The International Olympic Committee has decided to dismiss the wrestling competition in 2020 from their event for the first time since the first modern Olympics in 1896. This gives wrestlers worldwide one more chance to earn wrestling hardware. Similarly, with the Super Region I tournament looming around the corner, senior Golden Bear wrestlers have just one chance to hold a medal and continue to Nationals.
For seniors Mitch Voelker, Giovanni Ortiz, Vinny Campanile and Ricky Pena Saturday could very well be their last competitive wrestling tournament ever. With Olympic wrestling on its final leg, reaching college Nationals is now the pinnacle of success in the wrestling community.
Of the four seniors, Ortiz is the only wrestler with National experience. At 184, he was 1-2 in Nationals last season. Before leaving Pueblo, Col., last years location, he met UFC Champion Benson Henderson, sparking a desire unseen in his wrestling action.
Despite just one senior with National experience, the other three are just as ready to earn some of their own. Voelker is a four-year wrestler, having his best season yet for the Golden Bears. Having never redshirted in four years, this will be definitely be his last three weeks of wrestling.
“I’ve dedicated too much damn time to give up now,” Voelker said. “Partying, staying up late, even girls are on the back burner. Final stretch, you know.”
For wrestlers like Voelker, they’ve been wrestling for as long as the sports has been around it seems. For it all to end in three weeks is still not on their minds. It’s an afterthought at this point.
“Career’s ending is inevitable,” Voelker said. “To earn what you deserve for your hard work is not. I can’t think of anything, just winning. For the first time, I’m confident I can make it all payoff.”
Voelker is one of four wrestlers seeded top six in the 14-team region. With a record of 11-10, Voelker is ranked sixth in Super Region I.
Campanile is the other senior to focus on at the Super Region I tournament. Campanile is having one of the best seasons on the team. Last year, he was just one match away from continuing to Nationals. He led KU in wins (22) and pins (6) this season. Ranked second in the region and eighth nationally, Campanile is expected to continue to regionals and even place this time around.
Other notable Golden Bear wrestlers to watch include junior Evan Yenolevich, sophomore Matt Martoccio and sophomore Ziad Haddad. Haddad, Yenolevich and Martoccio are third, fourth and fifth in wins for KU respectively.
Haddad is seemingly the most likely to place and continue to Division II Nationals. His 21 wins aided to the 10-4 dual record for KU this season. Haddad led the team in major decisions this season with seven and was ranked sixth nationally. In the region, Haddad is ranked first and a future Super Region I champion is expected.
KU returns one Super Region I champion from last season. Yenolevich won this very tournament last season after he cruised through the competition with ease; that was at 133. At a weight class higher this season, this could be a different story.
“The season is a struggle,” Yenolevich said. “Going up a weight is an adjustment, but wrestling is wrestling. And I’m a very good wrestler.”
Yenolevich advanced from the Super Region I tournament last season without the expectation of winning the entire tournament. The same is true this season. His 19-6 record earned him a fourth place seeding this season.
“Last season, I wasn’t the first seed,” Yenolevich said, “But anyone who has seen me wrestle knows I thrive during the postseason.”
After becoming the 133 Super Region I champion, Yenolevich went on to place fourth in the Division II National Championships. He was the only Golden Bear of four competitors to All-American at last season’s Nationals.
The Super Region I tournament begins Friday, Feb. 22 in the Keystone Gymnasium. The 14-team tournament will end the following day with finals beginning at 6 p.m.
KU is ranked fourth among the field behind University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown, Newberry College and Mercyhurst University.
Well-renowned author and wrestler John Irving wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times called “How Wrestling Lost the Olympics.” Irving poses a serious question about the sports fate.
“Will the elimination of wrestling as an Olympic sport hurt wrestling at high school and collegiate programs in the United States?” Irving asked.
“Listen man, that is the last thing on my mind,” Voelker said. “I have worked too hard to worry about something eight years from now. What I know, if you’re at the tournament this weekend, you’d have no idea wrestling was being threatened at all. I can’t wait for the excitement. Anticipation is killing me.”
By Frank Lippincott