Central Michigan was once the powerhouse wrestling program in the MAC. From 1998 to 2012, the Chippewas took home 14 of 15 conference titles and were a fixture in the top-25 at the NCAA tournament, most often finishing in the top-20. They experienced three of their four top-10 national finishes during those years as well earning a reputation as one of the best mid-major programs in wrestling. Unfortunately for the trophy case in Pleasant, Michigan, Missouri wrestling, left without a home after the Tigers left the Big 12 for the wrestling wasteland that is the SEC, joined the MAC in 2013. Since then Central Michigan hasn’t been able to take the championship that they got so used to winning.
However, the struggles of the Chippewa program cannot be completely laid at the feet of the Missouri Tigers. Certainly winning MAC crowns is much more difficult, but Central Michigan has also struggled at the NCAA tournament over the last few years. The program, which had long been good for two or three All-Americans per year at least, suddenly found itself with just one top eight finisher in 2014 and none in 2015. Freshman Justin Oliver got the program back on the podium a year ago, but it is fair to say that there is work left to do.
As head coach Tom Borelli begins his 26th season at the helm, he is already the winningest wrestling coach the program has ever seen. He returns Oliver (So, 149) as well as national qualifiers Brent Fleetwood (Jr, 125), Corey Keener (Sr, 133) and Jordan Ellingwood (Jr, 184) to a line-up that has potential. They won’t be expected to challenge Missouri, but they could take steps towards getting back inside the top-20 nationally.
If they are to do so, Oliver will need to reprise his performance from a year ago. His podium finish as a freshman gives him a chance to join Ben Bennett as the only four-time All-Americans in program history. His backup from a year ago, who also owns a win over Oliver from last November, Colin Heffernan (Jr, 157), bumped up to 165 a year ago at the MAC tournament but will get to wrestle a much more comfortable weight in 2016-17. Ellingwood was the MAC champion a year ago, knocking off All-Americans Willie Miklus (Missouri) and Jack Dechow (Old Dominion) back-to-back. Those two could find themselves in All-American contention by the end of this season.
The team’s two lightest national qualifiers, Fleetwood and Keener, both bring experience to the table as they work to improve on last year’s performance. Fleetwood fought through injury in 2015-16 so, if he is healthy, he should be even better this year. Keener was a tough opponent for anyone time and again last year. He showed that at the national tournament, losing 6-5 to the six-seed Jordan Conaway (Penn State), beating Zach Synon (Missouri) and then falling to 11th seeded Dom Forys (Pitt). Both of these wrestlers have reason to dream as they start another year of competition.
A couple of other athletes to keep an eye on for the Chippewas are Mason Smith (Fr, 141) and CJ Brucki (Jr, 174). Though both will have to earn their spot, Smith was the Central Michigan Redshirt Wrestler of the Year in 2016 and Brucki was an impressive 30-6 while he sat behind nationally ranked Mike Ottinger. In addition to those already mentioned, the 165-pound spot looks like a battle between Jordan Wohlfert (Sr) and Logan Parks (Fr) while 184 could come down to Austin Severn (Sr) and Tyrus Kemp (So). Junior Newton Smerchek returns at 285 hoping to improve upon his 13-14 record from 2015-16.
Certainly, no one expected Coach Borelli and the Chippewas to go away after a couple of down years. As expected, Central Michigan appears to be building back towards what they once were. If Oliver continues to progress and a couple of the other wrestlers fulfill their promise, this program will be right back in the top-20 and fighting for more. Considering most of their best wrestlers are not seniors, this team is one to watch not just this year, but in 2017-18 as well.
The 2016-17 Central Michigan Chippewas wrestling schedule features dual meets against Virginia (Nov 13th), Northern Iowa (Jan 15th), Missouri (Jan 22nd) and Michigan (Feb 3rd). Their tournament schedule includes the Eastern Michigan Open (Nov 5th), the Michigan State Open (Nov 20th), the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational (Dec 2nd & 3rd) and the Midlands (Dec 29th & 30th). The MAC tournament is in Cedar Falls, Iowa, March 4th and 5th. The NCAA tournament is in St. Louis, Missouri, March 16th through 18th.