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Lib­er­ty Clinch­es; Fri­day Recap; Finals Preview

| Scott Farrell

ALLEN, Texas –Liberty dominated the early rounds at the NCWA Championships placing 14 of its 19 wrestlers into the quarterfinals, then rolled through Friday’s action again as the two-time champion Flames sent a program-record eight wrestlers into the national finals matches to claim – and clinch – the lead at the Allen Event Center.

The NCWA is not accustomed to repeat team champions. When the Flames won their second straight title last season it was only the second time in 12 years that the NCWA had a repeat champion. The association has had only had one three-peat champion in its 23 seasons, but with the 2020 title now in hand, Liberty joins Grand Valley State (2006-2008) on the short list of three-peat champions.

Liberty’s title is its fourth in the last five seasons and only Grand Valley State (five) has won more NCWA team titles. The Flames are likely to rewrite more of the NCWA record book Saturday in the morning’s placing rounds and later the finals that begin at 6 p.m. CT.

Complete results from the NCWA Championships can be found at here at

The Flames lead the field with 199 points and have a hefty lead that second-place Springfield Tech (126.5 points) and Grays Harbor College (115.0) cannot make up despite setting their own historic achievements Friday. The Apprentice School (104), which competed Friday until being called back to their campus due to their school’s travel restrictions, and Central Florida (84) round out the top five.

The Division II race is still very much up for grabs as current leader The Ohio State Wrestling Club, with 59.5 points, tries to hold off the two-time defending Division II champions at rival Penn State WC (55.5) and UConn (54). All three of those programs are in the top 14 overall heading into Saturday’s action.

Liberty posted five national champions last season to tie Grand Valley State for the most individual titles in one season. The Flames’ eight finalists will challenge that mark as Liberty has at least one finalist in each weight class from 157 pounds on. They’re guaranteed at least one at 165 pounds, where top-seed Joe Scott will face third-seeded David Cox. They each scored tech falls in the semifinals to reach the championship matches.

The 149-pound weight class will see a three-peat of sorts also as Ty’Rae Carter of Texas A&M and Zach Blevins of Toledo face off for the third consecutive season in the national title match. Carter (20-0), one of two undefeated wrestlers remaining in the tournament, is the defending champion after an 11-3 major decision in last year’s title clash and Blevins won the initial match in 2018 by a 10-4 decision. Saturday night they’ll have the two-out-of-three rubber match that Rocky and Apollo never had.

Apprentice, which was in second place before it had to withdraw, Grand Valley State, Penn State-Mont Alto and Penn State-Fayette had a combined nine semifinalists that impacted one-fifth of the 44 total semifinals matches. Their absence made for an abbreviated semifinal session Friday night. Four weight classes, including the first two, became two forfeited matches to those wrestlers’ opponents along with a host of consolation matches as those teams were told to halt their competition and return to their campuses due to their schools’ travel restrictions stemming from the COVID-19 concerns.

As semifinalists the wrestlers had already earned All-America status, and the NCWA said Friday it will maintain and recognize their All-America honors with the appropriate awards despite their withdrawing from the tournament. However, all their ensuing matches, as was the case Friday and now in Saturday’s placing rounds, are considered forfeits according to normal tournament policy.

"Our guys are wrestling really well, but it's kind of anticlimactic without Apprentice and Grand Valley,” Liberty coach Jesse Castro said. "It's a weird feeling to be honest. It's surreal. We're excited for doing as well as we are and there are going to be some really good final matches, but it is kind of anticlimactic in that sense."

Also of note is that through two days of competition, no cases and no issues of COVID-19 have emerged at the tournament. Several precautionary measures beyond the norm – additional mat cleaning measures, hand sanitizers at every mat table and throughout the building and an emphasis on social distancing when off the mat – have been in place from before the first session, and trainers and tournament referees have been on their guard looking for any warning signs from the wrestlers. None have been reported through the tournaments’ first two days.

“We’re confident in what we’re doing,” said Jim Giunta, the NCWA’s Executive Director. “No sport takes as much time and concern to keep its players and its playing surfaces clean better than wrestling. We as a sport always have. And we’re taking every extra precaution that has been recommended to us this weekend.”

Here is a weight-by-weight recap of Friday’s action:

125 pounds

Just as this weight class welcomes two new All-Americans into its finals match, it must say goodbye to one of its former champions. Cody Cabanban became Schreiner University’s first NCWA All-American early Friday with a 10-5 decision over Chris Vega in the quarterfinals. Cabanban (16-1), the six-seed, faces Big Bend Community College’s Jovan Garcia, the four-seed, in the finals. Garcia (17-1) is the second NCWA All-American in Big Bend’s two years in the association and grabbed attention when he scored a first-period pin over fifth-seeded Manuel Canfiyn of West Chester in the quarterfinals. Both Cabanban and Garcia took forfeit wins over their opponents, Apprentice’s top-seed Colton Messick and Grand Valley State’s two-seed Kameron Kempker.

133 pounds

David Ortiz (21-6), the two-seed, seeks the national title here after placing third last year in his second All-American finish. He’ll face Rahsun Lawrence (19-4), the four-seed, who earned his first All-America finish and pairs with teammate Wesley Hollingsworth at 141 as the first East Carolina wrestlers to reach the national title match. Both Ortiz and Lawrence have two pins in the tournament and advanced to the final as Apprentice had to yield two more highly-anticipated semifinals matches, Ortiz over No. 4 seed Raekwon Jackson and Lawrence over No. 1 seed Kolin Johnson.

141 pounds

Springfield Tech Community College has had two national runners-up in its three-year history in the NCWA, and one of those, Marcos Mercado, earned another trip to the finals Friday after pushing through as the bracket’s top seed. STCC has yet to win an individual national title. Mercado (35-5) got a forfeit win over Shalek Colon of Apprentice in the semifinals. He had an earlier 11-8 win over Colon at the NCWA National Duals. Mercado faces East Carolina’s Hollingsworth (19-2), now a three-time All-American, in the finals. Hollingsworth placed fourth in 2018 and third in 2019 in this bracket before finally breaking through into the finals with a 4-3 decision over second-seeded Justin Trinh of Central Florida. Mercado beat Hollingsworth in a 3-2 decision to open the National Duals. East Carolina’s finalists at 133 and 141 give the Mid-Atlantic Conference at least one representative in nine of the 11 finals matches, or every weight except 125 and 149.

149 pounds

As mentioned above, this is one of the finals’ featured matches. Carter is the top seed and has four pins in the tournament, including a third-period fall over Moustapha Bal of Ohio State WC in the semifinals. Carter (20-0) was last year’s Most Outstanding Wrestler and gives Texas A&M an All-American in four consecutive seasons, the longest streak by any Southwest Conference team in 10 seasons. Blevins, the two-seed, cruised through five matches in the bottom half of the bracket with three pins and a tech fall – his closest match was a 10-3 decision over three-seed Joe Pecaitis of the Penn State WC in the semifinals. Impacted by Grand Valley State’s departure, Blevins is one of only two finalists from the Great Lakes Conference along with Ohio State WC’s Eldar Muradov at 197 pounds.

157 pounds

This is where Liberty’s finals run begins with third-seeded Chad Cantrell facing James Madison’s four-seed, Calvin Kopstein. Cantrell (24-8) has a pin among his four tourney wins and had a 3-2 win over Kopstein in the championship match at the Mid-Atlantic Conference Tournament. Kopstein (15-2) has two falls and a tech fall in his tournament thus far, and took a forfeit from top-seed Brandon Turner of Grand Valley State in the semifinals. Cantrell took a forfeit from Bryson Woody of Apprentice in the semifinals.

165 pounds

Liberty gets the champion and the runner-up here as top-seed Joe Scott bolted through the top half of the bracket with two pins and two tech falls among five wins to get to the final, and three-seed David Cox posted three tech falls and a pin in the bottom half. In their semifinals, Scott earned a tech fall over Grays Harbor’s Desmond Bowers, 18-1, and Cox had a 16-0 tech over Max-Henry Nelson of Pacific Lutheran. It will be the second time in two weeks for Scott and Cox to meet – they also wrestled for the Mid-Atlantic Conference championship, with Scott coming away with a 6-4 win on the second tiebreaker.

174 pounds

This bracket features the tournament’s other undefeated wrestler (along with Carter) in Clay Perry, one of Central Florida’s standouts and the top seed. Perry (18-0) was already dominating his half of the bracket with two pins and a tech fall before receiving a forfeit from Grand Valley State’s four-seed, Seth Konynenbelt in the semifinals. On the other side is Liberty’s Cody Richmond, who is in his first national title match after rolling along with three pins in the tournament. Richmond, seventh in this class last season, took a semifinal forfeit from Apprentice’s David McElravy to advance Friday. Perry beat Richmond 10-4 at the National Duals.

184 pounds

This final will be another highlight match and another Liberty-Central Florida matchup between two of the most accomplished wrestlers in the entire tournament. Liberty’s Sam Karel (29-6) was the national champion at 174 pounds last season and is now a three-time All-American. He defeated Sione Halo of Grays Harbor in the semifinals 16-6. Central Florida’s Jarrod Smiley joined the small list of NCWA Four-Time All-Americans with his performance Friday, including beating Liberty’s Ethan Martin 9-5 in the semifinals. Smiley has progressed with his placings each year, but not at the same weights. He placed seventh at 174 in 2017, fourth at 184 in 2018 and third at 197 last year. He has not faced Karel this season.

197 pounds

Two-time defending national champion Austin Amos is back in the title match following one of the biggest semifinals matches pairing two four-time All-Americans. Amos (35-4), Liberty’s first four-time NCWA All-American, prevailed with an 8-0 major decision over Ohio State WC’s Kyler Slade to reach the finals. Slade is the first four-time All-American in OSUWC’s young history, which now includes an All-American in Eldar Muradov (24-3), who will face Amos in the final. Muradov was an All-American in 2012 wrestling for Maryland-Baltimore County, placing eighth at 184 pounds. Muradov, the two seed, advanced through the bottom half of the bracket with a pin and a tech fall in the opening rounds. He topped Blake Barrick of Liberty 11-4 in their semifinal match.

235 pounds

Top-seeded Jeffrey Allen of Liberty will defend his national title here after edging Tyson Cisneros of Wayne State 3-2 in the semifials. Allen (33-7) is now a two-time All-American and has two pins in the tournament thus far. Octavio Alejandre (17-1) of Grays Harbor is in his first finals match after pinning Springfield Tech’s Dominic Ledoux in the first round in their semifinal. Alejandre has three pins and a major decision in the tournament.

285 pounds

Liberty has a freshman in the final at heavyweight, as two-seed Frederick Weaver (34-4) continued his assault on the lower half of the bracket with a fourth pin in the tournament, the latest coming in the semifinals over Lance Clapp of Mott Community College (Mich.). One of Weaver’s pins came in sudden victory in Friday’s quarterfinals, a 7:36 pin on Dixie State’s Jantsen Manis. Weaver will face the four-seed, Mervyn Penniston-John and Grays Harbor in the final. Penniston-John (20-3) and Alejandre are Grays Harbor’s second and third finalists in as many years and seek the Chokers’ second national title after David Campbell won the 125 title last year. Penniston-John has three pins in the tournament, including a 16-second effort in the first round, and advanced when Mitchell Bischoff of Akron had to default out of the semifinals in the first period.