From winless high school season to win away from NCAA Championships, Jake Gunning is transforming UB wrestling
With 45 seconds left in the Mid-American Conference Championships heavyweight final, Buffalo freshman Jake Gunning had a chance to claim his first conference championship and advance to the NCAA Tournament in New York City.
In his way was Northern Iowa’s Blaize Cabell, the top ranked heavyweight in the MAC and the wrestler who just two weeks prior defeated Gunning in a regular season match.
This time, the stakes were higher, as the winner would get an opportunity to become a national champion, while the loser would face a few sleepless nights holding out hope for an at-large bid and potentially an offseason wondering what could have been.
Just one mistake cost Gunning the match. Cabell caught Gunning with his hands down to transition from an escape to a takedown. Even though Gunning added one more point near the end of the match, it was too much to overcome.
But Gunning knows adversity. He knows losing.
Five years before he was a takedown away from the NCAA Championships, Gunning was just looking to win a single match. He was a high school freshman who wasn’t on any college’s radar and had just completed a winless season. How winless? 0-23 winless.
So it wasn’t surprising that just days after his devastating loss in the MAC final on March 6, Gunning was looking at the experience positively and talking about what he’ll do next season.
“My coaches thought it was the best match I’ve ever wrestled,” he said. “It hurt for sure, but I’m going to do everything I can to get right back there, in that moment next year. And next time, I want to be the one celebrating.”
Gunning wants to be the best in the history of UB wrestling, a program whose own head coach said is trying to come out of a “dark age.”
Gunning doesn’t hesitate when asked about leaving a legacy at UB. He wants to leave Buffalo in a better place than when he arrived. A few MAC and NCAA championships wouldn’t hurt either.
He’s a part of what could be viewed as a slow and steady program turnaround at Buffalo. After two winless seasons in conference play and a NCAA-sanctioned postseason ban, the Bulls recorded their first 10-win season since 2004 and won a conference meet for the first time more than three calendar years. Gunning led the Bulls with 12 dual meet victories, including five in MAC play.
And his head coach thinks there’s still more room for him to grow.
“Jake’s still a baby, I think people forget that,” said head coach John Stutzman. “He’s still getting stronger … He can wrestle a bit better. He’s on pace to do what he’s here to do and that’s win a national championship.”
The hard work began to pay off for Gunning’s teammates during the MAC Championships, when three Bulls – freshman Bryan Lantry and sophomores Colt Cotten and Joe Ariola – earned bids for the NCAA Championships.
Gunning did not receive an at-large bid for heavyweights, with the honor going to Eastern Michigan’s Gage Hutchison, who finished in fourth place in the MAC Championships. Gunning would’ve been the fourth heavyweight in the history of the program to earn a bid. Now, he looks to use this as motivation.
“I want to be great,” Gunning said. “Taking that step and going to New York City is something I wanted, but I have to take this for what it is and keep going. This is certainly motivation for me. I have made strides from the first time I took the mat to now, so now the next step is to push myself to even greater things. This moment is certainly motivation for me.”
As a freshman in high school, Gunning’s parents wanted him to play basketball, but as a husky teenager, Gunning recognized wrestling was his future. Knowing there was a vacancy in the Bethlehem Liberty High School wresting team’s heavyweight division, he went into the head coach’s office and secured a spot on the varsity squad.
It was evident Gunning had little wrestling experience.
“I lost every match,” Gunning said. “Every match.”
He finished that year with a winless 0-23 record. Twenty of which ended up with Gunning getting pinned.
He said he was clearly overmatched every time. His father, Jeffrey Gunning, was ready for his son to say that wrestling wasn’t for him.
Jeffrey heard from friends that an inexperienced high school wrestler would get “killed” every time on the mat. He wanted his son to play different sports.
But wrestling was Gunning’s passion. He wasn’t ready to leave the sport he loved.
Gunning remembers losing and how much he hated it. The wide-eyed freshman didn’t get discouraged at the sight of a loss. Rather, he ended his poor freshman season with what he described as a “fire in his belly” to get better.
But it was going to take time and effort. Ask Bethlehem Liberty wrestling coach Jody Karam about his former star. He said for someone who had no experience with the sport, he had never seen someone so committed. Gunning would transfer what he learned from tape into the weight room, and from the weight room onto the mat.
“It was eerie to see the way Jake took the sport,” Karam said. “He had a passion for it, more than you would imagine from someone who just got into the sport … That’s the difference between someone who wants to be good and someone who wants to be great.”
Gunning had an “unquenchable thirst” to know the game. There weren’t many 220-pound wrestlers with agility and quickness like he had. Karam was the first to see that potential.
Building the natural
The first was continuing to develop his body.
The heavyweight division, at least for Karam, is an important division in terms of personnel. While other, smaller wrestlers worked on different technical aspects of the sport, it was the heavyweights who were more weight-orientated. A heavyweight works on gaining healthy weight, eating correctly and sticking to a continuous weight-training program.
Karam had a specific program for the heavyweights. The first step: 6:30 a.m. workouts.
“[Karam] showed me to work on the body and just how important it is,” Gunning said. “Putting on good weight, cutting and eating healthy. I had to put on good weight and continue to work on my body in order to reach my full potential.”
The second step was to get Gunning out of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Granted, Pennsylvania is a touted state in terms of high school wrestling, but Karam wanted Gunning to explore elite wrestling around the country.
Jeffrey didn’t know much about wrestling. All he knew was his son had a passion for it and talent. It was up to Karam to make the wrestling decisions.
Karam and Jeffrey worked on a plan to get Gunning out of state while keeping him around wrestling 24/7, like taking him to camps and meets. Karam said he wanted Gunning to “see different levels of the sport,” and recommended “a well-rounded experience after his freshman season.”
Gunning attended nearly every wrestling event in an eight-hour radius from his hometown between his freshman and sophomore years of high school.
Gunning was then allowed to attend wrestling camps – the third and final step in Karam’s plan.
Gunning attended two camps. The first was a wrestling camp at the University of Iowa – an elite school known for its wrestling program and development. Gunning went for their two-week intensive camp, something he now credits for his “hard-nosed style.”
It was at that camp where he finally learned how to become a wrestler.
“He just came back more disciplined,” Jeffrey said. “I thought when he came back from Iowa, he seemed to be taking that step forward off the field … Whatever happened at Iowa, it certainly helped him improve as a wrestler.”
His second camp was close to home – the Edinboro Heavyweight Camp, in Edinboro, Pennsylvania.
Karam cited a change in his confidence as a key factor that helped him from his freshman to his sophomore year. But for Gunning, that summer experience allowed him to become more invested in the sport. He always liked the sport. It took that summer for him to love it.
“I just went down to Iowa, went to the heavyweight camp and fell in love with the style,” Gunning said. “It’s the same style that Stutzman preaches.”
Gunning went 0-23 as a freshman, but he was able to transform his technique to a point where he finished his senior year with a 40-5 record. He finished third overall in the Pennsylvania state qualifier that year, placed in a national tournament and finished as a top-15 overall wrestler in the state.
Building a Bull
Stutzman remembers the first time he saw Gunning as a high school wrestler. Stutzman’s then recruiting coordinator, Quincy Osborn, brought in some tapes on the burly heavyweight from Pennsylvania.
The tapes only included Gunning’s freshman year highlights.
“I was watching, waiting to see something and he kept getting pinned.” Stutzman said. “I started watching him and saw the next tape, where he got pinned again. It continued for a couple tapes, to be honest.”
Stutzman heard promising things about his prospect, but the freshman tape didn’t do him justice. Once Stutzman got a hold of the rest of his high school tapes, disappointment turned into intrigue as he watched Gunning’s sophomore tapes, which turned into elation as he watched his junior tapes. Stutzman found his future heavyweight.
And there wasn’t much competition either.
“I remember talking with a fellow wrestler about Buffalo,” Gunning said. “I knew he was interested there and their former head coach at the time had some interest in me. He ended up not committing here, but I was talking to the coaches and I started to get comfortable with the idea of being at Buffalo.”
Stutzman asked Gunning to make an official visit at UB. Gunning came in on a Tuesday. He ended up committing on a Thursday – the same day Stutzman’s son Paxton was born.
Gunning was officially a Bull, but he had to wait before his first official match.
The Bulls were hit with an NCAA postseason ban during Gunning’s true freshman year for low Academic Progress Rate scores, meaning Buffalo could not participate in the MAC Championships or the NCAA Championships. So Stutzman decided to redshirt several incoming players, including Gunning.
The Bulls coach admits he doesn’t like redshirting players, but he realized he could have four years of control over a talented incoming freshman class.
“Wrestlers should be getting 30-40 matches in, should be working out and putting on good weight and work in the classroom,” Stutzman said. “I thought Jake was someone who came in right away and properly used the redshirt to his advantage.”
And so he did. Gunning continued to learn the game at the college level. The redshirt year relieved him of the pressure he would have felt had he been thrown into a collegiate match fresh out of high school.
“Having that extra time to wrestle without all of the pressure of knowing it counted gave me time to work on different things on the mat,” Gunning said. “By the time that year was over, I knew I was ready.”
Ask Jake Gunning about his toughest loss on the mat and he’ll reply that they all hurt. The hurt only grew stronger as he became a better wrestler and he knew what he was actually doing.
He lost a match to a wrestler from Stanford University over the summer that would have given him an opportunity to wrestle for Team USA in Brazil. He’d never been more upset about losing a match. He finally learned the wrestler mentality.
He hates losing and he makes it clear. But Gunning also makes it clear that he can beat every wrestler he goes against. Karam believes that Gunning’s greatest loss “hasn’t yet to come,” but he also has a great future.
Gunning was one of Stutzman’s best underclassmen this season. No small accomplishment considering Buffalo had freshmen like formerly ranked 125-pounder Kyle Akins and NCAA Championships-bound Bryan Lantry.
And the performance Gunning and his teammates displayed during the MAC Championships was step one in accomplishing the goal Stutzman laid out for his team earlier in the season: be great and create your own legacy.
“I don’t want them to be a part of something, I want them to be a part of something great,” Stutzman said.
All losses hurt, but after the loss to Northern Iowa’s Cabell in the heavyweight final, Gunning called the loss “heartbreaking.” It was the moment he wanted to be in since he found the love of wrestling between his freshman and sophomore years of high school.
But the heartbreak was needed, just the way his 0-23 season was needed as a freshman in high school. Gunning wants to make next season his season.
It starts with an offseason that he says, “won’t be like the others.”
“I plan on training harder than ever,” Gunning said. “I’m going to work harder than ever with the goal of being the best heavyweight in the country and standing on the podium.”
Sunday’s loss was Gunning’s first brush with greatness on the collegiate level, and based on his progression over the last five years and the motivation he has to become the greatest heavyweight in the country next year, it may not be his last.