Led by newly minted NCAA National Champion redshirt sophomore Shane Griffith, the embattled Stanford wrestling program shone in an improbable run of success at the NCAA Tournament in St. Louis this weekend. The team, one of eleven cut back in July, scrambled its way to a 17th place overall finish and a triumphant finale to what was probably its last season as a varsity program — a season defined more by struggle off the mat than on it.
Wearing all-black uniforms stripped of Stanford insignia as a protest of the athletic department, individual wrestlers topped highly touted opponents from Rust Belt wrestling powerhouses.
Pac-12 champion Jaden Abas, a redshirt freshman and the team’s newest All American, lost his first match but worked his way back up over four rounds to a 7th place finish in the 149-pound weight class by a 5-3 decision over Appalachian State’s Jonathan Millner.
Real Woods, a redshirt sophomore, pulled off two big upsets at 141 pounds even after a year of sacrifice, avenging a previous defeat by Grant Willits of Oregon State before being denied All American status in a tight match decided by legal technicalities and challenges to refs.
Redshirt senior and team captain Requir van der Merwe went two and two for a respectable ending to a productive career. Redshirt senior Nathan Traxler nearly clawed his way back from a first-round loss to finish as an All-American before one bad position did him in during the final round. True freshman Nick Stemmet sophomore Jackson DiSario both went winless in St. Louis.
Despite being denied a future at Stanford and sentenced to exile on the road, the team’s seven NCAA qualifying wrestlers — five of whom are underclassmen — competed with success and when they lost, almost uniformly lost closely and on technicalities. Throughout the tournament, the noticeably logo-less uniforms left their mark, a look that head coach Jason Borelli described as a personal choice by each wrestler.
“We’ve all been crushed,” he said in the same interview with Keep Stanford Wrestling. “Some of their dreams feel like they’ve been shattered. The administration decided to discontinue our sport and some of the guys, they don’t feel comfortable wearing something other than what more represents their team and their family.”
Griffith embodied the defiant spirit of Keep Stanford Wrestling in the tournament.
He began his ascent with an upset sudden victory win over the top seed Alex Marinelli of Iowa in the quarterfinals, before taking down Zach Hartman of Bucknell, who had never previously lost a match, in the semifinals.
“Every time I step on the mat, that’s the national finals right there that I’m going for,” Griffith said to Keep Stanford Wrestling. “Whether it’s my first match or my last one, just mindset going in — it’s for the belt.”
When Griffith got to the finals, he outmatched Jake Wentzel of Pittsburgh University with a distinctive combination of perfectly executed Russian tie maneuvers and aggressive takedown attempts.
He won 7-2 and became Stanford’s second national champion ever. In all, the dominant effort was good for the national title in the 165 pound weight class, the NWCA Outstanding Wrestler honor for 2021 and an unsubtle repudiation of the athletic department’s decision to cut wrestling in July.
Immediately after Griffith’s victory the stadium as a whole began a seemingly spontaneous chant of “Bring back Stanford!”
The juxtaposition of Griffith’s success and Stanford’s lack of support has struck a nerve in the broad college wrestling universe, which has been hollowed out before and during the pandemic by colleges cutting sports. #KeepStanfordWrestling trended for a period on Twitter, winning notable endorsements from retired sports legends such as 49ers stalwart Joe Staley and UFC multi-division champ Daniel Cormier, who is a former All American NCAA wrestler himself.