Duke wrestling sends 5 to St. Louis for nationals

ACC champion Conner Hartmann and four of his teammates will compete at nationals this week in St. Louis.
ACC champion Conner Hartmann and four of his teammates will compete at nationals this week in St. Louis.

It all comes down to this—the road ends in St. Louis.

After landing a program-best five qualifiers, Duke will pack its bags and head to St. Louis for the 2015 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships at Scottrade Center March 19-21. With the brackets set and the rest of the season in the rearview, the Blue Devil grapplers will suit up, strap on their headgear and hit the mats against the best competition in the nation.

“It’s all about matchups now,” head coach Glen Lanham said. “You’re not going to sneak up on anybody—you’re at nationals for a reason. Looking at it, all our guys are coming into nationals at a good time and at the right intensity. I’m excited to get it over with—to get out there. I want to get past all [the waiting around] and get to the wrestling.”

ACC champion No. 7 Conner Hartmann will lead the Blue Devils (11-7) into battle after qualifying for nationals for the third-straight year with a 26-2 record—including an undefeated campaign against ACC competition.

The returning All-American will be joined by fellow grapplers redshirt senior Immanuel Kerr-Brown, redshirt junior Marcus Cain, sophomore Jacob Kasper and freshman Mitch Finesilver. Kerr-Brown is making his second straight appearance on the national stage, but the remaining three qualifiers will be making their first appearances.

Despite only two losses—including one to reigning NCAA champion No. 1 J’den Cox of Missouri—and being ranked No. 7 for much of the season, Hartmann was given the No. 10 seed in the 197-pound weight class. The redshirt junior was unseeded last season before capturing All-American honors.

“I just think, ‘Man, when is the kid going to get some respect?’” Lanham said. “He definitely merited a higher seed. He should have gotten a higher seed. He put in the work—the effort. His résumé shows. He is an ACC champ. He is a returning All-American. When is he going to get his due?”

The Port Orchard, Wash., native will hit the mat against Penn senior Canaan Bethea, who boasts a 16-7 overall record. When asked about the result of his seeding, Hartmann shrugged it off and expressed little concern with his draw.

“I believe that my final showing will be better than that,” Hartmann said.

After receiving one of the six at-large bids for 157 last week to become the fifth Duke qualifier, Kerr-Brown will return to nationals as the 12th Blue Devil to advance to the big stage multiple times. The redshirt senior has 76 career wins—including 48 in the past two seasons—and a 22-11 season record in his final campaign for Lanham.

“As soon as we saw the bracket and we saw that he was in, I was like, ‘Oh, thank God,’” Lanham said. “'This kid definitely was one that deserved to be there and he has put the work in.’”

Due to his at-large status, the Rome, Ga., native will wrestle a pigtail match against Maryland’s Louis Mascola—who Kerr-Brown defeated 7-3 earlier this season in the Grapple at the Garden—before making his way into the bracket. With the sun setting on his career, the redshirt senior is just pleased to have the opportunity to keep fighting.

“I thought that honestly after I lost in the third- and fourth-place match at ACCs that my wrestling career was over,” Kerr-Brown said. “I thought that was it for me. I feel blessed. I’m grateful for the opportunity to go back and compete again.”

First-time qualifiers Cain, Kasper and Finesilver round out the field of Duke grapplers hitting the road. After a 21-7 season and third-place finish in the ACC championships, Cain will be matched up against No. 5 seed Christopher Villalonga of Cornell. Villalonga may be a three-time national qualifier, but that does not discourage his Blue Devil opponent.

“It’s just one match at a time that I’ve got to wrestle, so it doesn’t matter who I’m going against,” Cain said. “I’ve been working hard all season, so nothing’s different but the tournament name and that’s all.”

Kasper qualified for nationals after a runner-up performance in the ACC tournament. With a single win in St. Louis, the sophomore will become the seventh Blue Devil since 2008-09 to reach the 25-win mark in a single season. Kasper will open with No. 4 seed Jack Dechow of Old Dominion—the third-ranked national wrestler at 184.

After starting 4-4, Finesilver went on a 7-3 tear to end the season—including an upset bid from the No. 6 seed in the ACC championships to take runner-up honors. The Lexington, Ohio native will wrestle No. 2 seed Ryan Taylor of Wisconsin in his first-ever nationals’ bout. Despite the draw, Finesilver’s teammates are confident he can prove himself.

“We all know that [Mitch Finesilver] can succeed and that he can win against really tough competition,” Hartmann said. “We know that his potential is still semi-untapped. He is really tough. He has a tank that no one can beat pretty much. Once he believes that—and I think he is starting to—that’s what is going to lead to him having success.”

After the accolades of a season like 2014-15 for Duke, it would be easy for some programs to become complacent and satisfied, but the journey is not over for the Blue Devils. The numbers may be pointing in the right direction for Lanham and his squad, but the season is not finished until the final whistle blows and the wrestling stops.

“We’re glad that we are sending five guys to nationals but that’s something that we have expected of ourselves for a long time,” Kerr-Brown said. “It’s something that we expect of ourselves for the future. We expect a lot of bigger and better things for Duke. We’re happy with what we’ve got now, but we’re definitely not satisfied.”


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