Toledo Earns Two Finalists, First National Champ since 2008

March 21, 2018 | Bryan Knepper

The NCAA-D1 Wrestling Championships just wrapped up this past weekend at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.  Penn State won their 7th National Championship in the last 8 years besting The Ohio State by single digits for the crown.  The crowds were huge, the matches were hyped and lived up to expectations, but there was a lesser known tournament that proceeded it the weekend before at the Allen Event Center in Allen, Texas…home of the D1 Most Outstanding Wrestler, Bo Nickal.

From March 8-10, 2018, 464 men and 80 women competed in the National Collegiate Wrestling Association’s (NCWA) 21st National Championship.  These athletes are not as well-known as their D1 brethren but they spend countless hours working their craft on and off the mat to excel, earn a berth to Nationals, and win All-American honors.  The University of Toledo Rockets sent 7 men to the Great Lakes Conference tournament on February 24th and all 7 of them earned a berth to the National Championships 2 weeks later.  Those qualifying for Nationals were David Chavez (So, 125 lbs, 4-15, 3rd place), De’Ante Evans (Captain, Jr, 133 lbs, 26-9, 3rd place), Zach Blevins (RSFr, 149 lbs, 27-3, 1st place), Ben Huff (Captain, Jr, 157 lbs, 15-21, 4th place), Taylor Workman (Sr, 165 lbs, 21-7, 1st place), Dominic Vasquez (Fr, 184 lbs, 17-8, 3rd place), and Michael Frias (So, 285 lbs, 6-19, 6th place).  Taylor Workman won the Conference Championship for the 3rd consecutive year and was voted Most Outstanding Wrestler for the 2nd year in a row.

The Rockets traveled to Allen, TX with 7 team points already in the bag coming off the team’s 10th place finish at the National Duals in January hosted by Liberty University.  The team battled for a top-10 spot in the NCWA-D1 standings the entire tournament but ended up finishing in 13th place overall with 62.5 points, just one spot behind conference rival Grand Valley State University.

De’Ante Evans (Jr, had a very strong tournament at 133 lbs as the #6 seed overall in the 41-man bracket.  He started out in the Round of 32 with a pin over Rhett Plemmons of Clemson in 57 seconds, followed by a very close Round of 16 matchup with #11 seed Blake Justis of Liberty winning 4-3.  On day 2, De’Ante opened with a 6-2 decision over #14 seed Kollin Johnson of The Apprentice School to advance to the Semi-Finals and secure his second All-American season (Evans finished 4th for Defiance College as a Freshman and one match away from AA in 2017 for the Rockets).  Friday night’s semi-final matchup pitted Evans with the #2 seed Noah Gilbert from Queens University of Charlotte (a full scholarship NCAA-D2 program transitioning within the NCWA this season).  He was able to hold on to a very close 2-1 decision to become Toledo’s first National Finalist since Adam Murray’s 3rd National Championship in 2008.  The finals match wouldn’t end the way Toledo planned with De’Ante dropping a 3-1 decision in the last 20 seconds of the bout to conference rival and #1 seed Arthur Payne of Mott Community College.  Evans previously lost 16-0 to Payne at Conference but had won a dual match in November against Payne 9-6.  That match can be viewed here: 133 NCWA Finals - Payne vs. Evans

Next up on the Rocket’s docket was Zach Blevins at 149 lbs, a redshirt freshman from Dundee H.S. in Michigan (transfer from Eastern Michigan).  Zach won a bunch of matches this season including winning the Ben McMullen Open and placing 7th at the Mount Union open against Big10 and NCAA-D1 and D2 opponents.  There were high expectations for Blevins as he came into the tournament as the #2 seed, with his only loss in the NCWA to the #1 seed Jay Sheppard of Emmanuel College (another NCAA-D2 program transitioning through the NCWA).  Blevins won matches on day 1 over Tristen Roderick of Florida (pin in 2:08) and #15 seed Taylor Dawal of Colorado State (pin in 1:05).  On day 2 he continued his success with a Quarterfinal win over #10 seed Tyler Weiss of BYU 7-4.  This set him up against the #4 seeded wrestler Martin Mitchell of UMBC.  Mitchell started off up 2-1 after the 1st period but a reversal and 4-point nearfall gave Blevins a 7-3 lead going into the 3rd period.  Mitchell would mount a wild comeback but come up short to Blevins 13-11 advancing the second Rocket into the National Finals on Saturday.  Blevins did NOT disappoint taking his opponent, unseeded Tyrae Carter of Texas A&M down to his back in the first 30 seconds of the match and almost coming away with the pinfall.  Blevins would hold on to win 10-4 becoming Toledo’s first National Champion since 2008.  That match can be viewed here: 149 NCWA Finals - Blevins vs. Carter

Ben Huff was the Toledo Rockets representative at 157 lbs.  Huff was awarded a forfeit victory in the Round of 64 as his opponent did not make weight.  He faced #4 seed Dan Vossbein of West Chester University (PA) in the Round of 32 going down in defeat by technical fall.  Huff would bounce back and win a tough consolation match against James Leuci of UMass 4-2 before being eliminated at 2-2 by #20 seed Jacob Proffitt of BYU.

Senior Taylor Workman was making his 4th appearance at the NCWA National tournament finishing t-13th in 2015, 4th at 165 in 2016 as a Sophomore, and t-9th at 165 in 2017 (finishing one match away from AA).  By making Nationals, Workman became a 3x Academic All-American as recognized by the National Wrestling Coaches’ Association (NWCA).  Workman was seeded 6th and opened up the tournament with a technical fall (22-5) over Neil Ryan of UMass.  He followed that up with a Round of 32 pinfall victory over Jairo de la Cruz of Washington State.  On day 2, Taylor faced conference opponent and #11 seed Jared Torch of Kent State – Tuscarawas.  The match went extra time with Workman winning 7-3 in the second top-bottom period.  In the Quarterfinals, Workman was matched up with #3 seed Richard Viruet of Springfield Tech.  Both wrestlers were determined to defend against the other’s offense in a low-scoring affair, which saw Viruet the victor at 4-2 with one of those points coming from riding time.  In the blood round, Workman would then have to secure a victory over #12 seed Stephon Halliburton of Queens.  The match was back-and-forth.  With 30 seconds to go Taylor was down by a score of 8-7.  A flurry of activity resulting in reversals being called for each man although controversial in nature.  The ultimate outcome was an 11-9 loss for Workman ending just one match away from All-American honors for the second year in a row.  Workman ended his Toledo wrestling career with an overall record of 103-35, the most victories in Toledo history (NCWA and NCAA).

Dominic Vasquez is the youngest guy on the team but not inexperienced as he had competed nationally in tournaments like Fargo in high school for the nearby Bedford Mules (Michigan).  The #12 seed Vasquez’ tournament opened with a major decision 12-4 victory over #21 seed Scott Stokes of BYU in the Round of 32.  He would fall in the Round of 16 later that night to #5 seed Jarrod Smiley of Central Florida (decision 9-2) who ended up finishing in 4th place.  Vasquez came back on day 2 with an impressive 11-5 victory over Luke Kliegl of Iowa State WC using his patented Merkle to secure 2 sets of nearfall points in the win.  The victory would be short-lived, however, as 2 matches away from All-American as a Freshman, he was forced to end the tournament due to a concussion versus #13 seed Cameron Dewey of West Chester.  Vasquez will look to compete for a National Title on June 9th as part of the GoGreco National tournament (also in Texas).

Michael Frias competed at the 285 lb weight class after missing the tournament as a Freshman the year before.  Undersized by almost 40 lbs, Frias battled hard but came up short going 0-2 in the tournament losing to #13 seed Octavio Alejandre of Grays Harbor (WA), and by pinfall to #19 seed Kaelan Yanak of Montana Tech.

The team did not earn its highest placement in an NCWA tournament, but this tournament was by far one of the toughest to date with 6 of the teams placing ahead of them being athletic department programs.  The 2x defending Champions from Emmanuel finished in 7th place.  The final team scores were as follows (top-15 only): 1. Liberty – 157, 2. Apprentice – 156.5, 3. Central Florida – 143, 4. BYU – 120, 5. Queens – 117, 6. Springfield Tech – 107, 7. Emmanuel – 101, 8. Middle Tennessee – 91, 8. UMBC – 91, 10. Grays Harbor – 87.5, 11. Alfred State – 73, 12. Grand Valley State – 72, 13. Toledo – 62.5, 14. Washington State – 55, 15. Mott CC – 50.5.  The top team in NCWA-D2 was Penn State WC with 50 points.