newfound inspiration will hopefully translate into better success next year, as the combination of greater workout intensity and nationals experience should enable the team to send more wrestlers to nationals.
With a solid recruiting class and the maturation of qualifiers, Jensen thinks next year’s squad could be the best in years.
“Now that we haven’t done well, we’ll have greater incentive,” he said. “They (national qualifiers) can all come back and if we can do some recruiting next year…I think we’ll have one of our best teams in 10 years on paper.”