Though Utah Valley University has qualified a school-record six wrestlers to the NCAA Division I Nationals, in the eyes of these competitors and coaching staff, plenty of unfinished business remains.
Wolverine head coach Greg Williams has clearly delineated that having multiple All-Americans is a top priority as his grapplers enter competition Thursday in Pittsburgh.
“To get where we want to go as a program, we have to put people on the podium, and multiple guys.”
Utah Valley came into the season with high expectations. The Wolverine program has landed some top recruits and transfers over the past several seasons and college wrestling coaches and other experts have taken notice. And these expectations have remained high even though Utah Valley’s top returning wrestler, Taylor LaMont, suffered a season-ending knee injury.
Demetrius Romero (165), Kimball Bastian (174) and Tanner Orndorff (197) all return with big tournament experience, along with top 20 rankings. And though competing in their first nationals, Matt Findlay (141), Will Sumner (184) and Tate Orndorff (285) are very capable wrestlers and also sport rankings inside the top 20.
However, for Utah Valley to hit Williams’ goal of multiple All-Americans, at least two, and hopefully all, will have to wrestle above their seeds as none of the six Wolverine wrestlers earned a seed in the top eight.
Romero, a junior, with his 25-3 record has earned the highest seed at No. 9 (out of 33 competitors) and he is definitely looking strong after taking down the Big 12 title two weekends ago in Tulsa. He is also hopeful that previous experience at the big event will help in his preparation. Romero will open up against No. 24 seed Cael McCormick of Army.
“I’m excited (about the nationals),” said Romero. “It’s a way different atmosphere being a sold-out arena, but I’m ready for it. Every match is a hard match and I have to have that mindset every match.”
Freshman Tate Orndorff (24-7) is seeded No. 15 got some advice from his older brother Tanner, making his third trip and seeded No. 19 as a senior.
“He told me to treat it like any other tournament,” Tate Orndorff’s first round foe will be Drexel’s Joseph Goodhart, the No. 18 seed, while Tanner as the No. 19 seed draws No. 14 seed Eric Shultz of Nebraska.
Bastian (seeded at No. 14 with a 18-10 mark), is making his second trip as a junior and will take a bit of a different approach than the Orndorff brothers, as he takes on Ohio State’s Ethan Smith, the No. 19 seed, in round one.
“I’m going to soak in the atmosphere and have some fun,” stated Bastian. “I want to tap into the energy of that arena.”
Bastian is very familiar with Utah County wrestling fans as he prepped at Maple Mountain winning three state titles for the Golden Eagle program.
Though he’s fought injuries for most of the 2018-19 season, Findlay hopes to surprise from his No. 20 seed. Findlay, a sophomore, will square off against No. 13 seed, Kyle Shoop of Lockhaven.
“I feel as mentally and emotionally ready as I can be,” related Findlay. “Physically, I have done everything I can do.”
Findlay was a wildcard entry meaning that he didn’t automatically qualify based on how he finished at the Big 12 conference meet where he medically defaulted his matches. But Findlay, with an overall mark of 14-2, was selected to take part in the tournament.
Senior Will Sumner (21-11) fulfilled a lifetime dream by qualifying for the NCAA tournament. And the first person he celebrated with was his father Gary.
“He’s been with me every step of the way,” Sumner said of his father.
Sumner, seeded No. 20, will have his hands full as he battles Pitt’s Nino Bonaccorsi. Sumner was defeated by the Panther last season and Bonaccorsi is seeded No. 13 and will have the benefit of wrestling in front of a large contingent of fans as Pitt plays the part of the host school.
Beyond the Wolverine program, there are other aspects of the tournament that have local interest.
For example, former Spanish Fork 3-time state champion Branson Ashworth wrestles for Wyoming and will be the No. 10 seed at 165 pounds. Ashworth (33-5) will wrestle Duke’s Zach Finesilver, the No. 23 seed who is one of three brothers that grapple for the Blue Devil program.
Then there is Penn State gunning for its eighth NCAA title in the last nine years led by former Wasatch High School star Cael Sanderson. Sanderson’s older brother Cody, who was actually Utah Valley’s first coach before Williams, is one of his assistant coaches. The Nittany Lions boast six wrestlers that are seeded either first or second and are the prohibitive favorite to repeat as team champions.