Earning a spot in the NCAA Division II National Wrestling Championships is no easy feat. It takes two things in particular: preparations and proper partners. Two pairs of KU wrestlers proved just that this past weekend by sending four wrestlers to Nationals from the Super Region I qualifying tournament.
“Give ‘em a reason to quit,” says Coach Kriss Bellanca before the team steps out to compete.
Senior Vinny Campanile heeded these words as he went on to win the entire tournament at the 197 weight class. His partner, sophomore Ziad Haddad, would walk out a match after him to compete in the finals too.
Becoming the 197 Super Region I Champion is a long journey. Campanile didn’t place last season and was ranked just third in the bracket. On his way to the finals, he first defeated the sixth seed from West Liberty University by fall in 3:32.
Joe Grisko, his second competitor from North Carolina Paulsboro, was familiar to Campanile as they both wrestled around the same weight in New Jersey. Grisko had taken second in NJ States, Campanile’s highest finish was fourth. However, this time, Grisko was his ticket to Nationals. The neck-and-neck match ended with 1-0 victory for Campanile, sending him to Nationals for the first time in his career.
“After the semis match, when I made it to Nationals, “ said Campanile, “I remember stepping on the line to shake hands [after I won the match] and thought to myself, ‘I’m going all the way this year.’”
Soon after his victory, Campanile was on the mat again for first place against the fifth seeded Chase Long. He defeated Long handily 4-0 and became KU’s lone champion of the Super Region I tournament.
Campanile said after winning in the finals, “[This] Region title was the best feeling in the world. Training and all the time I put into this finally showed and got me to the top of the podium.”
Haddad, the 285 wrestler, was Campanile wrestling partner all season. The two pushed each other to the finals and onto Nationals. Haddad mopped the mat with his first opponent, getting a pin in the first period. This was expected with the first seed. The second match was much closer, but Haddad controlled the action with a 2-1 victory.
To reach the finals and nationals, Haddad defeated the fourth seed dominantly 12-4. Unfortunately, Haddad was not full strength going into the finals. Due to a prior rib injury that occurred during practice, Haddad was not full strength for the finals. He would later lose to take second, but expectations are still high for Haddad in Nationals.
“Wrestling with Z [Haddad] this season was the best for me,” Campanile said. “He is so smart on the mat and is nationally looked at as one of the best.”
The other pair of wrestlers moving onto Nationals came from the 141 and 149 weight classes. Junior Evan Yenolevich and senior Mitch Voelker earned themselves spots at nationals after the weekend was over. Yenolevich reached national for the second time and Voelker for his first.
Voelker was by far the talk of the tournament from KU fans. Having never had winning season until now, his chances of advancing were slim. With the sixth seed, he needed to take fourth to advance. His first match seemed to shed light on this fact as Voelker wrestled a rather stagnant match against the third ranked opponent. Voelker didn’t take any shots and basically let his opponent beat him 6-1.
Losing the first match of a tournament is difficult, especially if it’s your last tournament ever. With doubt in his heart, Voelker needed something or someone to boost him to Nationals. His mom came through with just that.
“She swore at me,” Voelker said. “She never swears. I was scared. She just said ‘you better wrestle this time’ and I did.”
This sent the 149 wrestler on a tear. His first match after losing was finished early by technical fall 18-2. The very next match would be a tad close, but still a major decision victory 10-2.
This left one man standing in Voelker’s way before the consolation finals and a trip to Nationals. His opponent was returning All-American Jack Bachman, who had defeated him twice prior to their third meeting. Voelker wasn’t scared and figured “third times the charm.” Had you never seen the two wrestle before, you would have never known Voelker lost twice before. He dominated the match, scoring at will, winning 13-6 to advance.
“I’ve been in that situation hundreds of times,” Voelker said. “I went out there expecting to win [in the first round], but my body didn’t correlate with my mind. I guess it’s nerves, but I shook those quick.”
Without the pressure of advancing on his shoulders, Voelker wrestled another excellent match in the finals and took third place with a 4-1 decision. His partner, Yenolevich, couldn’t have been happier.
“This was the first time in our lives that Mitch placed higher than me in any tournament,” Yenolevich said. “I’m so proud of him and I feel our work effort together made it happen.”
Returning All-American Yenolevich had a tough tournament and field to compete with. All three opponents that placed higher than him were nationally ranked in the top eight and are expected to be All-Americans this season. His only two losses on the day were from the number one wrestler in the nation and a two-time All-American, both of whom seemed oddly oversized for Yenolevich.
Despite losing and taking fourth, Yenolevich had an excellent tournament. He won three matches; two by decision and one by technical fall. He took fourth place, but is expected to do much better in Nationals. Yenolevich will be the only KU wrestler heading into Nationals with experience being there. He took fourth last season. His partner had nothing but good things to say on his behalf.
“I legit can takedown everyone else in the room,” Voelker said in regards to Yenolevich. “It’s very rare to score points on Yeno. He’s my teacher. I’m his Padawan.”
The qualifying Golden Bears have two weeks to prepare for their chance to All-American. The team’s motto before going to Alabama to compete is this: you don’t need to have better accolades or record, you just have to be better than him for seven minutes.
By Frank Lippincott