Duke wrestling kicks off 2015-16 season at Hokie Open

<p>Jacob Kasper will look to build on an impressive sophomore season as the Blue Devils begin their 2015-16 campaign at the Hokie Open this weekend.</p>

Jacob Kasper will look to build on an impressive sophomore season as the Blue Devils begin their 2015-16 campaign at the Hokie Open this weekend.

After an offseason in the gym, the Blue Devils are back on the mats for the first time as a team to kick off the 2015-16 season.

Although Conner Hartmann—Duke’s returning ACC title holder at 197—started his bid for another NCAA run last week in the 50th annual NWCA All-Star Classic in Atlanta, his teammates will officially begin their seasons Sunday as Duke travels to Blacksburg, Va. to compete in the eighth annual Hokie Open at Rector Field House. Hartmann may have been the only Blue Devil to grapple so far this season, but his 8-1 statement victory against No. 5 Max Huntley of Michigan serves as a springboard for this week’s tournament.

“[What] our guys can take away from [Hartmann’s victory] is, one, they can see how hard they’re working—they’re working at that same pace that Conner was, which a lot of our guys are. They can trust that they’re in shape,” Duke head coach Glen Lanham said. “They saw a lot of that and hopefully they can say, ‘Hey, what we’re doing in practice works at the highest level.’”

If the team is indeed working at the same level as Hartmann, it bodes well for the start of Duke’s season. The Port Orchard, Wash., native was the first Blue Devil grappler ever to compete in the invitation-only classic and proved he belonged with two strong takedowns in first period. As the season gets underway, the redshirt senior has been tabbed the third-best collegiate wrestler in his weight class, and is looking to become the first three-time All-American in a singlet for Duke. In last year’s Hokie Open, Hartmann had little trouble wrestling as an individual en route to a title.

“We were really pleased with that good start to the season for sure. Anytime you can dominate the fifth-ranked wrestler in the country like he did, obviously, he’s on the path—I feel like—to win a title,” Lanham said. “I felt like Conner gassed him out…. I saw [Huntley] glance at the clock a couple of times in some deep scrambles.”

The rest of the Blue Devils will get a chance to begin their seasons with a strong showing in a wide-open event that will showcase a slew of opportunities for each wrestler. The Hokie Open features two divisions—one for freshman and sophomores and one for open competition—and is double-elimination for all competitors, ensuring several opportunities to work out the kinks from the offseason.

Although Duke performed well at the event last season—capturing three titles and one runner-up finish, as well as having nine place-winners—the competition has ramped up this year. A range of Division I programs are competing—including ACC foes N.C. State, North Carolina, Virginia and host Virginia Tech—and several other Division II programs will be sending grapplers to the mats.

With tougher competition in front of them, the Blue Devils will have to buckle down to have a successful showing. But it is a new season, and the success of the past is not on Lanham’s radar with his new squad.

“[Last year’s Open is] in the rearview. I really think the competition has picked up. You have Stanford’s whole team out there, you have Columbia’s whole team, so you have some different teams that are going to be out there,” he said. “It’s going to be a different feel, obviously. For us, we’re not dwelling in the past. It’s a clean slate.”

The season’s fresh start brings with it a Duke team with a stronger reputation. After placing a program-best five wrestlers in the NCAA tournament and grabbing a 28th-place finish last season, the program is no longer just another team on the schedule for opponents. A top-25 win and three tight matches against other ranked opponents—including a hard-fought 20-15 loss against then-No. 9 Pittsburgh and a one-point heartbreaker against then-No. 25 North Carolina—demonstrate how far the program has come since Lanham took the helm in 2012.

If the Blue Devils can build off last season’s successes, a coveted spot in the top 25 is not out of the question. To get there and start the season off on the right foot, Duke has been working on being more aggressive, especially in top position strategies, and not letting up until the final whistle sounds to come back to Durham with hardware in tow.

“We realize that a lot of teams are looking at us and they’re saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to wrestle a well-conditioned team,’ so we’re trying to use that to our advantage—smother guys, don’t let them have breaks in matches, keep forcing our pace,” Lanham said. “We only have a couple of simple goals that we’re trying to get out of this one tournament, and that’s one of them…. If we come away from the Hokie Open learning what we need to work on, that’s a win for me.”


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