The 2020 NCAA Division II Wrestling Championships – like nearly every other sporting event – ground to a halt and was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While eight athletes were underclassmen slated to return in 2020-21, they still felt like there was unfinished business, as the cancellation brought a record-scratching pause to the rapidly rising trajectory of the program.
It proved to only be temporary though, as a year later the Golden Knights put a cap on one of the most successful seasons in team history.
Gannon men’s wrestling earned titles at the NCAA Division II Super Region 1 tournament.
“We knew we could have a really great team this year, and we were just hoping to be able to showcase it,” senior 133-pounder Jacob Dunlop said. “We knew there would be uncertainty. That weight was always on our shoulders, but we were always ready to wrestle.”
Their season would end with a pile of records, program firsts and trophies.
Again, eight Golden Knights qualified for the national tournament with six individuals winning regional titles on the way to the program’s first regional team title.
This time, on the eve of the national championships, the team gathered to hear great news as Head Men's Wrestling Coach Don Henry was named the NCAA Division II National Coach of the Year. His wrestlers would go on to place ninth in the country, highlighted by three All-Americans and the program’s first national finalist since 2011 in redshirt sophomore Alex Farenchak.
“We knew we had something special just because the guys were anxious to get out there and wrestle,” said Henry, who wrapped up his 37th season in charge of the program. “We had to go in with the attitude that we were going to do everything we had to do, get tested as many times as we needed to, follow all the procedures, and train our butts off just for the opportunity.”
That cancellation of the 2020 championships was only the start of an up-and-down, start-and-stop year for the Golden Knights, and all of Gannon’s athletics teams.
Men’s wrestling began in-season practices at their normal early-October date, only to see early season tournaments canceled and planned dual-meet competition come and go without getting on the mat in the first semester.
That chance finally came in January, just under six weeks before the scheduled start of the postseason. The Knights faced off against Division I opponents in Kent State and Edinboro with another Division I dual against Buffalo canceled and looked to maximize their limited competition dates.
Gannon men’s wrestling returned to the mat for one of the most successful seasons in team history.
“We actually wound up being one of the teams that had wrestled the most matches in our region,” Henry said. “We maximized the matches we could get against the best competition we could get, and we made sure that everyone on the team that was practicing got a match, and that was the goal. The bonus was wrestling at regionals.”
When the postseason did arrive, the Knights made the most of it. Due to a reduced field at nationals, only the champions of each weight class at regionals were guaranteed a spot. But Gannon didn’t leave much to chance, putting all 10 individuals into the title bouts. Six won titles, easily setting a new program record, and two more earned at-large bids to nationals.
“We had to go in with the attitude that we were going to do everything we had to do, get tested as many times as we needed to, follow all the procedures, and train our butts off just for the opportunity.” - Don Henry
In St. Louis at a convention center used to maximize space for competitors, six of Gannon’s qualifiers reached the quarterfinal round, and a thrilling semifinal win in overtime at 165 pounds made Farenchak just the fourth Golden Knight to compete in the finals.
And for the second straight year, Gannon will have more than a handful of returning national qualifiers when the 2021-22 season gets underway in the fall, setting the stage for continued success.
“We’re super excited to have pretty much everyone coming back,” Farenchak said. “I know all my teammates are working just as hard as I did, but now they know that they can really go into nationals and do it. We’ve had a bunch of great years recently, but if there’s going to be a year to top them all, this is going to be it.”