The Blue Devils enter the 2023-2024 season as hungry underdogs with a chip on their shoulders. Duke endured a disappointing season last year, finishing 3-12 overall and 0-5 in conference play. With a mixture of seasoned veterans and emerging young talent, the team will hope to bounce back after last season’s underwhelming performances this time around.
Head Coach Glen Lanham is now entering his 13th season with the Blue Devils. Remarkably, Lanham has sent at least one wrestler to the NCAA Championships in each of his years at the helm, a streak which was extended last year through Jonah Niesenbaum. The dominant senior also provided the Blue Devils’ only victories during March’s ACC tournament. Now that Niesenbaum has graduated, though, the team may find it hard to replace both its undisputed best wrestler and one its most respected leaders.
Lanham emphasized his team’s youth and how it poses a unique challenge.
“This is really their first competition for a lot of them,” he said. “We’ve learned a lot this summer and [want] to see how they put it to use, if they pick up the technique and if it’s something they’re grasping.”
For another obstacle to overcome, Duke will once again enter the season as the only wrestling program in the ACC that does not hand out scholarships to its wrestlers. In fact, wrestling and rowing are the school’s only two sports in which it cannot entice potential recruits with scholarship money. As such, in order to compete against programs that possess more talent on paper, the Blue Devils will have to work harder than anyone else both on and off the mat, starting Friday at Stanford.
New wrestlers to watch: Raymond Adams, Aidan Wallace
Duke boasts eight freshmen this year, some of whom may have a remarkable impact from the start of the season. Lanham said that he was particularly excited to see decorated high-school wrestlers Raymond Adams and Aidan Wallace perform.
“Adams is gonna start at 133 pounds for us,” Lanham said of the Merrick, N.Y., native. “He’s one that, if we can get him a little stronger, which is gonna happen throughout the year, I think that he can have a lot of success.”
“We also have another freshman, 165-pounder Aidan Wallace,” Lanham added. “He’s another well-decorated young man out of New Jersey, a three-time state placer there. He’s another one that you have to be on the lookout for.”
As is often the case in college wrestling, both freshmen may struggle at the start of the season as they adapt to an increased level of competition with much stronger and faster wrestlers. But don’t be surprised if by the end of year both Adams and Wallace settle in and start to become significant contributors for the program.
Returning wrestlers to watch: Gaetano Console, Jarred Papcsy
With Niesenbaum’s departure, the Blue Devils will need some returning veterans to step up and take up the mantle as leaders of the team. New captains Gaetano Console and Jared Papcsy are certainly prepared to step up to the challenge.
Console was one of the brightest performers during last year’s mostly underwhelming campaign, earning a starting spot early in the season and finishing with a 5-6 record overall. Coming into his sophomore year and after making the quarterfinals of the U-20 U.S. Open Wrestling Championships, Console will hope to continue establishing himself as one of the faces of Duke wrestling.
Meanwhile, Papcsy, a graduate student who transferred from N.C. State two years ago, brings much-needed experience to this young Blue Devil squad. Wrestling at 141 pounds, Papcsy finished with an unspectacular 8-13 record during his first season in Durham. However, the veteran wrestler has moved up a weight class to 149 pounds, a switch Duke hopes will bring increased success for both himself and the team.
Most anticipated matchup: ACC Championships, March 10
Lanham expects that it will take a while for his inexperienced team to reach its potential.
“I don’t really measure [our performance] until the ACC tournament and Nationals,” he said. “Obviously we have to qualify guys and we gotta get them there. But I don’t want additional pressure on these guys telling them you’ve gotta take giant steps throughout the season.”
Thus, the Blue Devils’ performance during the ACC tournament will probably be the best indicator of whether they’ve improved from last season. Other than Niesenbaum, the Blue Devils did not score a single victory during the ACC tournament last year, a statistic which Lanham and the team will hope to put behind them when the team travels to Chapel Hill in March.
If this rag-tag mix of energetic freshman and seasoned veterans demonstrate that their hard work during the offseason paid off, Duke will see a significant improvement from last year. In terms of the team’s goals, Lanham stated his desire to win at least one ACC match and qualify a couple of wrestlers for the NCAA Championships. If the Blue Devils accomplish both of these goals, a difficult but not impossible feat, the program may be looking at one of its best seasons in years.
Niesenbaum’s departure massively hurts the program, which loses both a leader and dominant presence on the mat. While Console, Papcsy and others are certainly talented wrestlers, they may find it difficult to step into the shoes of one of the best products in the program’s history. If Duke cannot find a way to replace at least some of Niesenbaum’s production, the Blue Devils may struggle even more than last season, and Lanham may lose his streak of qualifying at least one wrestler for the NCAA tournament in each year of his tenure.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.