AU wrestling preview: New interim head coach looks to guide young team through adversity
Team prepares for first match of the season Feb. 7 with mix of veterans, freshmen
Last season, American University wrestling finished ninth of 17 teams at the EIWA Championships, earning six place-winners and three automatic NCAA qualifiers. While it was a solid season for AU wrestling, it marked the first time AU ranked below eighth at the event since the 2014-15 season.
The team intends to top last year’s outcome, as five of those six place-winners are competing this season with Tanner Harvey as the lone opt-out. Pressure will also build for the senior class, which missed a chance to compete in the NCAA Championships last March after the tournament was canceled, due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The success of the season will depend heavily on young wrestlers. Nearly half of AU wrestling’s 24-man roster is composed of freshmen. This year's group of first-year wrestlers is the largest freshman class since the 2016-17 season.
Newly-appointed interim head coach Jason Grimes has inherited a difficult situation with this young team after Teague Moore departed from the program in late January. The transition from high school to collegiate wrestling was already challenging enough for freshmen before COVID-19. Now, it's even more complex. As everyone in the program goes through a pandemic for the first time in their lives, Grimes has just as much to teach as he does to learn.
“My message to the freshmen has been buy-in,” Grimes said. “I tell them you’ve gotta trust the process. This is a very unprecedented season, so the process is new to everyone here. I’ve been reaching out to people in the wrestling community that I trust and other coaches as well to see what they’re doing. Talking to other coaches prepares me to coach and helps us because I share their wisdom with my wrestlers.”
Not too long ago Grimes was on the mat as an Eagle. A graduate of the 2017 class, Grimes finished his career with 13 pins, ranking 10th all-time for the Eagles. Only four years out of college, he is now AU’s acting head wrestling coach.
“I never really envisioned myself to be the coach of the program at any point,” Grimes said. “It’s cool to feel the same kind of support from alumni and the community as I did when I was on the mat.”
While AU won’t see those supporters in-person this year, the athletes will still wrestle hard for their new coach as they prepare for the EIWA Championships on Feb. 26. Star senior wrestlers Gage Curry (125lbs, 30-9) and Kizhan Clarke (149lbs, 36-7) are both looking to finish in third place or higher after finishing fourth last year. Also coming off a strong year is Ben Root (174lbs, 14-14), a redshirt sophomore who led the team with nine pins a year ago.
The Eagles have matches against Bucknell, George Mason and Lehigh before the EIWA Championships. These teams have a combined record of 2-7 on the season.
As the EIWA Championships approach, the team realizes what’s at stake. How the team places at the event will determine if the season is viewed as a success, and the program's goal for the next few weeks is to make sure the wrestlers are prepared on Feb. 26. The wrestlers will get solid practice this Sunday, Feb. 7, when they travel up to Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, to wrestle the 0-3 Bucknell Bison.