By Ben Hercik
With the temperature dropping outside, Cleveland State University’s sports teams are moving indoors to start the winter sports season. One of the sports getting its season underway is the wrestling program, and they have a big change coming.
Last season, the Vikings competed for the last time as members of the Eastern Wrestling League as they, along with the other seven teams that made up the conference, joined the Mid-American Conference (MAC). This puts Cleveland State in the second-largest wrestling conference on the Division Ⅰ level, as there are now 15 teams in the MAC, including nationally ranked teams in the University of Missouri, Old Dominion University and Lock Haven University.
With the move to the new conference, there will be a lot more eyes on Cleveland State and second-year head coach Josh Moore at the helm of the program. After the team went 4-12 last year, Moore is excited about the lineup that the team could have for the season.
“Most of our improvement will be our guys being more disciplined, being more structured and just having a better gameplan when they get out there on the mat,” Moore said. “Last year, we started a few freshmen and a couple redshirt freshman in the lineup, and this year, you look at [how] our lineup could shape up, we may have three or four seniors in there and a few other juniors in the lineup, so we’re just looking forward to the lineup and leadership more than anything.”
After taking a redshirt season last year, senior 141-pounder Evan Cheek returns to the starting lineup for Cleveland State. As a redshirt, Cheek compiled a 20-4 record while competing in open tournaments. Two seasons ago, Cheek qualified for the NCAA Tournament by winning the EWL Championship at 141 pounds by upsetting undefeated Brock Zacherl of Clarion University in the finals to win the final EWL individual title for the Vikings.
In the NCAA Tournament, Cheek would draw two-time defending NCAA champion Dean Heil of Oklahoma State University, almost knocking him off, but falling 4-2. Cheek hopes to get back to the national stage and comes into the season with the same mindset that he had in his 2017 campaign.
“For me to get back to the success I had my junior season, I feel that it came down to having confidence in my attacks and knowing that I can score and beat anyone,” Cheek said. “I know I’ve put in the training and the work. All I need to do is trust it in competition.”
Cheek isn’t the only wrestler returning to the Vikings’ lineup that had a successful season last year. Sophomores Ben Smith, Brady Barnett, junior Ryan Ford and senior Nico O’Dor all put together winning records as a part of the starting lineup last season and look to improve and take the next step in getting to the national stage. Smith credits the experience in last year’s starting lineup as being a great help for the upcoming season.
“I have a lot of experience from last year. I didn’t miss a match and having that experience and knowledge is going to play a huge factor,” Smith said.
Prior to the season, Cleveland State introduced their incoming recruiting class, which is a very talented bunch. The sextet of Logan Heil, Jack Gorman, Gus Sutton, Peyton Blasko, Anthony Rice and Deandre Nassar combined to have 16 state placement finishes, and both Heil and Nassar won state championships during their high school careers. The team also got transfers of redshirt junior Justin Patrick from the University of Buffalo and redshirt freshman Riley Smucker from Appalachian State University. These freshman and transfer groups have come in and gotten straight to work on the mat, and that is exactly what Moore was hoping for.
“Looking at our freshman crew, we are really excited about the work that they have put in already early in the season,” Moore said. “You recruit kids, you get them on campus and you don’t usually know what to expect. All six have been doing a really good job and honestly probably better than we thought they would ever do at this point.”
The season opened on Nov. 1 in a tri-dual meet against John Carroll University and Case Western Reserve University and walked away with two wins. The Vikings knocked off the Blue Streaks 27-14 and the Spartans 51-(-1). Smith and Patrick recorded a 2-0 record on the day, while Barnett, Ford and O’Dor all went 1-0.