As first-year head coach Glen Lanham works to rebuild Duke’s wrestling program, two key building blocks have qualified early in their careers to participate in the NCAA Championships Thursday and Saturday in Des Moines, Iowa. Sophomore Brandon Gambucci and redshirt freshman Conner Hartmann earned berths to represent Duke in the 133-pound and 197-pound divisions, respectively.
Their appearance will represent the first time since 2009 that the Blue Devils have sent more than one wrestler to the Championships, and Gambucci will be the first Duke wrestler to qualify in the 133-pound division.
The dynamics at the national championship are very different from ACC Championship competition in that not all 10 Duke wrestlers participate in the tournament.
“In ACCs, you’re going with 10 wrestlers. Once ACCs are over, you don’t qualify as many as you want to. You leave guys behind,” Lanham said. “You start working more on your individuals than as a team. You wish you could get all 10 of them, but you’ve got to concentrate just on [Gambucci and Hartmann].”
Gambucci and Hartmann will likely have their hands full as they compete against the nation’s best. Gambucci, who won two of his three matches this season against ranked opponents, is set to wrestle against top-ranked Logan Stieber of Ohio State in his opening match. Stieber, who like Gambucci is an Ohio native, won the NCAA championship last season and has continued his success by winning all 22 of his matches this season. The redshirt sophomore boasts a pair of Big Ten titles on his resume as well.
“Brandon feels confident,” Lanham said. “That’s what upsets are all about—anybody can beat anybody. Brandon is just as talented and has the wrestling pedigree as well…. It will just come down to who wants it more. I think it is a good draw for us. They are from the same state, they’ve got state bragging rights on the line.”
Gambucci is 19-5 on the year and his runner-up finish at the ACC Championships garnered him one of five automatic bids to the national championship meet. Hartmann placed third at the ACC Championships, so he required at-large consideration to earn his first-round matchup with No. 7 seed James Schiedel of Binghamton.
Both Gambucci and Hartmann are ranked in the top 30 in RPI in their respective weight classes, and Gambucci finished the season ranked No. 24 in the 133-pound division Coaches Poll.
Despite having to leave eight Blue Devil wrestlers behind, Lanham is proud of his team’s performance this season and is adamant that the wrestlers on his team who did not make the cut this season will be more motivated than ever to qualify for the NCAA Championships when their chance comes next season.
“I think we finished up on a positive note as far as our guys feeling confident about going to nationals next year,” Lanham said. “Our team is very young and very hungry.”