Coaches and managers just love setting massive goals for their teams when the season starts. But the truth is, only a few people are able to help their squads live up to those lofty expectations.
Wesleyan wrestling head coach Drew Black has always been such a change-maker. A few months ago, Black entered his 20th year at the helm of the Wesleyan wrestling team as he revealed the team’s motto for the upcoming season: “Believeland.” The Wesleyan wrestlers, on the other hand, have clearly provided a fine explanation of this motto by working diligently toward 2018 NCAA National Championships, which will be held this year in Cleveland, Ohio.
While the team has performed and impressed constantly, the real challenge was the Northeast Regional Championships on Sunday, Feb. 25th. A strong performance at this meet was the only way to earn a ticket to Cleveland. Facing opponents that featured a number of ranked wrestlers, the Cardinals showed tremendous grit and strength to place 3rd out of the 17 teams, sending Devon Carrillo B.A. ’17E, Isaiah Bellamy ’18, and Dominic Pirraglia ’18 to Nationals. Wesleyan (91.5) left the tournament as the highest-ranked NESCAC team, as Williams (61.5) and Trinity (28.5) finished 8th and 13th, respectively.
Six of Wesleyan’s ten starters placed in the Regional Championship. Pirraglia and Bellamy were certainly the biggest surprises for the team. At 147, Pirraglia entered the competition as the 4th seed and battled his way to finishing a notch above his seed. Bellamy, on the other hand, came in as the top seed at 285 (HWT) and claimed the title. Remarkably, both Bellamy and Pirraglia will participate at Nationals for the first time in their careers.
The 3rd wrestler joining them on their trip to Cleveland is Carrillo, who was also placed as the top-seed and dominated the 197 bracket with 2 pins. In his 3rd season wrestling at the collegiate level, No. 7 Carrillo didn’t face too much resistance in the tournament until the final, where he defeated No. 8. DiNardo of Johnson & Wales University in a tough battle. This upcoming weekend will be the third time that the Middletown native competes in the NCAA tournament. In a post-match interview, Coach Black specifically commented on his performance.
“Being the top-seed is earned, but it is also challenging to stay on top,” Black said. “Everyone comes for you to knock you down. Devon was solid and wrestled a good final to put him in a good spot for the Nationals and Isaiah finished with an exclamation point by pinning his opponent in the finals.”
Apart from the three qualifiers, Black also highlighted the performances of the wrestlers who have been excelling all season and were only inches away from a trip to Cleveland. Amir Daouk ’20, who was 16-15 last year, has made great improvements to finish 23-12 this year, earning himself the 5th seed in this bracket. From the consistency he has showed, it is hard to believe that the young wrestler is only in his sophomore year.
In addition, Coach Black expressed his satisfaction over the performance of the other 125-pound competitor, Zack Murillo ’19.
“We made a coaching decision to move Zack Murillo up to 133,” Black said. “Zack had a great tournament as an undersized 125, bumped to 133, and he knocked off the eighth and sixth seeds in the tournament. Unfortunately, it would come down to getting a critical takedown to win a match as he also gave the first seed a tough match and only lost 2-0 to the fourth seed.”
At this critical time of the season, many coaches tend to make special arrangements in training in order to prepare for the most important event of the year. But unlike the practice in other sports, wrestling coaches won’t make much change to the preparation before big tournaments.
“We have been preaching that everything is the same, nothing changes,” Black said. “It boils down to ‘just wrestle.’ Most every coach will say this to their athletes when they step out onto the mat. It means to be in your best positions, it means go score points, enjoy where you are, enjoy what you are doing, and go take what you want and deserve.”
When asked about the what made this season so successful, Black responded that it wasn’t easy to name specifics.
“We talk a lot about culture, durability, and coach-ability,” Black said. “These three factors are essential to having consistent success, improvement, and winning. We have great leadership with six seniors and a team which believed and followed through with working hard, smart, and together.”
Due to the praise the team has received recently, there’s always a concern of complacency, wondering if team members will get used to success. However, Black’s feelings on the subject were firm and definitive.
“No complacency,” Black said. “Our three NCAA qualifiers are focused, hungry, and have been getting better each week of the season, especially this last month of the season. Our team has made significant jumps in their skills, motivation, and drive to compete and wrestle to win. Our aim is to love competing, go wrestle, do what we do best and the outcomes will take care of themselves. I believe that we have very focused, talented wrestlers who are each ready to go out and compete to their highest potential and be high on the All-American podium.”
Black thanked the fans for their support to the program this year.
“We have great fans, alums, parents, and supporters of the wrestling program that attend all of our matches,” Black said. “Silloway Gymnasium is a great place to showcase our wrestling program in front of our fan support. Remember that we are all on the same team. We are on the Wesleyan team.”
Henry Yang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.