Andy Sneddon, CMUChippewas.com
MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. – Tom Borrelli has been at this coaching bit for a while.
And, like most veterans in the businesses, he fully recognizes the difference between legitimate potential and bluster.
So when he says that his Central Michigan wrestling team could be something special in 2017-18, one tends to take note.
“We have a very good mix of veteran leaders who have worked really hard to be successful,” said Borrelli, who is in his 27th year as the Chippewa coach. “I think we have a good group of very motivated younger guys too. I think our culture is very strong right now as far as a desire to be successful.”
The Chippewas open the season on Sunday at the Michigan State Open and then travel next weekend to the Eastern Michigan Open. The home opener is a nonconference dual against Michigan State on Friday, Nov. 17.
Borrelli’s early season 10-man lineup features six fulltime starters from a team that went 9-3 in duals a year ago, finished third in the Mid-American Conference Championships, and was 23rd in the NCAA Championships. It was CMU’s best national finish since 2013, when it was 18th.
The Chippewas are ranked 17th by the National Wrestling Coaches Association, 18th by WIN Magazine.
Four Chippewa veterans are ranked individually in their respective weight classes by WIN, led by junior Justin Oliver, who is seventh at 149 pounds. Seniors CJ Brucki (174), Jordan Ellingwood (184) and Colin Heffernan (157) are also in the top 10.
Added to that group are returning starters Mason Smith (141) and Logan Parks (165), both sophomores, along with junior Jordan Atienza (197), who, while not a fulltime starter a year ago, has seen plenty of varsity matches throughout his career.
Oliver was an All-American two years ago as a freshman, and he, along with Smith, Brucki, Ellingwood and Heffernan were among the nine Chippewas who qualified for the NCAA Championships last season.
“I think all of them know that they’re capable of accomplishing their goals,” Borrelli said. “They’re right in front of them. They’re close enough to them that they can grasp them.”
Three redshirt freshmen round out the lineup in Drew Hildebrandt (125), Dresden Simon (133) and Matt Stencel (285).
Stencel, a highly touted signee out of Clay High School in Oregon, Ohio, recorded nine pins while finishing 13-6 a year ago wrestling in open tournaments. He defeated returning national qualifier Newton Smerchek, a senior, 5-2, in the intrasquad dual to claim the starting spot in the weight class.
The Chippewas will, as is their custom, face a rugged schedule that includes two of the nation’s best December tournaments, the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational and the Ken Kraft Midlands in Evanston, Ill.
The Chippewas are slated to wrestle 14 duals. Among the opponents is fourth-ranked Michigan, No. 5 Missouri, No. 9 Virginia Tech, and No. 16 South Dakota State.
Missouri has won every MAC title since it joined the league for the 2012-13 season. Northern Iowa which, along with CMU, has been a contender for the crown over that same five-year span, has departed for the Big 12.
Missouri comes to Mount Pleasant for a dual on Jan. 19 in a meet that very likely will go a long way in determining the regular-season league championship. CMU is the host school for the March 3-4 MAC Championships.
“I think that’s a legitimate goal of our athletes,” Borrelli said of a potential MAC crown, something the Chippewas have not accomplished since 2012. “With us wrestling (Missouri) at home and with us having the conference tournament here. I think especially that veteran core would like to go out on a very high note.
“I really feel like this group is hungry and feels like they’re capable. For us to accomplish what we want to accomplish, we’ll have to knock off some really strong teams. I think our guys think they’re capable of that.”