The last time Nebraska wrestlers competed as a team, it was for a Big Ten Championship. The team’s other postseason opportunity, the NCAA Championships, was canceled soon after.
Seven months later, Nebraska returned by bringing 22 wrestlers to compete in USA Wrestling’s Senior Nationals from Oct. 9-11. This was also two months after the team was able to come back together in Lincoln for training.
“It was great for our sport,” head coach Mark Manning said. “We've been training for seven weeks in our facility with no positive tests. It showed that we have a disciplined team and the guys are serious about their craft. It was great to get back into it.”
The meet was held outside of Iowa City, Iowa, which is where clubs, teams and individuals of all collegiate classes and above were allowed to compete. 22 Huskers went to the event with six wrestling in Greco-Roman (classic wrestling), while the rest competed in freestyle wrestling, a combination of wrestling, judo and sambo. USA Wrestling hosted the event and offered the top eight places in freestyle an Olympic redshirt, which gives a wrestler another year of eligibility in case COVID-19 causes another postponement.
Seniors Christian Lance and Eric Schultz both qualified for the redshirt, with Lance placing seventh in the 125-kilogram class and Schultz placing fifth in the 97-kilogram class.
“It was really awesome, and it was definitely a testament to how hard we've been training,” Lance said. “Our whole goal going into that tournament was to place and qualify for an Olympic redshirt. We could use it as a backup if something weird happens with COVID this year and we don't get a season.”
After the coronavirus sent everyone home for a good portion of the spring semester, most of the Husker wrestlers were faced with their biggest challenge yet. With the pandemic preventing close contact with others, it became a task to find a way to train.
“It was challenging not being able to get in any wrestling rooms for a few months,” Schultz said. “That was probably the longest I’ve gone without wrestling in about six or seven years. So staying focused, getting in any type of running workouts or lifting workouts I could get in, helped a lot.”
Manning knew that most of his team spent time in wrestling clubs and trained on their own over the summer, but other Huskers had their own training methods.
“I went back home and got in contact with some of my old coaches,” Lance said. “I went to his house, and we rolled out mats on his front lawn in the front of his house because that was the only option we had. I got in contact with guys I used to train with in the area, and we would just wrestle on the coach's front lawn.”
Whether it’s training on a coach’s front lawn or in a club with a limited number of people, the drive to improve in a unique off-season proved to be a difficult experience.
“It's a lot easier when you're with a group of guys who all share a common goal and are working with each other to accomplish that goal,” Schultz said. “They’re pushing you, and you’re pushing them. But when you're by yourself, it's more difficult to find that motivation inside yourself because you don’t have anyone else with you.”
Once the team returned to campus and began training, they had their eye on Senior Nationals. With the postponement of fall sports, this was one of the only meets that was still on for the fall. With this in mind, Manning decided to bring six of the nine true freshmen to compete at the meet.
“It’s a crazy first meet for them to have with what’s going on,” Manning said. “If this was a typical year, we would have never taken all these guys to a tournament like this, but, since there's not going to be many opportunities to compete this year, we wanted to give our guys that opportunity.”
Along with Lance and Schultz finishing top eight in freestyle, sophomores Alex Thomsen, Peyton Robb and Austin Emerson all finished in the top eight in the Greco-Roman division. Emerson finished in eighth in the 130-kilogram class, Robb finished fourth in the 77-kilogram class and Thomsen won the 65-kilogram class.
Only four Huskers left the event without winning a match, which, according to Lance, shows how the team has been putting in the work since March.
“We had been training harder than anybody else,” Lance said. “A lot of our guys were going out there and gassing guys. We put the pace on guys, and they weren't ready for it. That was our biggest strength, our biggest positive, biggest takeaway from this meet. We’re able to wrestle hard and put the pace on guys.”
It is still unknown what the season will look like with concerns about the coronavirus still prevalent. However, the team knows that this decision is out of their hands. All they can do is focus on training together, staying safe and learning from this experience.
“It's made us aware of how delicate your career and the number of seasons you have to compete are,” Manning said. “There's a thin line between being able to compete and not getting shut down. You have to make sure you're making healthy choices and personal decisions that are best for not only you but also for your teammates.”