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  • Photo: Photo/Tony Rotundo

    Photo: Photo/Tony Rotundo

    History, opportunity to guide Clemsen at Maryland

    The Big Ten Conference houses some of the most storied wrestling programs in the history of the sport. When Maryland joined the conference in 2014, the Terps wrestling team was not on par with some other conference members, but the program appeared to be on an upswing. Some thought the conference change would help the team compete against the perennial powers. However, the bottom quickly fell out and the losses began to mount. To an outside observer, the situation appears to be a complete rebuild. However, the next program leader will have the opportunity to be guided by both history and opportunity.

    In 1954, Ernie Fischer became the first wrestling All-American in University of Maryland history. He made the NCAA finals at 167 pounds but came up short against Joe Solomon of Pittsburgh. Two years later the Baltimore native represented the U.S. at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. He went 1-2 with his losses coming against eventual silver medalist Ibrahim Zengin of Turkey and gold medalist Mitsuo Ikeda of Japan. Fischer, who was inducted into the Maryland Athletics Hall of Fame in 1989, passed away this past April. He was 88 years old.

    At the most recent Olympics in 2016, the U.S. finished with two gold medalists: Kyle Snyder and Helen Maroulis. Like Fisher, both Snyder and Maroulis are Maryland natives. However, neither wrestled collegiately for the Terps. While Maroulis' situation speaks to need for a rapid proliferation of NCAA wrestling opportunities for women, the fact that Snyder did not wrestle for the biggest college in his home state remains a sore spot for some local wrestling enthusiasts.

    A few months prior to winning his Olympic gold medal, Snyder defeated reigning champion Nick Gwiazdowski to become an NCAA champion at heavyweight for Ohio State. In the same tournament, Maryland had a single qualifier.

    Alex Clemsen coaching at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)

    On April 23, Maryland named former Missouri assistant Alex Clemsen as the seventh head coach in program history. He takes over a squad that he seen diminishing positive results over the last few seasons of leadership under former coach Kerry McCoy. Despite not being a traditional power in wrestling there is still expectation, history and, of course, opportunity. When Clemsen speaks about his new position, it is hard to not notice both his excitement and practical understanding of the weight of being the top figure at such a program.

    "Ask me at different times, and I will have different answers, but overall, I am really excited and grateful," he says with a slight chuckle. "I think the biggest word is that I just feel really blessed to be a leader of a Big Ten program and an academic institution of Maryland's caliber."

    Prior to his five-year stint at Missouri, Clemsen had previous assistant coaching stops at Virginia and Oregon State. Even though this will be his first chance to be a head coach, he feels like his experience has properly prepared him.

    "I am not sure what is going to change other than going to head coaches' meetings or being on big donor asks, but I may feel different about that in a year," he said. "I know that I have been preparing for this role for literally 14 years. It has been my professional goal, so I have asked for more responsibility from every boss I have had, and a lot of them trust me, empowered me and gave me some pretty good leash and rope. I feel like I have had my hands in just about everything."

    In addition to Snyder, several other top former Maryland high school wrestlers have managed to slip past the Terps in recent seasons. Myles Martin (Ohio State), Aaron Brooks (Penn State), Kraisser brothers (Campbell) and Kurt McHenry (Michigan) have all gone on to sign with other schools. While an assistant at Missouri, Clemsen made it a point to recruit the Tigers' home state, and he plans to continue that trend at Maryland.

    Alex Clemsen spent five seasons on Brian Smith's staff at Missouri (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)

    "I think I am part of the reason why Missouri has done [so well in state] the last five years or so," Clemsen said. "That emphasis has really changed. You know it was maybe not as much of a focus before me, and it was really my primary focus to keep the best kids in the state home, and by and large, we had a lot of success doing that. I think that recruiting success led to a lot more on-mat success. There are plenty of kids in this state who can wrestle at a high level. There are plenty of kids in this immediate region who can wrestle at a really high level, so my biggest goal is to recruit the state and the immediate region to the best of my ability. I think if we do that we will have plenty of success."

    A common refrain among many in the media was that McCoy was leaving the cabinet basically empty after he announced his departure. The Terps will lose two-time All-American heavyweight Youssif Hemida and former prized recruit Alfred "Baby J" Bannister to graduation, but Clemsen sees some promise in the overlooked roster.

    "I have had the chance to be with these guys and to run some practices and watch them work out," he said. "I don't want to say pleasantly surprised, but I definitely feel like we have some really great kids on the roster, and we have some good talent and good character that can molded, evolved and grown into some really competitive kids. I told the guys in the room on day one that they -- along with the class that is coming in the fall -- are the 25 to 30 most important wrestlers in the country to me. My job right now is to get these guys to buy in and to really grow and adapt so that we can set the foundation for Maryland wrestling.

    "It won't be the first or second recruiting class that is the change. It will be the guys that are here right now, because if I can't get them to change, I won't be able get the right recruits. I need these guys on board and all bought in, so I can go find the guys that I can pair with them and continue the trajectory of improving Maryland wrestling."

    Despite that optimism, it will be a tough road to build the Terps into a contender. When asked about expectations, Clemsen does not want to commit to a specific win total or NCAA placement, but he seems confident that he will have the team moving in the right direction.

    "I am not going to paint myself into a corner with that, but I think we will be a more competitive product," he said. "I think you will see kids who know the positions better, fight harder, are stronger and in better shape that can give themselves more opportunities to have more success. What that success will look like or how much exactly we will have, I don't have a crystal ball. I can't predict the future, but I think we are going to have more for sure."

    Alex Clemsen (Photo/Mark Lundy, Lutte-Lens.com)

    There might not be another Ernie Fischer on the current roster. Clemsen might not be able to convince the next Kyle Snyder to stick around the "Old Line State." However, the new Maryland coach speaks about his plans for the Terps with an uncomplicated and genuine confidence. Being a Division I coach is just as much about technique and tactics as it is about representing and selling the program. Despite this being his first opportunity to be the head coach, he seems to understand that all too well. He did not hesitate to the take the opportunity to have the last word in the interview.

    "Don't try to make it for a couple of matches," he said bluntly. "Make it to most of them."

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