2022 EIWA champion Mickey O'Malley (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
Mickey O'Malley may be the current face of the Drexel wrestling program, but he does not like to see it that way. "I do not like to think about that. I just go out there and wrestle" he said. "I do not like to be hyped up and stuff like that." This has been his attitude ever since he was an accomplished high school wrestler in the state of New Jersey. With a Fargo freestyle silver medal, a high school state gold, and a Pan Am Championship in freestyle, his attitude towards the sport seems to be working quite well. I wanted to take a deeper dive into his personality, to see if it was as loose as it is on the mat. When competing, he is as calm and collected as anyone I've seen, with never an ounce of panic.
You'll never see him celebrate after a big win, and he does not like to talk about himself. It took some time for him to be familiar with his role as a leader, even if it was only by example. "It took a little while to get used to" was his reaction when I asked about him being the main guy all his teammates looked up to. "I'm not very vocal, I just go out and do my thing - hoping everyone else follows suit." O'Malley is very humble, knowing his skills are top-notch on the mat. He also understands that "it's just wrestling" in the end. He likes to have fun and not take it too seriously. In fact, this season he started "testing his opponent's gangster." To him, it simply means "let's go upper body and see who wins." This is one aspect that makes him dangerous to wrestle, but entertaining to watch! He will change his style for no one. But why should you when you win your go-to position 99.9% of the time?
The 3x NCAA Qualifier, and reigning EIWA Champion at 174lbs, has only ever considered Drexel as a serious contender for college after high school. His older brother, Sean, committed to the Dragons. Fortunately, a few close friends from his local club committed as well. This would make it easier for Mickey to decide. "McLaughlin, Barczak, and my brother all committed a year or two before me" O'Malley claimed. McLaughlin recently ended his career as a two-time NCAA Qualifier, Barczak is returning for his final year of eligibility with two trips to NCAAs already under his belt. Mickey was excited to be teammates with this special incoming class. Coincidentally, the Dragons have a grad-student transfer from Columbia, named Brian Bonino, who will fill in nicely at 184lbs. He was also part of the famous Apex Wrestling Club out of New Jersey. "We've all been wrestling together since like middle school. It will be fun to have Brian this year." Bonino was an EIWA place finisher last season at 184lbs for the Lions of Columbia.
Being from New Jersey, Rutgers was an obvious suitor. The Ivy League schools were knocking on his door as well. The sell for Drexel, besides the friendship connections, was also the co-op system that separates the university from others. "I was on my visit, and I had these smart kids on the team telling me about the 'bread' they are making," Mickey said with a smile. I am still young enough to know that 'bread' is not a baking term when used in this scenario. O'Malley was excited about the financial possibilities one can make while attending school. He continued with a laugh, "turns out I'm not as smart as them, but having a job that pays well is awesome." Agreeing with him, as I'm a Drexel alum myself, it is a great feeling knowing you can make money while getting credits for school, so you can have extra spending money. It makes you grow up quickly, as these are not internships that are handed to you, as most other programs have. You compete against other students for a chance to interview and earn the job just like the "real world."
O'Malley has been studying finance, with a minor in real estate. Philadelphia is a great opportunity for a young professional with this background. With his main agenda of being in real estate post-graduation, he landed the perfect co-op with a real estate firm based in Philly called Streamline. "We renovate and build brand new housing developments from the ground up all around the city." In a booming market, he is doing some project management for them. "We buy lots, design the buildings, and build them from the ground up." If you have been in a major city in the last decade, this is happening everywhere in all parts of the city.
Some of the landscape in the city is changing, the coaching staff at Drexel is no exception. O'Malley came in with a completely different set of assistant coaches, although the Head Coach, Matt Azevedo, is still at the helm. With a different set of assistants in the latter half of his career, he is taking the opportunity to continue to learn and improve every year. In addition to the fast-improving Pennsylvania Regional Training Center (PRTC), new Drexel coaches CJ LaFragola and David McFadden are fantastic workout partners helping O'Malley improve his skills on the mat and achieve his goal of becoming an All-American. "I don't have specific goals; I just want to improve every year" is what he explained to me.
2022 EIWA champion Mickey O'Malley (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
I talked to Coach Azevedo about his star wrestler, in O'Malley. "He needs to get better on top." Coach Azevedo said without much hesitation. "He needs to make it a dominating position for him like he did in high school." Among other things Azevedo listed out was for Mickey to "Believe in himself" and "wrestle to his strengths." Knowing Mickey's style, and he will admit this himself, he does not have much offense on his feet. He is mostly a defensive, or reactionary wrestler when not in the upper body position. "Finding another attack is something else we are working on. A few minor tweaks are all he needs. He's right there (to reach the podium)."
Two seasons ago, he finished the season in the round of 16 at NCAAs losing to Logan Massa of Michigan - a sixth-year senior at the time. Last year, his season ended in the blood round to 5X All-American in Michael Kemerer of Iowa - a seventh-year senior at the time. If O'Malley's goal of improving continues, he will inevitably earn All-American status. He would only become Drexel's third ever in school history, and first under coach Azevedo. Coach Azevedo's thoughts on coaching his first All-American at Drexel - "Any time you can get an All-American at a small school like Drexel, it is a huge deal. I honestly believe it's tougher to be an All-American now than it ever has been." When you think about why - I believe he's right. For example, we've never seen 6th and 7th-year seniors coming back until now, the transfer portal is more active than ever, and the qualifying system nearly guarantees the best 33 guys are at the NCAA tournament. All of these combinations make the NCAA tournament, a higher quality, and overall better product.
The situation puts a load of pressure on Mickey that I'm not sure he even realizes is there. As mentioned, the school is looking for their 3rd All-American ever (first since 2007) and Coach Azevedo is looking for his first as a head coach ever, beginning in 2011. "The only pressure Mickey feels, is the pressure he puts on himself" Coach Azevedo exclaimed. "Mickey has two more years left to prove himself to the NCAA." Does this drought of coaching an All-American worry or bother Azevedo? Absolutely not! He stated "I came here to produce All-Americans. That has not happened yet. But Mickey can be that guy who helps the program kick the door open, after knocking on it for so long…" After hearing that, I think the question is not "Will Mickey O'Malley be Azevedo's first AA at Drexel?" but "How many AA's will come after Mickey?"
If I'm allowing bias to sneak into this story, this is where it pops up - also I am not exactly sure how to end the article! Matt Azevedo was my coach over a decade ago when I was a Drexel Dragon wrestler myself. He has changed that program for the better in all aspects and has been so close to getting his first All-American. Being one of my favorite coaches in the entire sport, I cannot help but root for him. He's now had four wrestlers compete in the infamous bloodround (round of 12) while at the helm of the Dragon program, with no wins to show for it. Someday this win will come, and I truly hope that I will be there to see it. If so, I can guarantee that I'll be one of the first people in that tunnel congratulating him and his staff.