Going into the NCAA Championships, the North Carolina wrestling team faced nearly insurmountable odds.
As one of the two youngest teams in the event, hosted in Des Moines, Iowa, the Tar Heels lacked the experience of some of their competitors.
But coach C.D. Mock had faith in his young group of wrestlers, who he said are All-American caliber despite lacking championship experience.
“We’ve got guys on this team that are fully capable of being All-Americans and national champions,” Mock said prior to the first round. “And that may not happen this year, but it certainly can.”
The Tar Heels collectively performed beyond their years, ending the weekend in 22nd place out of 72 teams — UNC’s best mark since finishing in 21st place in 1996.
Fifth-ranked sophomore Evan Henderson finished sixth in the 141-pound class and was the first UNC wrestler to be named an All-American since Evan Sola in 2005.
Henderson, who was the only Tar Heel wrestler with an appearance at the championships prior to this year, said he was relieved after pinning Northern Iowa’s Joey Lazor in a consolation match win that earned him All-America honors. Henderson fell to fourth-ranked Mitchell Port of Edinboro in the quarterfinals, ending his chance of competing for a national title.
“I felt I had way more confidence this year going along with my training and the experience I had at the championships last year,” Henderson said. “I wanted to be an All-American last year and things happen for better or worse, but I finally got it done.”
Freshman Nathan Kraisser — ranked seventh at 125 pounds entering the event — and redshirt freshman 165-pounder John Staudenmayer finished just short of joining Henderson.
After losing in the final seconds of a quarterfinal match against No. 2 seed and eventual national champion Jesse Delgado of Illinois, Kraisser dropped his consolation match to Wyoming’s Tyler Cox.
Staudenmayer lost in the first round of his event but claimed three consolation match wins before falling by a slim 5-3 margin to Minnesota’s Cody Yohn.
“It kind of hurts seeing yourself get so close and then lose after having the match slip away ,” Staudenmayer said. “It’s motivating for next year, but there’s definitely a burning feeling right now, not being an All-American.
“My goal for next year is to be on the stand and to get as high as I can on it.”
Mock said his young wrestlers were incredibly close to “blowing it wide open,” and he was proud of them for simply contending in Division I wrestling’s marquee event with so little experience.
Without any seniors, UNC will look to continue developing its young roster.
“This is the maturity and experience we needed from the younger guys,” Mock said. “To have freshmen and sophomores go out here and do well — to feel it and taste it — is going to have a huge impact on our team next year.”
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