Wrestling, at it’s most basic, is an intensely personal experience. Wrestling teams, however, can become symbols of the communities they represent. When a program is dropped, it can leave a hole, but the remnants of what once was remain in the community. The University of Nevada-Las Vegas (UNLV) didn’t have time to establish much of a wrestling tradition from the time they began competing in 1976 until the program was dropped in 1984. However, even during that short run, seeds were planted that continue to affect Nevada wrestling and the Division I level today. This year, the Runnin’ Rebels finally return to the mat, competing in the National Collegiate Wrestling Association (NCWA). While all involved look at this as the first step, it is the culmination of a lot of work by so many.
UNLV wrestling never had a losing season during their brief run and produced a homegrown All-American, Kahlan O’Hara from Chaparral High School, who was eighth (1983) and fifth (1984) under head coach Mark Churella, the three-time NCAA champion from Michigan, before finishing sixth for Oklahoma State the year after the program was cut. During that time, Churella started what was then known as the Ceasars Palace Open, an evolution of the UNLV Open that would become the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational that still attracts a strong field annually. Long after the program was gone, former UNLV wrestlers remained active in the sport, dotting the Nevada coaching landscape, helping to build generations of grapplers.
One of those young men was current Las Vegas High School head coach Zach Hocker. Zach’s father was coached in high school by a former UNLV assistant and when I spoke with Zach, he told me that was just one of many connections he had to the defunct program. As he pursued his own wrestling career, with his father as a lifelong coach, Hocker, a Vegas native, did not have the option of staying close to home if he wanted to pursue his sport beyond high school. Though he looked at options across many levels, Zach eventually decided to stay home, attend UNLV, end his competitive career, and, eventually, move into coaching. When he got the call asking if he’d be interested in coaching a new NCWA program at his alma mater, giving area wrestlers an opportunity he never had, he jumped at the chance.
Last season, the NCWA governed 133 men’s teams and 23 women’s teams allowing a total of 1915 wrestlers to continue competing after high school. In a sport where just 2.8% of high school participants get a chance to compete in the NCAA, the lowest rate of any sanctioned sport, the NCWA, NAIA, NJCAA, and CCCAA all play vital roles in keeping wrestlers active in the sport. However, UNLV was not among those schools competing, at any level, last year. When team president Drew O’Neil arrived on campus to pursue his PhD in Mathematics, he wanted to change that. O’Neil, a lifelong runner, was a late convert to the sport who did not wrestle in high school despite developing a healthy respect for the sport growing up in New Jersey. However, when he found himself at Montclair State, a former Division III power who dropped their program in 2006, he decided to give the sport a try, joining the club team that now competes at the NCWA level. O’Neil confessed to me that staying lean, a vital aspect of distance running, initially attracted him to wrestling, but he fell in love with the sport, even though he struggled mightily on the mat.
When O’Neil headed west and found that UNLV didn’t have a club, he set about trying to get one started, but after a year, he hadn’t made much headway. It wasn’t until he met Dr. Dan Gianoutsos, the Associate Dean for the Academic Success Center at UNLV who had been a wrestler at CSU Bakersfield before serving as a graduate assistant there for a couple of years, that the effort gained traction. While both are quick to give credit to the other, it is clear that their combined efforts were what pushed the movement over the top. UNLV wrestling received approval to compete as an official club team representing the school starting this fall. Coach Hocker expects to have a full lineup and though they are having to work around personal schedules built before the club came into being, they’ve attracted a strong core of 15 to 20 active members already.
All three men told me the key to the club’s success will be getting those who are already on campus, wrestlers walking the same path as Hocker once did, attending UNLV assuming their competitive days are over, to dust off their shoes. They hope to have enough funding to offer scholarships in the future, but for now, it is enough simply to have college wrestling back in Vegas. While the administration has been supportive of their efforts so far, those involved realize that returning a Division I team to Nevada is an uphill battle. To that end, they’re working to build relationships between the team and the thriving MMA community in Las Vegas. Their singlets, sponsored by ConflictAthlete, have Las Vegas written on them in addition to UNLV branding, a signal to all that this is a team representing more than just the Runnin’ Rebels. The club represents a viable option for area wrestlers that they didn’t have before. Keeping wrestlers involved and giving them the sense of purpose the sport often brings while they continue their studies is a win for the school and the community.
The NCWA is often overlooked as the club status of many teams belies their competitiveness. The UNLV story is a great example of the key role the NCWA can play in helping to grow wrestling. The fundraising efforts are already underway to endow this team, ensure it has a paid coach going forward, and make scholarships available in the future. This has all been initiated before the team’s first competition, the Road Runner Open hosted by CSU Bakersfield on November 30th. The first time UNLV will return to the mats in Vegas will be a nod to their history, taking on Dixie State and North Idaho on the Cliff Keen Invitational mats the day before that event kicks off. The groundwork has been laid to build a successful, enduring program. Whether that results in Division I wrestling returning to UNLV or not, college wrestling once again has a home in Nevada.