As the championship season begins in a number of sports, Stanford wrestling will begin postseason play this Friday at the Pac-10 Championships in Davis, Calif.
The Cardinal (10-8-1, 2-4-1 Pac-10) will face a tough road to win a conference championship. Stanford struggled in dual meets against conference rivals this season and will look to improve on this record in the tournament.
To win in Davis, the Card will have to go through three programs currently ranked in the top 25 — No. 11 Boise State, No. 15 Oregon State and No. 20 California Polytechnic. A fourth conference opponent, Arizona State, sits just outside of the rankings. Stanford has wrestled all of these teams this season, and was unable to score victories against any of them. Its two conference victories came at UC-Davis and at home against Cal State Bakersfield by scores of 20-19 and 24-13, respectively.
Nevertheless, Stanford head coach Jason Borrelli remains optimistic about how his team will perform this weekend.
“Our goal going into this year was to win the conference championship,” he said. “That’s what we’re going in for. All of our guys believe we can do that and that we’re capable of doing that, but we have to wrestle to our best at every weight.
“We actually have to wrestle above our seeds to do that,” he continued. “We’re only favored at one weight class in the whole tournament.”
That one weight class is at 165 pounds, where redshirt sophomore Nick Amuchastegui is ranked first in the Pac-10. He has a record of 27-4 for the season and is nationally ranked at No. 16 in his weight class.
While tournaments are inherently unpredictable, Amuchastegui looks poised to capture the conference championship. In Stanford’s dual meets, he has already beaten the conference’s second- and third-ranked wrestlers, Dan Brascetta of Oregon State and Joey Granata of Cal State Bakersfield.
“If I go out there and wrestle solid, like I have been, this tournament should go pretty well,” he said.
When asked if he would be disappointed to leave the tournament without winning the title, Amuchastegui responded, “Yes, I would be really disappointed . . . That was one of my goals at the beginning of the year and it’s a goal that I feel very capable of accomplishing.”
The Cardinal’s second standout, redshirt junior Zack Giesen, will most likely be seeded second at this tournament behind Kirk Smith of Boise State. Giesen wrestles in the 184-pound weight class and is ranked at No. 13 nationally, while Smith is ranked No. 1.
In their previous meeting, during Stanford’s Jan. 29 dual meet against Boise State, Smith defeated Giesen in a 4-1 decision.
“I have to be able to get after him,” Giesen said. “He’s obviously a good wrestler who’s hard to score on. My goal is to not let him dictate the match and to slow things down.”
While the focus will be on the finals clash between these two opponents, Giesen refuses to look that far ahead.
“I’ll take it one match at a time,” he said. “I have to get there first. Right now, I’m thinking about the first two matches, but I’ll have time to prepare for the final.”
While the Cardinal will look to this pair for its leadership, Borrelli knows that other wrestlers will have to step up for Stanford to score highly as a team.
“I look at our first couple of weights,” he said. “[Freshman 125-pounder] Ryan Mango and [junior 133-pounder] Justin Paulsen are both capable of winning their weight classes. On good days, they’re as good as anyone in the conference.”
Borrelli went on to highlight redshirt junior Lucas Espericueta at 157 pounds and senior Jake Johnson at 174 pounds as two other wrestlers that have the potential to make significant impacts.
While wrestling is an individual sport, both Borrelli and the wrestlers are careful not to lose sight of the team aspect.
“If you do well individually, then the team will do well,” Giesen said. “The team is always at the back of your mind, but the focus is on my individual matches.”
After the Pac-10 Championships, the only remaining tournament on the Card’s schedule is the NCAA Tournament in March.
“It’s really tough to say how we’ll stack up,” Amuchastegui said. “It would be a great accomplishment if we ended up in the top 15 or so.”
“The goal, clearly, is the nationals,” Borrelli said. “How you do there as a team will trump anything you do in the conference.
“We want to send the most guys we’ve ever sent to nationals,” he continued. “The most guys individually Stanford’s ever sent in wrestling is five, so we want to send five or six guys . . . It’s going to take a good tournament to do that — we know that and we’re expecting that.”
The Pac-10 Championships will take place on Friday and Saturday in Davis, Calif.