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Bucknell Enters a Crucial Season After a Strong Showing in ’15-’16

Bucknell

Bucknell Head Wrestling Coach Dan Wirnsberger has led the program since its return to varsity status in 2006-07. Just 10 years removed from returning to the mat at the Division I level, the Bison have become a factor in the EIWA and a presence at the NCAA tournament.

In 2015-16 the Bison tied the school record for most national qualifiers with six. They finished third at the EIWA championships for the second straight season. Bucknell compiled a 12-6 dual record including a 6-3 mark in EIWA competition. While they fell short of crowning their first All-American since Kevin LeValley in 2011, the past two seasons have shown that the program is thriving.

However, after starting four seniors a year ago, with three of those ending their season at the NCAA tournament, 2016-17 could be a transition year for the Bison. The loss of two wrestlers who were seeded at NCAAs, Paul Petrov (125) and Joe Stolfi (285), appears to leave holes in the lineup. Replacing Petrov could be Ben Bliss (So) who wrestled as high as 141 when needed last year. Bucknell also has Jordan Gessner, who finished fourth in class AA at the Pennsylvania state tournament coming in along with a couple of other options on the roster at the lightest weight. Stolfi will be even more difficult to replace as there is not a 285 on the roster or in the incoming recruiting class. One of the 197s, the expected starter Tyler Greene (Sr), Rory Bonner (Sr) or incoming freshman Drew Phipps, TOM’s #16 at 195, will have to battle as an undersized heavyweight unless Bucknell can find someone else between now and the season opener.

While the ends of the lineup are in question, the Bison have some solid returning wrestlers to anchor the middle. Returning national qualifiers Tyler Smith (Jr, 141), Victor Lopez (Sr, 149) and Tom Sleigh (Jr, 184) each won more than 20 matches last season and will all be looking to end their seasons in St. Louis. Grim Gonzalez (Sr, 133), Zach Kelly (So, 157) and Greene (197) were starters a year ago, but will need to improve to join their teammates. Gonzalez and Kelly may be pushed for their starting gigs. Zach Firestone, TOM’s #19 at 132, joins the Bison as a true freshman and could have an impact right away.

With 165 and 174 open due to the departures of Robert Schlitt and Rustin Barrick, there will be some battles to sort out just who replaces them. Look for D.J. Hollingshead (So) and Connor Wagh (Jr) to dual for 165. 174 appears to be between Nick Stephani (So) and Austin Wetterau (Sr).

This team may have difficulty matching last season’s finish at the EIWA tournament and I don’t see six national qualifiers again. However, the development of the 12 incoming recruits and a few key athletes will tell the tale for Bucknell in 2016-17. This could be a large step back that takes a couple years to recover from or it could be a reloading year that keeps the momentum going towards further growth.

The 2016-17 Bucknell Bison wrestling schedule features duals against Oklahoma State (Nov 6th), Lehigh (Nov 11th) and Penn (Jan 27th) among others. Tournament competition starts with the Navy Classic on November 19th. They will be in Las Vegas for the Cliff Keen Invitational (Dec 2nd & 3rd). They hit the Virginia Duals January 13th and 14th. Bucknell hosts the EIWA Championships on March 3rd and 4th. The NCAA tournament is in St. Louis, March 16th through 18th.

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