App State wrestling hopeful for the future after COVID-19 cuts historic season short

Members+of+App+State%27s+wrestling+team+pose+for+a+photo+after+the+SoCon+Championships+on+March+8.+The+Mountaineers+had+four+conference+champions+and+a++program+record+six+total+NCAA+qualifiers+before+the+season+was+canceled+due+to+COVID-19.+

Courtesy App State Athletics

Members of App State’s wrestling team pose for a photo after the SoCon Championships on March 8. The Mountaineers had four conference champions and a program record six total NCAA qualifiers before the season was canceled due to COVID-19.

Connor Davidson, Associate Multimedia Editor

Coming into the 2019-20 season, many thought App State wrestling was going to have a down year. The Mountaineers lost six starters from the previous year, but the gaps were filled and the team had a record six NCAA qualifiers and four Southern Conference champions. Head coach JohnMark Bentley was less surprised by their success.

“We knew we had a lot of good young guys that were gonna be coming into our lineup,” Bentley said. “I think our staff and our team knew that we could be very competitive and probably surprise a lot of people.”

The Mountaineers finished the season with a 9-3 overall record, and a 6-1 conference record. They finished the season at No. 27 in the national polls. Their only losses came at the hands of nationally ranked opponents: No. 18 North Carolina, No. 6 NC State, and No. 20 Campbell. Of the nine wins, App State had the most shutouts of any team in the country with four. The Mountaineers shutout Presbyterian, Duke, The Citadel and VMI. 

“It’s hard to shutout a team and win all ten weights, and especially to do that four times this year,” Bentley said. “It was pretty remarkable and I think it speaks to the kind of culture and the balance of our team.”

On Jan. 13, the Mountaineers defeated Presbyterian and Davidson to give Bentley his 100th and 101st career victories. Another member of the team to reach 100 career victories was senior Matt Zovistoski, who hit triple digit wins in his SoCon tournament finals victory. Zovistoski was one of four conference champion Mountaineers along with fellow seniors Cary Miller and Demazio Samuel, and sophomore Jonathan Millner. App State was one of three Division I teams to have four conference champions. Bentley considered the conference championships to be the highlight of the season. 

Each conference champion receives an automatic bid to compete in the NCAA championships, meaning App State had four automatic qualifiers. In addition, two other Mountaineers, juniors Codi Russell and Thomas Flitz, received at-large bids to give App State a program record six total NCAA qualifiers. However, on March 12, the NCAA announced that it canceled all remaining winter and spring championships due to the coronavirus outbreak.

“It was definitely tough to hear that that tournament got canceled because…the only tournament that actually matters and can put you in the history books is that tournament,” Russell said. “But people like our three conference champs that were seniors that won’t ever get that chance back, it really stinks for them. At least I have another year to compete and try to make some of my goals a reality.”

Those seniors — Miller, Zovistoski, and Samuel — played an instrumental role in the team’s success. Miller led the team in wins, finishing 32-5 and had nine pins which tied for seventh among Division I heavyweights. Zovistoski finished with a 28-7 record, and Samuel went 19-9 on the year. Despite having to move on without these guys, the team is optimistic for the future.

“Obviously Cary (Miller) and Matt (Zovistoski) are going to be the two biggest shoes to fill that we’re losing,” Bentley said. “I do think that we’ve got some good talent coming in in this recruiting class and some guys that have been working hard. I think you’re going to see guys like Codi (Russell) and Will (Formato) and Sean Carter and Thomas Flitz are going to have even better years next year than they did this year.”

There are plenty of guys who aren’t seniors who saw success. Russell finished his year 26-10 and had eight tech falls, which ranked first in the country among 133-pound wrestlers and eighth overall. Millner was tied for second in team wins with a 31-4 record and had ten wins by major decision which ranks first among wrestlers at 149 pounds. Junior Thomas Flitz was the other Mountaineer with 31 wins, finishing 31-10. All of the starters for the Mountaineers finished with a winning record, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished at App State in over 25 years.

“All the guys we’re losing were awesome leaders on our team, they were really a big part of what made our team so great this year,” said Will Formato, starting redshirt freshman. “They really helped bring everybody along and get everybody up every day to get better, so we definitely have a responsibility to keep that going even after they leave.”

With a successful 2020 season behind them, the Mountaineers are ready for what’s next and to continue to improve.

“We just (have) to keep putting our goals in front of us and keep realizing we don’t want to get stagnant,” Formato said. “We want to accomplish more things and we’re capable of it… It’s going to be a big part of how we do next season.”

Although the season was cut short, there were a plethora of accomplishments and accolades the team accumulated, and coach Bentley is proud of what his team was able to do.

“I’m really proud of our guys for stepping up and tackling the challenge and having a lot of young and new faces in our lineup that stepped out and did a phenomenal job for us…  there’s just a lot to look back on and be very very proud of,” Bentley said.