Wrestling team enters rebuilding year

Zac Reicks

Replacing five of the 10 wrestlers from an NCAA runner-up squad is a difficult task for a coach.

When three of those wrestlers are All-Americans, with two being national champions, it makes it even tougher.

And when one of those national champions is Cael Sanderson, the first undefeated four-time NCAA champion in collegiate history, it makes it almost impossible.

That is the challenge presented to ISU head coach Bobby Douglas this year, as he begins the toughest campaign of his 11-year tenure. Albeit a most difficult one, it is a challenge he is willing to accept.

“Realistically, we don’t have a shot at the national title, but we will be building towards that in the future,” Douglas said.

“It is a tremendous challenge for our coaching staff, and some of our young people will have to step up.”

Douglas will try to rebuild after losing arguably the greatest collegiate wrestler of all time in Sanderson, four time All-American, as well as NCAA champion Joe Heskett and All-American Billy Maldonado.

“I could never forget [Sanderson and Heskett], and they will always be around the program,” Douglas said. “Along with Maldonado and [Mark] Knauer … that was a real classy bunch of seniors. We can’t think about Joe and Cael, we have to think about what’s at hand.”

What Douglas does have at hand are All-Americans Aaron Holker and Zach Roberson.

Holker was a national champion at 141 pounds last season and the senior from Orem, Utah, will be called upon to take a larger leadership role this season.

“There’s going be a lot more pressure than last year,” Holker said. “We are not going to have the attention on Cael and [Heskett] that we did last season.”

Roberson returns for his junior year and will be looking to improve upon his 22-11 mark and seventh-place finish at the NCAA championships.

Plagued by injuries throughout much of his career, this is the healthiest Roberson has been and Douglas is excited to see what he can do.

“[Roberson] has been in the program for quite a while and he’s one of our captains,” Douglas said “Obviously we will rely on him a great deal and this should be a good year for him.”

As two of the captains, Roberson and Holker will need to lead both vocally and by example. With a squad that could potentially start four freshmen, strong leadership will be essential for success.

“I am learning how to be a leader but am not a real vocal leader right now,” Roberson said. “I need to teach the younger guys how to get ready as quick as possible.”

“We will look at starting four freshmen, which hasn’t happened in a long time.” Douglas said. “I’m not impatient but I like to see results in a hurry. I know it’s going to take some time.”

Other veterans who will look to help in the Cyclone rebuilding effort include national qualifier Nick Passolano and returning starters Ty Malia and Austen Palmer.

Passolano made the trip to Albany as a redshirt freshman at 174 pounds last season and will more than likely drop to 165 to fill the spot left by Heskett.

Malia and Palmer will compete at 125 and 184 pounds, respectively, and both look to improve on records that hovered around .500 for much of the year.

Sophomore Wade McLeod, the leading contender at heavyweight, is finally healthy after spending much of his career recovering from reconstructive elbow surgery.

“We need McLeod at heavyweight, and Passolano and Malia also have to contribute,” Douglas said. “We just don’t have a whole lot of experience to rely on and that makes it hard.”

Newcomers looking to crack Iowa State’s lineup include redshirt freshmen Nate Gillick and Nels Matson.

Gillick was a high school All-American and a three-time Arizona state champion who will compete at 149 pounds this year. Gillick is one of the most talented wrestlers on the squad but will need mat time to make those skills translate into wins.

Douglas had planned on using freshmen Harry Lester and Ken Cook, who had very successful high school careers, but both have decided to concentrate on Greco-Roman wrestling with an eye toward the 2004 Olympics. They are both attending classes but are not on the roster.

“I can understand their dreams, but I think it’s a little premature,” Douglas said.

Iowa State begins the 2002-2003 season with the Cyclone Open in Fort Dodge, followed by a trip to Pennsylvania to wrestle Millersville and Lock Haven.