Freshman Saxton to replace Oliver until MAC Tournament

Lakeview freshman Nolan Saxton wrestles Buffalo's freshman Nick Palumbo during the match against Buffalo on Jan. 21 in McGuirk Arena.

Just two days before Colin Heffernan’s long-awaited return, former All-American No. 3 Justin Oliver suffered a sprained MCL, providing another setback for Central Michigan wrestling.

The Chippewas lost three dual meets in December. They followed up with four-meet win streak. They now sit at 6-4 on the season, and 3-1 in conference play. 

Oliver was injured during the loss to Missouri on Jan. 19. He said the injury happened during a routine third period scramble. 

“We were rolling around and (the opponent) had my foot anchored,” Oliver said. “I was trying to come behind him and (my knee) just twisted on me.”

Head coach Tom Borrelli doesn't have a timeline for Oliver's return, but he’s aiming to return to full contact in practice well before the MAC Tournament in early March. 

“Right now, it’s a lot of rehab to work the muscles in my quads,” Oliver said. "I'm trying to get rid of the pain that’s existing and let it heal while conditioning to make sure I stay in shape.

“It’s nothing too serious.”

Losing Oliver right before Heffernan was set to return from injury after more than a month, Borrelli is hopeful for an early return. 

“You’re possibly taking a nine, maybe six-point swing,” Borrelli said, regarding losing two veterans for a chunk of the season. “In a close dual meet, that’s huge.”

Oliver has dealt with injuries in past seasons. He said each time he recovers, he figures out how to recover faster. 

“Obviously, you never want to be injured,” he said. “Having dealt with it before, it helps your mentality.”

In the Jan. 21 win against Buffalo, true freshman Nolan Saxton wrestled in the 149-pound weight class. He lost a 6-3 decision. 

Though it was his first match at the varsity level, Saxton felt he could have wrestled better. 

“The nerves got to me a little bit,” he said. “I’ll be fine, I just need to worry about getting better in (practice). If I wrestle as hard as I can and keep improving in here, everything will work out there (in competition).”

Saxton grew up 45 minutes away from CMU’s campus in Remus. He qualified for the state tournament every year of high school, and won the 135-pound Division III title in 2017. 

“I knew the area and the program,” he said. “I liked how hard everyone worked, I liked the environment – I liked basically everything about (Central Michigan).”

Despite the loss, Saxton received praise from Oliver and Borrelli.

“(Saxton's) a tough kid. he works hard and he’s got the right attitude,” Oliver said. “This is going to be good for him — a good learning experience he’ll take a lot from."

Borrelli said he expects a lot of improvement from Saxton while he fills in for Oliver. 

“(I expect him) to continue to improve,” Borrelli said. “He had his first match in varsity competition Jan. 21, and it’s not easy for a freshman to be put in that situation."

Saxton expects to be starting in the four remaining dual meets, which start Feb. 4 at Old Dominion in Norfolk, Virginia.