Duke wrestling opens 2016 at Southern Scuffle

<p>Third-ranked Conner Hartmann could face a serious test at this weekend's Southern Scuffle.</p>

Third-ranked Conner Hartmann could face a serious test at this weekend's Southern Scuffle.

In 2015, the Blue Devils produced an ACC champion, a program-best five NCAA qualifiers and their highest national ranking in program history—now it is time to see what 2016 has to offer.

No. 24 Duke will ring in the New Year Friday and Saturday at the Southern Scuffle at McKenzie Arena in Chattanooga, Tenn., returning to competition for the first time since its 26-14 loss to Appalachian State in its first dual competition of the season.

“Overall, the guys are looking good,” Duke head coach Glen Lanham said. “They came back [from their holiday break] in really good shape, so I’m excited about the Scuffle for sure.”

The Blue Devils are hoping to return to tournament form in the Scenic City this weekend by replicating early season success in that format. Duke grapplers have captured four first-place tournament finishes so far this season—three at the season-opening Hokie Open and the fourth by heavyweight Brendan Walsh while wrestling unattached at the Pembroke Open—and have seized 17 top-six finishes.

The Southern Scuffle brings a new brand of opposition to the Blue Devils, though. Two national champions and 30 All-Americans highlight the field, as well as 12 teams currently ranked in the InterMat Top-25 Tournament Rankings, which includes No. 1 Penn State, No. 2 Oklahoma State and No. 4 Cornell.

“[The Southern Scuffle] is where you make your bones,” Lanham said. “You can definitely make a name for yourself if you’ve prepared and you’ve trained and you’re ready to do that…. Everybody is a buzzsaw at this tournament.”

A potential marquee matchup could pit No. 3 Conner Hartmann against No. 1 Morgan McIntosh of Penn State at 197 pounds, a rematch of last season’s NCAA quarterfinals, when the 10th-seeded Hartmann upset second-seeded McIntosh by a 3-2 decision en route to All-America honors. Hartmann is undefeated this season, including a 3-0 clip against ranked opponents.

Duke will not enter a grappler in the 125-pound weight class after sophomore Thayer Atkins suffered a concussion and several competitors left the team. Despite lacking an entrant at the weight, Lanham stressed the health of his student athletes being more important than fielding a wrestler at the tournament.

“Hopefully we can get [Atkins] healthy and ready to go here, but with the concussion protocol we have to make sure we protect our student-athletes,” he said. “We want to definitely err on the side caution with him.”

After missing the Dec. 15 dual against the Mountaineers due to weight issues, junior Xaviel Ramos is projected to return at 133 pounds. Ramos was scratched from the dual before competition began, costing the Blue Devils six points in the second match that put them in an early 10-0 hole. True freshman Brandon Leynaud is registered to compete at the weight as well. The Lexington, Ohio, native is 4-4 in tournaments this season.

Duke is also trying to work through an injury at 174 pounds. Although sophomore Alec Schenk won the team’s wrestle-off to earn a spot in the lineup in his first year at the weight, a neck issue sidelined him earlier this season. At the Southern Scuffle, Schenk should compete alongside redshirt junior Brian Dorsey and graduate student Randy Roden.

“We’re trying to determine if [Ramos is] even going to be in the Scuffle right now, so that’s kind of a weight class that’s up in the air. We have a really strong freshman backup there [with Leynaud],” Lanham said. “We’ve got three solid guys at [174 pounds]. Schenk right now is the number one guy at the weight because he did win the weight, but right after that he was injured. We’re just trying to see how he performs coming off his recovery.”

With the ACC schedule on the horizon, the Blue Devils will also get a look at upcoming conference foes this weekend, including No. 5 Virginia Tech, No. 8 N.C. State, No. 19 North Carolina and No. 25 Virginia. Although the Hokies and Wolfpack only have two and three entrants, respectively, Duke could face grapplers from N.C. State prior to a dual competition matchup Jan. 6 in Durham.

“It’s always good to kind of get a feel for [conference opponents] prior to a dual, so we’d like to run into a few of them here and there,” Lanham said. “It’s a great opportunity for us to get out there and wrestle quality opponents like this.” 


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