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Niesenbaum places second in heavyweight division as Duke wrestling falls flat at ACC Championships

Duke heavyweight Jonah Niesenbaum against North Carolina.
Duke heavyweight Jonah Niesenbaum against North Carolina.

The Jonah Niesenbaum show will travel to Tulsa, Okla.  

On the most important day of the wrestling calendar to date with NCAA bids up for grabs, the Blue Devils struggled, finishing last at the ACC Championships as N.C. State went on to win the conference title. Overall, the Blue Devils finished the day with a match record of 2-18, but senior captain Jonah Niesenbaum finished second in the heavyweight division, becoming the lone Blue Devil to earn a qualification for the upcoming NCAA Championships in Tulsa.

“It’s bittersweet,” Duke head coach Glen Lanham said of his team’s performance. “You’re happy for Jonah, you’re happy that what he’s done, and all the work he’s put in, has … paid off. But overall, disappointing that we didn’t have more guys going to nationals.”

Niesenbaum, who entered as the No. 1 seed in the heavyweight division, needed only one win to qualify for nationals. The senior started his day with a semifinal bout against No. 4-seed Jake Slinger of Pittsburgh, who he had previously defeated when Duke traveled to Pittsburgh in February. Niesenbaum repeated his success, defeating Slinger by a score of 3-2 in an intense bout. 

With the qualification secured, Niesenbaum then faced N.C. State’s Owen Trephan in the finals, the only grappler in the bracket who he had not faced prior to the competition. In the opening round, a Niesenbaum shot attempt went awry, allowing Trephan to gain control of his leg. After Trephan completed the takedown, Niesenbaum scrambled to get away and seemed to almost break free before Trephan used his momentum to slam the Blue Devil down to the mat on his back. 

Niesenbaum seemed shocked by the move. By the time he could recover, the Allentown, Pa., native was down 6-0, a massive deficit to overcome in heavyweight wrestling. The match ended 7-2 in favor of Trephan.

“[Niesenbaum] looked tight going into that match. It’s his first time there. There’s a lot of firsts for Jonah because he’s a young wrestler,” said Lanham. “There’s going to be a learning curve for him. It’s like a computer, when you program it with a new program it runs better. That's the same with him, he had that experience.”

Unlike Niesenbaum, the rest of the team had their respective seasons come to a close. Ethan Grimminger, Jarred Papcsy, Patrick Rowland, Logan Ferrero, Gabe Dinette and Vincent Baker each lost both of their double elimination matches, while Jack Wimmer lost three matches on the way to a sixth-place finish at 184 pounds.

The only other Blue Devil victory on the day came from 133-pound Logan Agin, who pinned Marlon Yarbrough of Virginia in the consolation semifinal to set up a chance to qualify for NCAAs in the third-place match. Agin lost that match via major decision 13-2 against Sam Latona of Virginia Tech.

“Logan is sketchy,” Lanham said. “It’s up and down with him. He’s got to be consistent. Logan does just enough, but he’s got to do more. And that’s hard to say. The proof is in the pudding. If he wants to be mid-tier, then he’s gonna continue to do what he wants to do.”

“We just really didn’t get guys to buy into that sacrifice summer mentality,” Lanham reflected on his team’s struggles this year. “We’re the only team that has no scholarships, so it's tough. [But] these guys are all grown men. My philosophy is if you want it, you work for it. Champions, you don't jam it down their throat. Michael Jordan, you don't have to tell him to get up and go work out. If you’re the first one in, first one out, you’re the problem.”

Looking ahead, Niesenbaum and the coaching staff travel to the NCAA Championships, which run March 16-18. For the next two weeks, Lanham will implement his usual pre-nationals training routine, which will involve pushing Niesenbaum beyond his limits for a week and then building him back up to be ready for the battle ahead.

“We’re going to break [Niesenbaum] down this week,” Lanham said. ”Tough week of just hard wrestling. We’re going to try to break him down mentally and physically and then next week, rebuild him. We’ve done that in the past and guys like the Finesilvers responded well. So we’re just gonna go with what works for us.”


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