By Arman Kassam
Stanford men’s wrestling (9-4, 2-1 Pac-12) concluded its season on March 21 at the NCAA Championships in Pittsburgh. Although no Cardinal managed to place at the tournament, and only redshirt sophomore Nathan Traxler came in as a top-10 seed, Stanford has had a season like no other — smashing records, claiming titles and transforming into a team that will never be forgotten in the annals of Pac-12 wrestling history.
On March 9, the Cardinal secured their first-ever Pac-12 Championship in Tempe, Arizona. It was one of the closest victories in program history, as Stanford garnered 81.5 total points. Arizona State (6-10, 3-1 Pac-12) came in second at 79.5 points; Oregon State (5-8, 0-2 Pac-12) took third with 77.5 points.
No. 15 redshirt sophomore Requir van der Merwe dominated the competition and defeated ASU’s Joshua Maruca in the final match for the 149-pound class. No. 9 Traxler, who also doubles as a co-team captain, took home a first-place medal in the 197-pound class after taking down Tom Lane from Cal Poly (0-9, 0-4 Pac-12). In addition to the two champions, the Cardinal produced four runners-up: redshirt senior Mason Pengilly (133 pounds), junior Brandon Kier (141 pounds), sophomore Judah Duhm (184 pounds) and redshirt freshman Haydn Maley (heavyweight).
Ironically, both the Sun Devils and the Beavers collected more first-place titles than Stanford, but it was due to the Cardinal’s well-rounded talent that they were able to clinch just enough points for an overall victory. Needless to say, the Cardinal squad is as versatile and deadly as the Spanish tercio was in the Italian Wars under Charles V.
With battles won and enemies diminished, celebrations ensued — but for a handful of wrestlers, tournament season was just firing up. Maley, Merwe, Pengilly, No. 17 junior Gabriel Townsell (125 pounds) and Traxler all received bids to participate in the ultimate tournament of the season. Maley came in as 24th seed, Merwe as 14th, Pengilly as 31st, Townsell as 20th and Traxler as eighth.
Stanford’s best NCAA championship result came in 2011 when the Cardinal placed 11th. Most recently, the Cardinal finished 19th at the 2016 tournament. And just like the Spanish tercio became antiquated by the Battle of Rocroi at the end of the Thirty Years’ War, the glory and grandeur of the Stanford wrestling team was met with a sudden conclusion. This year, the Cardinal finished 40th in Pittsburgh, racking up no more than 5.5 overall points.
In the first day of competition, Traxler was able to advance into the quarterfinals while Townsell, Pengilly and Merwe stayed alive in the consolation brackets. Traxler, who was named Pac-12 Wrestler of the Week back in January and leads the team in season wins (30) and pins (six), prevailed with 7-3 and 4-1 decisions over Greg Bulsak from Clarion (7-7, 4-2 EWL) and Jake Jakobsen from Lehigh (9-9, 6-1 EIWA), respectively.
On the second day, Fortuna did not have the same fate in store for our heroes of the mat. Traxler dropped his third bout to Bo Nickal from Penn State (14-0, 9-0 Big-10), the top seed at the tournament, who has won three NCAA first-place titles in a row. The Stanford team captain then dropped his second match at the tournament to sixth-seed William Miklus from Iowa State (10-4, 6-2 Big-12).
Townsell and Merwe were able to finish with 1-2 records while Pengilly put on a 3-2 performance that capped off the excellent run he has had. Though seeded at 31st, the redshirt senior took down the 18th, 16th and 24th seeds of the tournament — only losing to the second and sixth seeds in the 133-pound class. Pengilly finishes his career as a two-time NCAA qualifier with a 37-31 overall record.
The team has also been celebrated for its outstanding achievements on and off the mat. Nine Stanford wrestlers were named to the Pac-12 All-Academic teams. The honor is only bestowed on those wrestlers who have at least a 3.0 GPA and appear in a minimum of 50 percent of their team’s scheduled competitions. On the first team, the Cardinal makes up 70 percent of all athletes.
Another great honor came Stanford’s way only a couple of days later, when head coach Jason Borrelli was named the Pac-12 Coach of the Year. Borrelli has just completed his 11th season leading the program and has coached 13 conference champions — more than a third of all of the Pac-12 champions in Stanford history. Borrelli also recently achieved his 100th career win as head coach when Stanford defeated Northwestern (5-10, 2-7 Big-10) 21-15 on Dec. 17.
And so this chapter of Stanford wrestling history closes not in anguish at the losses in Pittsburgh, but in jubilation for an incredible 9-4 record, numerous tournament titles and, most importantly, the program’s first-ever Pac-12 championship victory.
Next year, the Cardinal will not return to the mat with hopes of Pac-12 glory as it has in seasons past. No, this team will return decorated in the regalia of champions. They will return as they deserve — veterans with more than something to show for their toil.
From Merwe’s 10-match winning streak (he is rightfully dubbed, “The South African Tornado”) to Townsell’s glorious last-second win over the Sun Devils, every moment of this season has showcased the stuff of legends. This was one team to rule them all, one team to find them, one team to bring them all and on the mat, bind them.
Contact Arman Kassam at armank ‘at’ stanford.edu.