Chris Pendleton (left) sent six wrestlers to nationals in year one at Oregon State (Photo/Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
The abridged 2021 collegiate season saw four new head coaches at the helm at the division one level. Three were first-time head coaches. Taking over a new program is never an easy task, but it had to be remarkably difficult for rookie head coaches and veterans alike during a COVID-interrupted year. These coaches managed to persevere and all put a product on the mat that was equal to or better than years past at their respective institutions. Each new coach has reason to call year one of their regime a success. Even so, we've decided to look at each coach and their current situation to determine what worked and how their program is set up for the future.
Scotti Sentes (Campbell)
Campbell's first-year head coach, Scotti Sentes, is the only one of the group who was promoted from within his current program. Sentes has been with the team since the 2016-17 season and served as the Camel's associate head coach before the 2019-20 campaign. Under Sentes, Campbell went 8-1, with their only loss coming at the hands of Virginia Tech during the opening weekend of the season. Virginia Tech went on to win the ACC regular-season title and finish unbeaten. Campbell also won their conference, the SoCon, for a third consecutive season and also three-peated at the SoCon Championships.
Three of Sentes' wrestlers came away with SoCon titles, while seven made the trip to nationals. Those seven qualifiers set a school record, besting the previous mark of six, set in each of the last two seasons. A pair of Camels, Austin Murphy (11th - 174) and Caleb Hopkins (14th - 184), received top-15 seeds. Of the Campbell wrestlers, only Josh Heil outperformed his pre-tournament seed (20th) as he made it to the Round of 16. Of course, Heil was embroiled in one of the most controversial moments at the NCAA Tournament in years as he was forced to re-wrestle the final seven seconds of a tiebreaker period due to an error with the clock. Murphy had the deepest run of any Campbell wrestler in 2021 as he made it to the Round of 12, where he was shutout by NC State's Daniel Bullard.
Campbell developed a strong reputation for recruiting under previous head coach Cary Kolat and that continued with Sentes as the head man. We'll see if that continues as Kolat is farther away from the program. Sentes made some wise decisions by bringing Daryl Thomas and Wynn Michalak to Buies Creeks as assistants. Thomas has developed into an excellent recruiter and the sudden improvements to upperweights like Murphy and Hopkins have to be closely linked to Michalak's influence. The pair entered the NCAA Tournament with just a loss between them.
It appears that Campbell will be a force in the SoCon again in 2021-22 as all three of the school's senior national qualifiers have decided to return and use their extra year of eligibility.
Cary Kolat (Navy)
Sentes had the opportunity to take over at Campbell because Cary Kolat moved on to become the head coach at the Naval Academy. Though the Midshipmen fell in Kolat's dual debut to Pittsburgh, his impact was felt immediately. That was their only loss of the year. Two weeks later, the Midshipmen were able to defeat Lehigh for the first time since 2011. Speaking of snapping losing skids, Navy downed their biggest rival, Army West Point, 20-13, and won the Star Match for the first time since 2016.
While Kolat and his staff likely thought an EIWA Championship was in play during year one, Navy dropped four of their five conference final matches and settled for second place behind Lehigh. Even so, that was the school's highest finish at the conference meet since 2013 under Bruce Burnett. The lone EIWA champion for Navy was Cody Trybus, who became the 33rd multiple-time conference champion in program history. Trybus was given the 11th seed in St. Louis, while 165 lber Tanner Skidgel was the only other Navy wrestled seeded in the top-15 (13th). The Midshipman with the deepest NCAA Tournament run was 184 lb freshman David Key, went 2-2. Key picked up wins over 13th seeded Chris Weiler (Wisconsin) and 19th seeded Zac Braunagel (Illinois). Altogether, nine Navy wrestlers qualified for the NCAA Championships. You have to go all the way back to 1969 to find the last Navy team to have sent at least nine.
Almost simultaneous with Kolat's hiring, Navy's recruiting received a considerable surge. While the school will probably never compete with the Iowa, Oklahoma State, and Penn State's of the world for the bluest of the blue-chippers, plenty of quality recruits will flock to Annapolis to wrestle for Kolat along with all the Academy offers. The seniors from the Class of 2021 that have committed to Navy combine to form one of the best-recruiting classes in recent memory for the program. It is also very Pennsylvania-heavy, which is not a surprise considering the proximity to campus and the weight of Kolat's name in his home state.
Navy is not a program that will be able to benefit from the extra year of eligibility. Their student-athletes are students first and will have to fulfill their military obligations rather than spending another year competing. That certainly hurts in 2021-22 as four of their nine national qualifiers were seniors. Look for Navy to be extremely strong in the upperweights going forward as they return NQ's at 184-285. Key was a freshman in 2021, while Jake Koser (197) and John Birchmeier (285) are both sophomores.
With the Ivy schools returning in 2021-22 combined with the departure of the seniors, Navy may take a step back initially, but overall the program is in great hands and should move back towards the top of the league soon.
Chris Pendleton (Oregon State)
The only Power-five job that was open during the 2020 summer was Oregon State. The Beavers filled the void with Chris Pendleton, who was a crucial figure in the rise of Arizona State wrestling. Immediately, Pendleton and his staff, consisting of Nate Engel, Isaiah Martinez, and Mike Kosoy, hit the recruiting trail and hit it hard. The result was a handful of Oregon's best juniors and seniors committing to stay at home and rebuild the proud Oregon State program, along with some exports from California and many other states. The heavy California presence (Pendleton, Engel, Martinez) on the staff was considered an excellent move as getting some of the top California talent to stay on the West Coast bodes well for the program's future.
As for the on-the-mat product in 2021, Oregon State was about what a fan would've expected. The cupboard was certainly not bare for Pendleton and crew, so they had enough pieces to amass a 4-5 dual record and finish second at the Pac-12 Championships. Due to cancelations attributed to COVID, Oregon State missed out on five potential duals this year. Their most notable wins came against Pac-12 rival Cal Poly and Utah Valley.
Six Beaver wrestlers qualified for the NCAA Championships, two of which were as a result of their winning Pac-12 titles. Devan Turner and Grant Willits both grabbed their second career Pac-12 crowns. That led to a 16th seed for Turner, while the Willits twins, Grant and Hunter, were seeded 12th and 13th, respectively. These three all won a pair of matches in St. Louis and came up two wins shy of All-American status. The other OSU wrestler that outwrestled his seed was Ryan Reyes, who came in at #31 in the 184 lb bracket. Reyes was able to down 15th seeded Layne Malczewski (Michigan State) before his elimination.
The only senior of the group of NCAA qualifiers is Turner, who has already announced his intention to return for the 2021-22 season. Six returners with NCAA experience should made for a solid team next season. The Beavers also have a huge incoming class, some of which can contribute in year one. Continued strong recruiting efforts and development could bring Oregon State to be superpower out west.
Ryan LeBlanc (The Citadel)
Despite the shortened season, The Citadel was able to post four wins for first-year head coach Ryan LeBlanc. That total matched the school's output for the 2019-20 season and they have not won more than four in a year, dating back to 2015-16 (when they were 5-10). While LeBlanc and assistant coach Luke Welch had their work cut out for them, they've put together a strong foundation to build upon. Though it was a loss, the Bulldogs gave traditional SoCon power Chattanooga a scare 17-15 in dual meet action. That marked the closest dual between the schools since the 2012-13 season. On the winning side, LeBlanc's squad put together lopsided victories over Gardner-Webb, Presbyterian, and Bellarmine in conference action.
Individually, The Citadel sent one wrestler to St. Louis, their heavyweight Michael McAleavey. McAleavey had been on the cusp of national qualifying contention the previous year with a 22-18 record. He left nothing to chance in 2021, going 15-3 and winning the SoCon title. He was the school's first SoCon champ since 2015 and earned the 23rd seed at nationals. Having this big man at the end of the lineup helped out in duals as he was responsible for falls in 8 of his 15 wins. The good news is that McAleavey has already announced he was returning for the 2021-22 campaign. In addition, their big man, LeBlanc's team will feature 2020 national qualifier (149) Selwyn Porter and 2020 alternate (165) Dazjon Casto. With the development of another couple of wrestlers, the lineup should be solid next season.
One place The Citadel has lagged in prior seasons has been in recruiting. Under LeBlanc and Welch, the changes have been noticed. The Bulldog staff has a handful of commitments from wrestlers up and down the East Coast. Like the other schools above, The Citadel will have to continue to maintain and improve on this new level of recruiting status if they intend on competing with the Chattanooga's, Appalachian State's, and Campbell's of the SoCon.
Note: CSU Bakersfield's Luke Smith took over the team in October on an interim basis. Nothing has publicly changed about Smith's standing with the Bakersfield team. In extremely limited action, his Roadrunners went 0-2 in dual action but sent three wrestlers to nationals, with #19 Chance Rich advancing to the Round of 12 at 133 lbs.