photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com
West Liberty University
Head Coach: Danny Irwin first season
#ClimbTheHill. There may not be a better tagline in college wrestling this season than that simple mantra. West Liberty University is on the rise and their ascent up the hill began with the hiring of new head coach Danny Irwin. A product of the Wheeling Jesuit University fiasco, Irwin has found a new home in West Liberty, West Virginia. West Liberty pounced on the opportunity and they now have the head coach who built Wheeling Jesuit into a national runner-up in just two seasons. He did not take over a ready-made team either, in two seasons he qualified 11 wrestlers for nationals, left with eight All-Americans, and three national champions. He joins a West Liberty program that is returning two-time national qualifier Logan Kemp at 197 and picked up true freshman All-American Cole Laya at 125 from Wheeling Jesuit. I am not saying that Irwin will win a national title at West Liberty this season, but I am saying that he will win a national title while at West Liberty.
Last season Danny Irwin took six qualifiers to the national tournament, sent all six into the national semifinals, all six finished as All-Americans, with two becoming national champions. He excelled with a young team, both national champions were sophomores and five of the six All-Americans were underclassmen. He also coached the only true freshman All-American in Division II last season. This bodes well for a Hilltopper program that could see half of its starters wrestling as freshmen or sophomores. I am excited to see what he can accomplish when he is able to combine multiple recruiting classes and develop athletes over the course of four years. Fans should be blaring out John Denver’s “Country Roads” as the entrance song for the Hilltoppers. Danny Irwin will be taking them home to the promised land. Great, now I have that song in my head.
125: #3 Cole Laya (So) Fairmont, WV
I am not sure what more I can say about third-ranked Cole Laya. The West Virginia native was the only true freshman All-American at last year’s NCAA Division II national tournament. He did so in one of the deepest brackets in Cleveland too. The two wrestlers ranked ahead of him are very good, Carlos Jacquez (Lindenwood) was an undefeated champion while Josh Portillo (Kearney) is now a two-time All-American. Eight All-Americans are returning at this weight and Laya is one of the best. Two of his three losses last season were to Jacquez while the third appears to be a head-scratcher to James Cole (Central Oklahoma). James Cole though, is an incredible athlete who pushed Jacquez to overtime, was in a barn-burner with Portillo, and has gone toe to toe with two-time All-American Marcus Povlick (McKendree). I am not sure how Laya can be even better this season, but if he can emphasize bonus points, lookout. This would be a great season for Corey Secrist to take a redshirt. He finished fourth in the region as a sophomore but was below .500 against Division II competitors.
133: Nate Keaton (R-Fr) Circleville, OH
Steve Slack (Jr) Charleston, WV
Two-time Ohio state champion Nate Keaton reunited with Danny Irwin after a brief flirtation with Limestone College. After an impressive 10-3 redshirt campaign, he will enter the lineup next to the wrestler he backed up a year ago. He and Laya will be a 1-2 punch that will challenge even the best lineups in duals. I look forward to the West Liberty vs. Pitt-Johnstown dual where he will take on returning national champion and his old teammate Tyler Warner while Laya takes on Brendan Howard. How those first two matches go could dictate the entire dual. If he is unable to hold the spot down, Steve Slack won 13 bouts a year ago. He finished sixth in the region, but there is a bit a drop off between the two. True freshman Jacob Simpson could see some work as well, at the very least, he will be entering opens for the Hilltoppers. A West Virginia product, he is a three-time state place winner.
141: Darius Bunch (Sr) Baltimore, MD
Darius Bunch as been an NWCA All-American and national champion. Darius Bunch has been an NCAA All-American. There is only one thing missing from the senior’s resume. After taking a redshirt season that saw him earn three wins against Division I foes, he is after that final feather in his cap. Two years ago he won 29 matches and he will be the third of the three Musketeer lightweights. Teams meeting up with Danny Irwin’s squad are going to have to fight to not be down three matches to zero quickly. He will be ranked in the top five of the preseason rankings and as wide open as this weight could be without Jose Rodriguez (Notre Dame), I expect Bunch to challenge for a national title.
149: Jack Barber (R-So) Buford, GA
Jaime Ward (Fr) Winfield, WV
If teams are hoping for a break from Hilltopper firepower, they may find themselves unable to catch their breath at this weight. Jack Barber is a three-time Georgia state champion formerly of Bloomsburg. Working in a Division I wrestling room will help him jump right into this lineup and be an asset to West Liberty. The redshirt sophomore will enter the season as the starter at 149 for coach Irwin and is just another wrestler in the lineup capable of extending the lead in a dual. A high school teammate of Darius Bunch, these two are the perfect complement to the Laya/Keaton combo at the start of the lineup. True freshman Jaime Ward is a two-time West Virginia state champion who chose to stay in his home state. If he takes a redshirt, like I believe he will, he’ll move into either the 141 spot next season or be part of a lineup bump. If he were to impress at the early opens or if Barber were to struggle out the gate, I wonder if we would see a battle for the starting spot.
157: Steve Carder (R-Fr) Parkersburg, WV
Dylan Taylor (R-Jr) Wheeling, WV
Steve Carder and Dylan Taylor both wrestled for coach Irwin last season at Wheeling Jesuit. Dylan Taylor finished sixth at the Super Regional while Steve Carder traveled to only the Findlay Open finishing his season 1-2. Carder is West Virginia state champion and a national high school All-American. I think we will see a bit of a committee at this weight for West Liberty to begin the season as the weight is up for grabs. At first glance, Taylor’s sixteen wins look to give him the lead, but his 3-10 record against Division II wrestlers would give me pause.
165: Greg Brusco (Sr) Delaware, OH
Chase Morgan (Jr) Ripley, WV
Tino Kusie (Fr) Bridgeport, OH
Jack Whiting (Fr) Roane County, WV
No, your eyes do not deceive you, Greg Brusco will join the Hilltop this season. After deciding to attend Lake Erie after the disbanding of Wheeling Jesuit, he is now enrolled at West Liberty. Brusco actually moved in at Lake Erie and attended his first day of class before deciding to reunite with his coach Danny Irwin. It remains to be seen if he will be released, but if he is, he will be the starter at 165. It is an interesting situation when you factor in the Wheeling Jesuit debacle, but at the time of this article, I am just assuming he will be granted release from Lake Erie. Brusco was an able backup to national champion Connor Craig a season ago and for the Super Regional bumped all the way up to 197 and placed sixth. If he is unable to go the Hilltoppers have three other athletes who could be the starter. Chase Morgan was the starter for West Liberty in the 2017-18 season, but if called upon the junior needs to show improvement from his freshman year. True freshman Jack Whiting was a state finalist in West Virginia last year and coach Irwin kept the local recruit in the state. He may not be ready to be the full-time starter, but as part of a committee, he could provide interesting match-up options. Add Santino Kusic into the midst and you have a second true freshman who showed flashes of the future star he may become in high school. Kusic was a two-time Ohio state qualifier finishing as high as fourth.
174: Zane Lanham (Fr) Huntington, WV
Chance Morgan (Jr) Ripley, WV
Zane Lanham will enter West Liberty as a freshman this year and with him will come questions about his past. The three-time West Virginia state finalist won his second championship while dealing with off the mat issues. They have been resolved legally and it may be best for him to jump right into the season where he can ignore distractions. If he does need a year out of the limelight, Chance Morgan is ready to continue as the starter. The junior won 10 matches last season and an improved wrestling room could make a big jump. He is a three-time West Virginia state qualifier who finished as high as third at the tournament. Much like his brother Chase, I expect him to show improvement under coach Irwin.
184: Chris Cook (Sr) Akron, OH
Isaiah Myers (Sr) Wheeling, WV
Garrett Cook (Fr) Weirton, WV
Senior Chris Cook missed most of the 2018-19 season recovering from injury. In 2017 he won a dozen matches as the starter for the Hilltoppers and with a room chock full of talent to push him maybe the man at this weight. He will have to battle fellow senior Isaiah Myers, who was the starter last year. Myers had a very difficult year as the man at 184 winning just five matches. I am not certain if coach Irwin is willing to leave this weight up to chance, he has a freshman from West Virginia who could take the spot. Garret Cook is a West Virginia product who won a state championship and decided to stay local. With two upperclassmen at this weight, I think you would want to redshirt him, but team points are going to come at a premium in March.
197: #7 Logan Kemp (Sr) Centerville, OH
The Hilltoppers have a clear-cut starter at 197 in senior Logan Kemp. The Centerville, Ohio native is a two-time national qualifier. Kemp has won 19 matches each of the last two seasons and is the model of consistency. He won six straight contests to end the dual season including five by bonus points. In fact, Kemp scores bonus points in better than 50% of his matches. Nationally this is an experienced weight class with all 12 of my “Too Early” ranked wrestlers as upperclassmen.
Hwt: Francesco Borsellino (So) Waynesburg, OH
Francesco Borsellino won seven matches as a true freshman finishing sixth at the Super Regional. Coach Irwin has a pretty good history with heavyweight, Terrance Fanning won a national title under his tutelage. I expect him to make a big jump, maybe not all the way to a national qualifier, but a reliable dual option for the Hilltoppers. He was a two-time Ohio state wrestling champion and finished third at the National Prep Championships. Winners win, and Borsellino is a winner, he just needs some seasoning.