If Duke wrestling has proved anything this year, it’s that onlookers shouldn’t take its goal of having an All-American on its team lightly.
In each match this season, players have corrected prior mistakes that caused them losses in the past. Not everyone has seen a win yet, but the team continues to be successful. Even against some of the most competitive teams in the country, the team has recorded wins. In opening their duals Nov. 21, the Blue Devils exemplified why they have the potential to reach national notability, going 2-1 in competition with 35-10 and 25-17 wins against Bellarmine and Northern Illinois, respectively and a 15-28 loss against No. 20 Purdue at the Boilermaker Duals in West Lafayette, Ind.
“I think the energy was pretty high,” head coach Glen Lanham said. “It’s been a while since we wrestled with a couple of non-conference foes, so just seeing some different opponents that you’re not familiar with was pretty good…. Starting off the season this early—last year, we didn’t start until January—I think that it was a little anticipation. The guys were really excited about getting out there and wrestling.”
Helping the team secure these victories was redshirt seniors Matt Finesilver and Josh Finesilver, and junior Jonah Niesenbaum. All three wrestlers went undefeated in this competition by taking down their opponents in decisions, major decisions or falls. Matt has now gone 10-0 in competition this season to put up the top record on the team, and his twin, Josh, is a close second with a 9-1 record while Niesenbaum is close behind in third with a 9-2 record.
The Blue Devils began at an earlier period this year than they did in the last. Along with more competitions on the calendar, this squad has all the cards in its favor to see significant improvements throughout the season—potentially leading to its name appearing on the InterMat top-25 rankings. With two wins already under their belt in duals, the Blue Devils have a solid record to protect in their future competitions, as this mark is already the best the program has collectively seen since their 2-9 record in the 2018-19 season.
However, if the group can continue to register wins like this, their duals will not only beat that record, but they also have the potential to be one of the best squad’s that Lanham has coached since the 2014-15 season when they went 11-7 overall. This weekend was an anomaly because Purdue’s roster has a handful of super-seniors in its lineup along with a high number of veterans; the Blue Devils were competing against a team with much more collegiate experience than they have.
“You got at 125 [weight bracket], Logan Agin wrestling a guy that’s been in college for six years so that maturity factor is something that you look at,” Lanham said. “I mean, we’re a relatively young team, so that’s good experience for us, that top-ranked team and almost everyone in their lineup is ranked somewhere in the top-25. I thought it was good to get out there and see what we need to work on, what we need to improve on if we want to be a team like that.”
Despite the strength the Purdue roster features, Duke’s performance was precisely where it needed to be. Considering that the Blue Devils still only have two of their wrestlers ranked within their weight brackets, competing against a team with that magnitude of power and getting wins on their side shows they have what it takes to remain competitive against top-ranked teams. With seven different wrestlers handing their Bellarmine opponents a loss, the group proved that their depth against more challenging opponents is developing.
In the 133, 157 and 197 weight brackets, Drake Doolittle, Wade Unger and Kaden Russell were three notables in the duals competition as each won against their Bellarmine and Northern Illinois opponents. Despite each wrestler losing to their Purdue opponent, Doolittle and Russell only lost through decisions—meaning less than an eight-point score difference—with Doolittle losing 8-3 and Russell by 5-2.
Considering that their losses weren’t due to major decisions—more than an eight-point difference—the wrestlers could compete in a long match against their opponent and have the potential to do better in future battles against these opponents. Purdue is one of the toughest teams this roster has competed against, so if these three wrestlers can win more matches against difficult opponents, then they can be the answer to Duke’s depth issue.
Next week, the Blue Devils have four matches with competitions against Drexel and Maryland Dec. 4 and Hofstra and American on Dec. 5. Top-ranked wrestlers will compete with them again this weekend, but Lanham has no fears for what that means for Duke.
“In order to be a wrestler that’s in the conversation about being an All-American, you have to wrestle these types of guys,” Lanham said. “Like I said, this is why we schedule things like this because we want this competition. We want this competition for our guys. We’re not trying to get ready for duals; we’re trying to get ready for nationals.”
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Ana Young is a Trinity first-year and a staff reporter for the news and sports departments.