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Wrestling Sends Three to NCAA Championships

Nose to the Grindstone
Sophomore Josef Johnson seen in action against Princeton on February 6. Johnson, after a strong season, joined senior Devon Gobbo and captain Todd Preston in his first NCAA tournament in New York, NY.

Harvard wrestling stepped onto the mat one final time this season as seniors Devon Gobbo and Todd Preston, as well as sophomore Josef Johnson, represented the Crimson on college wrestling’s biggest stage, the NCAA tournament hosted at Madison Square Garden this weekend. While the three fell short of podium appearances, Gobbo, the newly crowned EIWA champion, managed to stay alive into the second day of competition, coming one match short of an All-American title.

“Looking back on the weekend as a whole, things definitely didn’t go the way we had planned, or the way we had hoped,” Johnson said. “But the main thing I’m going to reflect on after this is how we all pushed each other to get better. We accomplished so much throughout this season, and this weekend didn’t take away from that.”

In the first few moments of his first career appearance at NCAAs, Johnson managed to get the crowd on its feet as he took a successful shot at Penn State’s Bo Nickal, the No. 1 seed and the eventual second place finisher. Johnson caught Nickal off guard, and managed to get himself on the board before the favored 174 lbs. veteran could make a move.

“I think Josef realized that he can not just compete, but win at this level,” Harvard coach Jay Weiss said. “The same guy he had beat from Penn at EIWA’s ended up placing top four, an All-American. He now knows that he has the capability to wrestle with those guys, and he has two more years to figure out what he needs to do to get further.”

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Nickal came back to win the match after the surprising start, notching a major decision against Johnson on his silver medal run. Following this, Johnson dropped a hard fought contest against Binghamton’s Jack McKeever, 4-2, ending his first NCAA appearance.

“I didn’t accomplish my goals,” Johnson said. “But at the same time, it was very apparent throughout the entire weekend that I’m on the same level as the guys who did place. So I have a really positive outlook on the whole experience, and I walked away with confidence knowing that not only myself, but a lot of guys on our team moving forward can compete at that high level.”

Captain Todd Preston ended his celebrated Harvard career with his third NCAA tournament appearance. The 2014 EIWA champion had a hard time building back momentum after a first round loss. At 141 lb., No. 10 ranked Preston dropped the bout to Clarkson’s Brock Zackerl. After notching a 13-3 decision in the consolation brackets, Preston dropped a 5-3 decision to Chatman’s Mike Pongracz.

“He wasn’t at his best this weekend, and it may sting for a little, but Todd has been a wrestler that has been a leader on this team from the beginning,” Weiss said. “He inspired his teammates, and he grew tremendously throughout his time here. He poured himself into the process and has done a great job for us.”

Gobbo was the only Crimson representative in the second day of competition. At 165 lbs., Gobbo notched a fall against Columbia’s Tyrel White, before falling himself to Alex Dieringer, the undefeated, three-time NCAA champion out of Oklahoma State. In the second day of competition, the EIWA champion fought his way through two rounds of wrestlebacks, before getting edged by Purdue’s Chad Welch in the final bout of his college career, 8-4.

“That final match, he had the first takedown,” Weiss said. “They were swapping points the whole match, and he made a great comeback, but he just ran out of time. He was right in that match, and he left it all out there on the mat. That’s all we can ask for, and I’m really proud of how he did.”

For Preston and Gobbo, the weekend was a bittersweet career ending for two integral wrestlers on the Harvard team.

“It has been a true honor to coach both Devon and Todd,” Weiss said. “They have brought tremendous successes to the program, and have grown into fantastic men, which was evident through the poise they handled themselves with this weekend. I know they have great things ahead of them, and could not be more proud as a coach.”

—Staff writer Jillian Dukes can be reached at jdukes01@college.harvard.edu.

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