CHICAGO – With the 2017-18 season set to commence, the University of Chicago wrestling team possesses an ideal blend of mat experience. Decorated three and four-year starters are accompanied by a breakout sophomore class that made waves last season. Add in a large group of newcomers, and the Maroons are poised to make an impact regionally and nationally this winter.
The Maroons feature a balanced 35-man roster that includes seven seniors, eight juniors, nine sophomores and 11 first-years. Last year's squad posted a 6-4 dual record while finishing second at the University Athletic Association (UAA) Championships and eighth at the NCAA Midwest Regional.
Head Coach Leo Kocher enters his 39th season at UChicago's helm. His senior class includes lineup stalwarts Devan Richter (125 pounds) and Nick Ferraro (174 pounds), both of whom had their junior campaigns cut short by injuries. The senior duo has won two UAA titles each. Richter boasts a 37-12 career record with a knack for ending matches early – he has pinned 28 opponents. Ferraro, with a 63-31 career record, was particularly impressive last season. He went 16-4 with 10 pins while capturing titles at the Concordia (Wis.) Open and MSOE Invite.
"Nick won two tournaments, and both he and Devan wrestled NCAA qualifiers in the regular season and defeated those opponents with pins," Kocher said. "That takes not only physical talent but also excellent technique. That is the message we strive to get across –a complete range of high-level technique is the most important aspect of reaching one's potential. If Devan and Nick stay healthy, they will be standing out at a national level this year."
Junior wrestler Jason Lynch was a key contributor in the starting lineup last season at 184 pounds. He went 25-14 overall and ranked second in the nation with 13 technical falls. He placed sixth at NCAA Regionals. Fellow junior Duncan Payne was a UAA champion at 197 pounds.
The incoming sophomores made a huge impact upon their arrival as rookies. Five of them became regulars in the starting lineup, headlined by the trio of Steve Bonsall, Grant Morrison and Kahlan Lee-Lermer. Bonsall led the team in wins (33-14) and qualified for the NCAA Division III Championships, where he earned All-American status after taking eighth at 157 pounds. Morrison went 30-14 at 141 pounds, earning a UAA championship and UAA Rookie of the Year honors. He went on to place fifth at the NCAA Regional. Lee-Lermer (28-17 record) pinned a team-high 15 opponents and took fourth in the 149-pound bracket at the regional.
"It is an adjustment moving from high school to collegiate wrestling competition," said Kocher. "We compete in tough tournaments early. Our coaching staff believes that early and frequent exposure to the increased speed, strength and tenacity that NCAA competition entails puts the new guys on notice that they have a whole new mountain to climb. At the same time, our rookies wrestling against strong competition raises their expectations of the level to which they can rise. Last year's freshmen were a talented group. Three of them had wins over either returning NCAA All-Americans or athletes who achieved All-American status at the end of that season."
In terms of leadership, the veteran head coach expects everyone in the wrestling room to make contributions to the whole, both in practice and in competition. The squad's depth and breadth of talent will be counted on for a successful season to occur.
"We want every Maroon wrestler to lead and push his teammates," Kocher said. "Returning All-American Steve Bonsall set a great example last year. He was ranked next-to-last in the NCAA tournament field and he ended up knocking off a returning All-American on his way to the podium at nationals. But I believe we can get great performances out of every weight class. Although injuries could change the picture, right now it will take a very good opposing wrestler at any weight class to keep us from scoring team points."
A group of 11 rookies join the fray this winter with plenty of accolades in tow. Kocher is hoping that the first-years will be able tap into their potential early on and infuse their identities and skills into the team dynamic.
"I think this year's freshmen are lucky in that they get to work with returners who are very talented," he said. "Of course, great competition in the practice room makes everyone better – but these rookies also have teammates who are living proof that an outstanding freshman season is in the realm of possibility."