Wrestling team faces tough schedule

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Head wrestling coach Jimmy May feels as though his team is competing against some of the country’s top wrestlers week after week.

At first this might seem like an exaggeration, but May has planned such a competitive schedule this season that it appears to be true.

“We have upped the level of competition in our schedule and made it so our kids are seeing better competition,” May said. “We feel that the better the competition, the better they are going to get.”

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The team wrestled in the Kaufman-Brand Open Saturday in St. Louis, Mo., and despite elite competition in the tournament, four Wildcats placed.

May said the 33-year-old tournament is prestigious within the sport, but organizers made it a bit more interesting this year. Typically elite and amateur divisions are separated in the Kaufman-Brand Open, but they were combined this year, which created another challenging tournament for Baker.

The open featured major programs such as University of Missouri, Oklahoma University, University of Iowa, University of Illinois and Northern Illinois.

“It was a really tough tournament for some of our young kids,” May said. “Even some of our more experienced kids had their hands full.”

Senior Brandon Gebhardt led the way once again for the Wildcats by finishing second in the 285-pound weight class. Gebhardt posted a 4-1 record during the tournament, only falling to University of Missouri’s Devon Mellon during the championship match. Mellon was able to grab the victory on a 3-2 decision.

Junior AJ Gassman also placed seventh for Baker. After receiving a bye in the first round, Gassman was able to go 3-2 the rest of the day, with wins over Ouachita Baptist’s Robert Lewis and Maryville University’s Brandon Oshiro.

“I was really, really happy about this tournament,” Gassman said. “After having a rough start to the season, I went up there and won my first match right off the bat, which is a really good feeling.”

Sophomore Dylan Coppenbarger and senior Nathan Sommer each finished eighth to round out the Wildcats who placed.

Coppenbarger, 149 pounds, had a 3-2 record going into the seventh place match but was pinned by Nic Stella of King College. Sommer went 3-3 on the day in the 165-pound weight class, losing in his final match to NCAA Division I wrestler Dan Burk of Northern Illinois.

May said although the tournament was challenging it was beneficial for the Wildcats to experience wrestling against elite-level athletes.

“It was good for us to see that kind of competition,” May said. “That’s what we need to see to get ready for our regional tournament and our national tournament.”

Coppenbarger agreed with May, saying that he believes the tough schedule will pay off when they wrestle NAIA competition.

“I think it really is genius having a tough schedule,” Coppenbarger said. “If you haven’t seen that kind of competition and you just walk into regionals, obviously it is going to be tough. But I think wrestling the guys we’ve been wrestling, is really going to give us the upper-hand when we go to regionals.”

The Wildcats will continue their tough schedule Dec. 16 when they head to Las Vegas for the Desert Duals. The tournament will be a homecoming for May and many of his wrestlers, too.

During the Desert Duals, Baker will see the No. 3 ranked NCAA Division III team, Cole College, and the No. 1 NAIA team, Grandview University.

“We are going to struggle just to go compete with those teams but that’s what we need to see,” May said. “It’s a matter of our kids buying into it, surviving those matches and getting ready for our regional tournament, which is at our place Feb. 16.”