While their peers were cramming in the library and finishing up their last papers, members of the AU wrestling team traveled to Las Vegas for the 34th annual Cliff Keen Las Vegas Collegiate Wrestling Invitational on Dec. 4 and 5.
The prestigious national tournament hosted forty of the nation’s top wrestling teams at the Cashman Center in downtown Vegas, including nine of the 15 teams that the Eagles will face at the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association Conference Championships in March. Competition took place over two days, with consolation finals, semifinals and final matches for first and second, third and fourth place occurring on Saturday of the tournament.
Out of the ten athletes representing AU, four wrestlers saw action on the second day of the competition: senior David Terao (125 lbs.), redshirt junior Esteban Gomez-Rivera (133 lbs.), senior John Boyle (157 lbs.) and sophomore Jeric Kasunic (197 lbs.). Their combined efforts culminated in 54.5 points scored and a 12th place finish for the Eagles, a huge improvement from the 13.0 points scored and 32nd place finish that the team put up last year at CKLV.
AU head coach Teague Moore attributes this improvement to an increase in confidence among his wrestlers.
“The team has made monumental jumps and changes,” Moore said. “I think the biggest difference is the confidence that our guys carry now that they didn’t carry last year. They wanted it, and they kind of believed that they could do it last year, but they didn’t have the confidence to actually go out and do it.”
Senior John Boyle, the only Eagle who saw action on the second day of competition at last year’s Invitational, again delivered a highlight performance for the program. He finished second in the 157-pound weight class, battling his way through a bracket studded with nationally-ranked opponents. Although he competed against some of the top collegiate wrestlers in the country, Boyle didn’t let the intensity of his competition stall his focus and intimidate him.
“I still had the mindset that it was just any other day of competing,” Boyle said. “Taking one match at a time and focusing on the little things is what helps me best prepare for tournaments.”
After winning all four of his matches on Friday of competition, with one technical fall, two one-point decisions and a 6-4 victory in the tournament quarterfinals, Boyle advanced to Saturday’s semifinals, ultimately culminating in a takedown just ten seconds before the match’s end. Moore said Boyle’s advancement to the finals is important for evaluating his coaching strategy and the team as a whole.
“It solidifies that what we’re doing is the right thing,” Moore said. “Because he did it, it just solidifies what we’re doing here.”
“As a team, what is leading to our improvement is our investment in the process. Everyone on the team is buying into the process, and we are starting to see the results.” -John Boyle, senior
For Boyle, this weekend’s showing was a positive, but the 2015 NCAA qualifier and EIWA runner-up aspired to even more.
“I did do well but still would have liked to have left Las Vegas as the tournament champion,” Boyle said.
Boyle said he looks forward to applying the lessons and small details he picked up from his performances at CKLV to the remainder of the season.
“What it [CKLV] did for me though was show me what my strengths and weaknesses are at this point in the season,” Boyle said. "There are tons of little pieces I can take from each match and learn from to help me get better.”
Moore said that Boyle has shown significant improvement through his seasons with the AU team.
“Here’s a guy that comes to our team..he didn’t even know if he wanted to wrestle in college….he was a good soccer player in high school,” Moore said.
But Boyle made the commitment to wrestling at American and attacked his workouts and matches with all of his strength. From a 12-20 record his freshman season, Boyle pushed forward to post a 37-10 record his junior year, finished second at the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association Conference Championships and qualified for the NCAA Championships in St. Louis.
According to Moore, Boyle’s dramatic improvement in the sport is the result of hard work and never questioning the coaching.
“John has one hundred percent completely bought into everything that we’re doing,” Moore said. “He never questions anything.”
Boyle agreed that buying into the process helped him achieve his success on the mat.
“As a team, what is leading to our improvement is our investment in the process,” Boyle said. “Everyone on the team is buying into the process, and we are starting to see the results.”
From a 2014 showing at CKLV that had only one athlete returning to the second day of competition, to this year’s finalist and three place winners, Moore said Boyle’s mentality has brought a positive culture to the team.
“[Boyle] came in this year all guns a-blazing,” Moore said. “His progression is stuff that we can sell when we’re out recruiting…he’s huge from a program standpoint.”
As a whole, Moore said his team has worked hard since the conclusion of last season to the beginning of this one.
“Now this year, you see it not only with John, you obviously see it with David, you see it with Esteban, you see it with Jeric, and there are a few other guys that are very capable, literally seconds away from being there with those guys,” Moore said. “From a team standpoint, this weekend was the reassuring pat on the back that they needed to get us to go to the next level.”
Last year, AU’s roster included a team largely of freshmen and sophomores and no seniors, and Moore said the lack of experience and maturity hindered his team’s performance during the 2014-2015 season. This season, however, three transfer students join the lineup, and Moore said they have already influenced the mindset of the team.
“There’s this element of confidence that they [the transfers] have brought in themselves,” Moore said.
Moore also said the team operates more like a unit this season, which has fostered a more positive atmosphere and continued confidence.
“Because these guys have stuck together as such a tight unit, it’s played to their belief in each other,” Moore said.
Boyle echoed Moore’s comments about working together as a team to achieve success. When asked what the biggest difference between last year and this year, Boyle said, “We went out as a team and left it all on the mat.”
The team has a long season ahead to prove themselves, starting with a dual match hosted at AU with Davidson on December 21st at noon, before closing up competition for winter break. Come January, they will be putting their training back on the mat with almost weekly matches until the conference championships are held in late March.
Moore hopes that the upcoming matches will prepare the team for the NCAA tournament at the end of the year where he hopes several of his athletes will walk away with All-American distinctions.
“As of right now, nobody’s been on the podium at the NCAA’s that’s on this team, but you wouldn't know that if you got around them,” Moore said. “You’d think these guys are confident in themselves, their training, and what they're doing, and it gives them a bit of an edge.”