All-American Journey: Freshman Justin Oliver finishes seventh in the country after starting season as backup

When the 2015-16 wrestling season started, freshman Justin Oliver was the backup for the 149-pound weight class and wasn’t expected to contribute.

Four months later, he's an NCAA Division I All-American wrestler.

Oliver got his chance to compete after sophomore and 10th-ranked 149-pounder Colin Heffernan went down with an injury at the Reno Tournament of Champions on Dec. 20.

After taking over for Heffernan, Oliver won his first two matches as the starter. After suffering his first defeat, Oliver went on a 15-match winning streak, earning him the No. 9 ranking in the weight class. 

Oliver finished the regular season with a 27-4 record and carried his momentum with him to the Mid-American Conference Championships on March 6, where he earned a second place finish and was one point away from winning the tournament.

“Growing up looking at college rankings, even looking at high school rankings was pretty cool,” Oliver said. “Realizing I was ranked was pretty cool, but I obviously want to be at the top of the podium in the end and the results aren’t going to show that.”

While Oliver had an impressive showing at the MAC Championships, the NCAA Championships were a whole new challenge. Oliver came in as the No. 9 seed, but only the top-eight finishers earn All-American honors — something he and the team were striving for.

“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,” said Head Coach Tom Borrelli before the MAC Championships.

Last season was the first time since 2002 CMU did not have an All-American wrestler.

Central Michigan sent seven wrestlers to the NCAA Tournament on Feb. 17 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, including three seniors. But after day one, it was Oliver who was the only Chippewa wrestler without a loss, advancing to the quarterfinals. 

The Davison native went up against the undefeated No. 1 seeded 149-pounder and eventual national champion Zain Retherford of Penn State in the quarterfinals and was pinned, sending Oliver into the consolation bracket.

Oliver faced Mitch Finesilver of Duke, with his final shot at being an All-American on the line. Oliver got off to a fast start with back-to-back takedowns in the first round, but Finesilver was on top most of the second round to keep it close. After Oliver had a takedown late in the third round, he extended his lead and never looked back. CMU had its All-American — its first since 2014.

“I had two takedowns to start the match which is always a good start, but in the second round he was riding me a lot and I had to ride him out to get the riding time point,” Oliver said. “After my last takedown, I wrestled him on my feet and got the 6-5 win. It feels pretty surreal.”

While Oliver achieved his goal on the national stage, his personal goals were not finished. After dropping a match to Kent State's Mike DePalma, Oliver still had one match left in a battle for seventh place. 

Oliver went up against Geordan Martinez of Boise State on Saturday, who had beaten not just him, but also Heffernan earlier in the season. Oliver said he was looking for "revenge" and to end his season with momentum. He did just that, defeating Martinez 5-1.

The Chippewas as a team finished in 32nd place with 10 points, fifth highest among MAC teams. The Penn State Nittany Lions won the team National Championship with 114 points. 

For CMU, seniors Mike Ottinger (174) and Luke Smith (157) finished 1-2 at the tournament to end their careers, while senior Zach Horan finished 0-1 in his final career appearance and had to exit due to a head injury. Junior Corey Keener (133) finished 1-2 in his second appearance at nationals, while sophomores Brent Fleetwood (125) and Jordan Ellingwood (184) both finished 1-2 in their first appearance.