Defeat can be the greatest teacher. For senior heavyweight Jonah Niesenbaum, nationals served as a productive lesson.
Duke wrapped up its season Friday at the NCAA Championships in Tulsa, Okla., with Niesenbaum eliminated in the second round of the consolation draw. Niesenbaum, the only Blue Devil to qualify for nationals, finished the weekend with a 1-2 record, losing his first and third match in the double elimination bracket.
“I’m disappointed about my performance,” Niesenbaum said. “In hindsight, If I had a little bit more confidence, I think I would have [done better].”
“I thought it was good,” Duke head coach Glen Lanham said of Niesenbaum’s performance. “I think we left a little bit on the table … I would have liked to go away from there winning maybe one or two more matches. But there’s a lot of people who didn’t even get to [Day 2]. So we were fortunate to be able to do that.”
In his first match, No. 19-seed Niesenbaum faced No. 14-seed AJ Nevills from South Dakota State. The moment seemed to get to the Blue Devil, as he wrestled an uncharacteristically lethargic match. Nevills took advantage and finished the bout with an 8-1 triumph.
“I was a little overwhelmed. I’d never been there,” said Niesenbaum. “My feet weren’t moving very well. There’s a part of me that maybe didn’t believe that I was ready.”
“A lot of butterflies for that first match,” said Lanham. “He just really didn’t open up.”
Niesenbaum bounced back positively in his next match against No. 30-seed Hayden Copass of Purdue. The Allentown, Pa., native was aggressive right out of the gate, firing in for a double leg takedown in the first round after a short time in a left collar tie. The move worked to perfection, giving Niesenbaum the lead and momentum needed to win the match 6-0.
“Second match, I was like ‘I’m just gonna go out there and blast through this dude,’” Niesenbaum said of his approach. “It felt great getting that first NCAA win. My hand raised out there. I want to do a lot more next year.”
In his third match, Niesenbaum found himself in a position to win. After a penalty was called on No. 13-seed Tyrell Gordon for clasping his hands, Niesenbaum started on bottom tied 1-1 for the third round. Needing an escape to gain the lead, the heavyweight lumbered to his feet and tried to break Gordon’s hand lock. However, Niesenbaum turned in too soon, allowing Gordon to secure a body lock which sent Niesenbaum back down to the mat. A near-fall was awarded to Gordon, which gave him the 6-1 victory.
“I would say it was a good match, but disappointing. Just the technical mistake towards the end which cost it for me,” said Niesenbaum. “But you know, it’s one of those things where you either win or you learn. And that was one of the situations where I learned, so I’m not going to do that again.”
Despite the lingering disappointment, Niesenbaum feels energized for the offseason with the knowledge that the goal of attaining a national title is more tangible than ever before. Considering his successful season, 26-6 record and proven ability to make strides in the offseason, such a mindset seems warranted.
“I’m right there,” Niesenbaum said of his ability. “Everyone always says they want to be a national champ. I’ve had it written down before, but I didn’t really know what that meant until [I was] there, in the tournament. I want to be a national champ that much more, and I also believe that I can be a national champ that much more. I can get my hands on any of those guys.”
As a team, Duke has a chance to make major improvements over the summer, a staple of Lanham’s program. Due to the challenges associated with being a non-scholarship sport, Lanham was ecstatic to obtain some alumni support to help keep some grapplers in Durham while in Tulsa.
“We had a bunch of alumni out there [in Tulsa] … and we got a lot of commitments from [alumni], from internships to summer jobs to housing. All those things that our guys need to do in order to stay around here and compete this summer. So that was pretty exciting,” said Lanham.
Niesenbaum hopes to bring a handful of Blue Devils with him to nationals next year in his fifth and final season, creating a legacy of success.
“We want to get guys to nationals,” said Niesenbaum of his goal for the team. “I want to focus on those guys that want that. I want to see who sticks around this summer … and we’ll create a little power squad to take to nationals next year.”
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