Newly Knighted

The 13 freshmen that scatter the roster of the Gannon University wrestling team this season have done anything but take down the squad.

With their first duel meet of the season coming Wednesday against Penn State Du Bois in the Hammermill Center, the Knights are leaning on the first-year grapplers to fill the void left by the graduation of Gannon’s all-time wins leader, Zack McKendree, and two former all-Americans, Tony Petrella and A.J. Milanak.

But so far, the newly Knighted wrestlers have been up to the challenge. A mix of true and redshirt freshmen, the group has accounted for 28 of the team’s 45 wins and two of its top-5 finishes throughout the first three Open events of the season.

“We lost a lot of older guys,” said redshirt freshman Adam Weinell, who has already finished third and fourth in the 133-pound division this season. “We knew we had to step up and be a big part of the team.”

They just didn’t know how large of a role they’d play in helping the Knights keep pace with their average of nine victories a season over the past four years. Weinell, who leads the team in wins, boasts a 9-4 record through three opens while seven other freshmen have recorded multiple victories on the mat.

According to redshirt Scott Bulzan, the success has surprised everyone but themselves.

“I expected us to hold our own and come out, compete and do just as well as we did last year,” said Bulzan, who notched two victories in the Buffalo Open on Nov. 11.

Redshirt senior Jose Matos said that the positive impact the wrestlers had this year are a tribute to  effectiveness of coach Don Henry’s program, his ability to recruit hardworkers and the freshmen’s willingness to adapt to it.

“A lot are redshirt freshmen so they had the ability to learn from the older guys,” Matos said. “It shows that coach Henry is doing the right thing. They’re coming in here and beating guys they shouldn’t be beating.”

Despite the hot start, things haven’t been all forfeits and pins for Gannon as the group of freshman had to overcome the mental side of wrestling. Stepping onto the mat with an opponent who’s years older can leave a wrestler overmatched in experience and confidence.

“Oh yeah, wrestling with all those other guys that have been here and have all that experience is tough,” Bulzan said. “You have to be determined to go out there and beat those older guys. You can’t really think about it.”

Whatever practice may have done to tear anyone down, the preseason opens helped build everyone up. Now entering their first dual-meet of the year, the Knights are confident that they can compete with any team.

“We know we practice harder than anyone out there,” Weinell said.

“We know we’re a tougher team overall. Some of the younger guys realized they can compete and win.  The winning and losing has helped bring us together.”

The opens haven’t just prepared Gannon to enter the dual-meet season full steam ahead mentally, but also technically.

“You can see the little habits change that only other wrestlers can see,” said Matos of the team’s development through the season’s first month. “They got their lumps but they were bound to learn. They’re learning a lot faster than I did.”

It hasn’t been just the coaches and current wrestlers who have helped the freshmen develop – even though Weinell and Bulzan praised both groups – as former Knights have also played a role.

According to Bulzan, Milanak has been in and out of practice, showing the younger wrestlers the finer aspects of the sport.

“Those guys were NCAA qualifiers and were really good,” Bulzan said. “It helped just to see their work ethic and the way they worked out. I got to see the way champions practiced.”

It would be wise for the future of Gannon’s wrestling program to take notes from Milanak and others when they had the chance, because, when asked how important this group is the team’s success, Matos was hardpressed to find an answer.

“Man, I can’t even put that into words.”


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