Fighting for a spot: Wrestling enters MAC Championships third in the conference, seeks NCAA bids

Junior Zach Horan takes down his opponent Tyler Small from Kent State, Sunday, Feb. 1 at McGuirk Arena. CMU defeated Kent State 19-13.

Central Michigan wrestling finished the regular season in third place in the Mid-American Conference, winning its final three meets. 

The team looks to carry that momentum into this weekend's MAC Championships.

"I think we're in a good spot right now," said Head Coach Tom Borrelli. "We are happy to get (125-pounder) Brent Fleetwood back and we are excited for the tournament." 

No. 19 CMU (11-5, 6-2 MAC) will head to Ypsilanti on March 5-6 in search of its first conference championship since 2012. The Chippewas had won 11 straight from 2002-2012. Missouri joined the conference in 2013 and unseated CMU, winning every year since.

"I think it's important to our guys (to beat Missouri)," Borrelli said. "Obviously we have a tough task ahead of ourselves, but I think we will be up to the challenge."

The sixth-ranked Tigers won their fourth straight regular season title and are the favorites to win a fourth straight postseason championship. No. 15 Kent State finished the regular season in second place — one meet ahead of the Chippewas.

In addition to deciding the conference champion, the MAC Championships will determine which wrestlers will go to the NCAA Championships on March 17 in New York City.

Any wrestler that wins his weight class will automatically qualify for the NCAA Championships. 

The NCAA has allotted 41 spots to the MAC — the third most of any conference. The winners of the 10 weight classes will automatically qualify. The other 31 wrestlers will qualify via at-large bids. 

At-large bids are selected based off a combination of head-to-head competition, quality wins, coaches ranking, results against common opponents, RPI, qualifying event placement and winning percentage.

"Our conference finished the regular season with four teams ranked in the top 20," Borrelli said. "What people need to understand about wrestling in the MAC is, if we have a team make the tournament in basketball, it's a big deal and usually is only one team. But for wrestling, (the MAC has) four teams with several players all in it. I think that speaks to how good our conference is."

The Chippewas have four active wrestlers who have qualified for the NCAA Championships in past years: Senior Mike Ottinger (2012, 2014), senior Zach Horan (2012, 2014, 2015), senior Luke Smith (2015) and redshirt sophomore Colin Heffernan (2015).

"We want to win, but the biggest thing for us is getting as many guys to the NCAA Championships as possible and giving these guys a chance to be All-Americans," Borrelli said.

Mixing it up

When Heffernan went out with an injury on Jan. 1, redshirt freshman Justin Oliver was forced to step in for the 149-pound weight class. Since then, Oliver has won 13 straight matches and is ranked ninth in the country in the class. When Heffernan returned from injury, the two competed in practice to see who would get the 149-pound spot — Oliver won.

“(Oliver) is a guy that’s been real consistent this year,” Borrelli said. “He hasn’t missed a workout. He’s been real steady and when you have that, those guy get consistently better.”

Heffernan says although it was difficult going against his teammate, he tries to help Oliver as much as possible.

“We were in a tough position with both of us competing for the same class, but he has the spot now,” Heffernan said. “I was in his position last year, being ranked as a freshman and have wrestled many of the same guys he’s wrestled. I try to help him against those guys because he has the talent to be an All-American.”

With Oliver in the 149-pound spot, the coaching staff has looked to get Heffernan on the mats elsewhere. He made his debut at 165 against Old Dominion Feb. 21. Heffernan lost the match, but believes he can compete if he gains weight.

“I was obviously giving up a little bit of weight (still being at 149), but it gave the lineup a fresh look,” Heffernan said. “Going forward, if I can get my weight up and keep practicing, I think I can make a difference for us there.”

Borrelli said Heffernan will battle sophomore Jordan Atienza (22-17 record) — who had started all season in the 165-pound spot before Old Dominion.

“We’re going to have a wrestle-off between those two to see who will wrestle at the championships,” Borrelli said.