Ready to rumble: UB wrestling heads to the MAC tournament this weekend
UB head wrestling coach John Stutzman says that when it comes to wrestling, the Mid-American Conference is a powerhouse.
There are 34 wrestlers participating in the MAC currently ranked within the top 25 of their weight class in the nation. Three programs are ranked in the top 25 team rankings. No. 10 Missouri leads the way, followed by no. 14 Northern Iowa and no. 17 Central Michigan. Missouri currently has seven wrestlers ranked in top 25. Central Michigan has seven of their own while Northern Iowa has five.
The Buffalo Bulls (11-6, 4-4 MAC) wrestling team will look to solidify one of the best seasons in program history when they travel to Cedar Falls, Iowa this weekend for the MAC tournament. The Bulls have established themselves as one of the best programs in the MAC, coming off their first winning season since 2010.
“A couple years ago nobody saw this coming, everybody thought we were down and out,” Stutzman said. “We went from three wins, to five wins, to 10 wins, to 11 wins and if you look at how you build a program, it happened fairly quick.”
Four years, ago things looked bleak for UB wrestling. They were coming off a one-win season and starting over with a new head coach in Stutzman.
Stutzman struggled early and failed to capture a MAC dual meet win in his first two seasons, but has recently made up for it.
Buffalo set a program record this season when they won their fourth MAC dual meet. Stutzman is still looking for his first MAC champion wrestler and this could be the year. The team currently has five wrestlers ranked among the top 25 of the most recent NCAA coaches ranking. Sophomore Bryan Lantry is the highest ranked Bull at No. 14.
“Coach Stutzman clearly took a team that was dying and could have easily been taken away from the program,” Lantry said. “And turned it into what is potentially going to be a powerhouse, if not, already is a powerhouse.”
Nine other Bulls will join Lantry in the MAC tournament. No. 25 Kyle Akins (125), No. 14 Bryan Lantry (133), Jason Estevez (141), Colt Cotton (149), Alex Smythe (157), Tyler Rill (165), Muhamed McBryde (174), No. 24 Brett Perry (184), No. 19 James Benjamin (197), and No. 22 Jake Gunning (285) will all be representing Buffalo in the tournament.
Benjamin has one of the toughest roads through the MAC tournament.
There are currently five 197-pound MAC wrestlers ranked in the top 25. The biggest concern for Benjamin will be the No. 1 wrestler in the country at 197, Missouri senior J’den Cox. Cox is the defending national champion at 197 – his second national collegiate title. He added to his decorated career this past summer when he brought home a bronze medal from the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. In Stutzman’s words, “he’s as good as they get.”
But Stutzman still thinks Benjamin has what it takes to win. The coach credits Benjamin’s unorthodox style as one of the biggest reasons why he could pull off the upset in the tournament.
“In a dual meet, coaches scout you a little more,” Stutzman said. “You pay attention to the coach a little bit more, in a tournament, I think guys wrestle a little bit more open and if guys wrestle open against [Benjamin] they will fall into his tricks.”
Lantry faces a tough road as well. The 133- pound weight class also has five top 25 wrestlers. Stutzman referred to 133 as “the toughest weight class in the MAC.” No. 10 Josh Alber from Northern Iowa is the highest ranked wrestler in the class and Lantry defeated him in a 4-3 decision earlier this month.
Lantry only lost two conference matches all year and is looking to avenge one of them in the tournament.
“Hopefully I get a matchup with John Erneste from Missouri who beat me earlier in the season,” Lantry said. “But I’m not going to overlook anyone, I’m not going to underlook anybody.”
The Bulls share one clear goal in common: second place isn’t good enough and the team plans to win.
Winning the MAC tournament will be important in qualifying for the national championship. Some weight classes will send multiple wrestlers to the national tournament. For other weights, a win in the MAC tournament could be the only route to the national tournament.
Buffalo isn’t overlooking the MAC tournament but the national tournament is where the Bulls want to be in order to become a national powerhouse.
“We’re not just trying to go to the national tournament, we’re trying to get on that podium and win that thing,” Lantry said.
The MAC tournament will take place March 4 and 5 at Northern Iowa University.
Daniel Petruccelli is the assistant sports editor and can be reach at firstname.lastname@example.org