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This weekend in Lewisburg, Penn., three Harvard wrestlers earned bids to the NCAA Tournament. Competing at the EIWA Championships, freshman Hunter Ladnier, tri-captain Josef Johnson, and tri-captain Jeffrey Ott bested enough opponents to punch elusive tickets.
“There’s so little that separates talented guys at the top,” Ott said. “It just comes down to who believes that they can do things that other people can’t do.”
Ladnier reserved his passage to St. Louis by upsetting Laike Gardner from Lehigh in the semifinals. Simultaneously, the victory vaulted Ladnier to the finals, the first Harvard rookie to reach that stage since former NCAA champion J.P. O’Connor, who graduated in 2010.
“I [wanted to] go out there and wrestle hard,” Ladnier said. “Believe in myself, believe in my coaches, and believe in my training—just go out there and compete.”
Ladnier ultimately fell, 8-5, but the guarantee of the NCAA Tournament remained intact. So did the thrill of that surprise win over Gardner.
“It was one of the most exciting matches I’ve ever seen,” tri-captain Jeffrey Ott said. “He just kept battling. It was amazing for him to make the finals.”
Teammates might draw similar amazement from Ott’s performance.
EIWA wrestlers qualify for the NCAA Tournament by finishing above a certain place. The number of top-ranked opponents in a weight class determines the number of bids.
In Ott’s case, a win in the semifinals would ensure a berth. The trouble was that Ott, a seven seed in the 16-wrestler bracket, had to square off against Kevin Devoy, a three seed from Drexel.
The matchup came to a sudden halt when Devoy felt his knee turn and screamed out in pain. A trainer’s decision ended the contest and handed Ott the NCAA bid.
It was a grotesque finish, to be sure, but carried a touch of irony. Earlier this season, a knee injury had sidelined Ott for around a month.
“I didn’t think I was going to wrestle for the rest of the season,” the senior said. “I’m just fortunate that I was able to step on the mat. I’m relishing every opportunity I get to strap on the anklets and wrestle one more time.”
Twice previously, Ott had left the EIWA Championships after overtime losses. The senior’s hopes seemed close to crashing again when, in the second round, the second-seeded Esteban Gomez Rivera held a late lead. But Ott spun around his opponent to grab a 6-3 victory.
That result set up the bout with Devoy—and the final elation.
“After that match in the semifinals, I went, sat by myself, and just cried a little bit,” Ott said. “It was something that I’d been working toward for so long.”
Junior Josef Johnson, the third Crimson wrestler to advance to NCAAs, took a more humdrum route. This season, Johnson was the only returning team member with NCAA experience. Hrentered the weekend as the five seed—tied for Ladnier as the highest of any Harvard wrestler.
In the opening round, Johnson routed the Eagles’ J. Salvi in a 12-3 major decision. Soon followed a 7-3 loss to a Navy opponent, but that result didn’t matter—Johnson had done enough to head to St. Louis.
“Joe is a staple of consistency,” Ott said. “[He’s] just winning the matches he needs to and qualifying.”
Not everyone experienced such success.
Freshman A.J. Jaffe had impressed teammates all year with a hardworking attitude and corresponding results. He started the weekend as the sixth-best wrestler at 141 lbs. and handled his first opponent.
However, Jaffe suffered a 10-8 defeat in his next bout, leaving him just outside the NCAA bubble.
“He did everything right all year,” Ott said. “He’s the best teammate you could ask for…. I feel for A.J., but he has three years ahead of him.”
Senior Kanon Dean also flirted with a berth only to fall short. Wrestling a five seed from Drexel, the 184-lb. veteran dropped a 3-2 decision in a down-to-the-wire bout.
“There are definitely some guys that are a little bit down on the way the season ended,” Ott said. “This is something that will have to sit with you for the next seven or eight months before next season starts. And for some, the seniors, it’s the last chance competing.”
No other Crimson athlete escaped the first round. Freshman Connor Sakmar (125 lbs.) lost 16-1 by technical fall, junior Logan Kirby (197 lbs.) suffered a fall, and freshman Kyle Bierdumpfel dropped a 14-4 major decision.
Meanwhile, Colby Knight and Nick Gajdzik—a pair of seniors—ended their Harvard careers with defeats by decision, with respective scores of 5-3 and 5-2.
Still, as Ladnier maintained, the veterans’ legacy lies in their ability to shape team culture.
“The leadership has been second-to-none. [Johnson and Ott] have been amazing role models,” Ladnier said. “They’re really approachable guys…. They pass leadership to other people and exude confidence.”
—Staff writer Sam Danello can be reached at email@example.com.
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