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Same faces, fresh laces: App State wrestling looks to lean on experience to continue success

Ashton Woodruff
Ethan Oakley holds Duke’s Logan Agin in a headlock Jan. 24, 2023. The Mountaineers and Blue Devils are set to face off Jan. 8, 2024 in Durham.

After a wildly successful 2022-23 season saw Mountaineer wrestling go 12-2 overall and 8-0 in conference, the team is hungry to show that last year wasn’t a fluke. Taking home the number one record in the SoCon’s regular season and picking up the title at the conference’s postseason championship has head coach JohnMark Bentley ready to get his team back to the mat when they open the season Nov. 3 against NC State.

“We’re really anxious and chomping at the bits to get this team competing and showing what they’re capable of,” Bentley said. “We have a good group. I think it’s a great blend of youth and experience, and I’m really excited to see which young guys are going to fill some big holes from last year’s losses.” 

Assistant coach Randall Diabe and head coach JohnMark Bentley (right) watch as App State takes on Duke Jan. 24, 2023. Bentley has been named SoCon Coach of the Year six times throughout his tenure in the High Country. (Ashton Woodruff)

Bentley, who is in his 14th year at App State, has seen many years of success at the helm. This year will be different; for the first time since the 2016-17 season the team will be without all-time great Jon Jon Millner. 

Millner, a two-time All-American at 149 pounds and finished 40-0 in SoCon Duels, is not the only loss App State is facing coming into the season. Caleb Smith and Will Formato left the program last year. The former transferred to perennial powerhouse Nebraska and the latter graduated. 

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“I do believe that we have some talented and capable young men, but we’re going to have youth in some spots and they’re going to make mistakes we know they will,” Bentley said. “Even with the youth, I like the lineup that’s shaping up and I’m confident in them.”

The Black and Gold return nine wrestlers who started important matchups season, and five who have qualified for the NCAA championships during their time at App State. Two of the five qualifiers, Juniors Will Miller and Tommy Askey, were named preseason All-SoCon at their respective weight classes.

Miller, who made the transition from 174 pounds to 165 pounds this season, is poised for a big year as he mentioned that dropping nine pounds should really improve his ability on the mat. Miller finished last season 24-12 overall, coming second at the SoCon championships for his weight class and taking down former All-American Clay Lautt of UNC and taking 2019 National Champion Mekhi Lewis from Virginia Tech the distance before losing 6-5. 

“After the U23 nationals, me and Coach Bentley decided that I was too small for the weight class,” Miller said about switching from 174 to 164 pounds. “I was way undersized and decided to make the change and I think it fits better for the way I wrestle and the way the lineup is going to pan out.”

Two former NCAA qualifiers and SoCon champions in redshirt-senior Cody Bond now at 149 pounds and senior Sean Carter at 133 pounds missed significant time last year due to injury, but should be ready when top five NC State comes to Boone. 

“I’m not going to put anyone on a pedestal,” said Bond. “I’m just going to go out there and strap it up and get out there and let it fly.

The Black and Gold have never taken down the Wolfpack, a team they’ve faced every season since 2013, but look to stop NC State’s 12-match win streak with experience such as Bond and Carter back to being healthy. 

Bond, who is in his seventh year, has become a leader to the team, mentioning he’s never really had to be a vocal leader before, but is ready for the task as the transition has been a good one for him. Bond made the 157 pound SoCon finals in his only two full years as a starter, claiming the title in 2020 while finishing second in 2021. He went 9-8 overall last season before suffering a season-ending injury in January.

Luke Uliano muscles Duke’s Luke Chakonis’ arms behind his head during the 11-1 win. Jan. 24, 2023. (Ashton Woodruff )

“The past couple years I’ve been in a leadership role, but not necessarily directly. I’m more of a lead by example kind of guy,” Bond said about being faced with a new role this season. “I’ve tried to step in and speak to the team after practice but I’m also more of a democratic leader, it’s not just me.”

Carter looks to add depth at the low-level weights, but is ready for the challenge after a devastating patella injury halted what looked to be a promising season for the four-year starter. 

“It’s great for both guys to be back in the locker room and being active,” Bentley said. “I think the young guys feed off of seeing veterans like them wrestling and training, we’re excited to have those two back in the lineup.”

Two wrestlers who benefitted from the increased workload due to injuries last year were 157 pound Askey and redshirt-sophomore Ethan Oakley at 133 pounds. Both wrestlers had dominating finishes to the year, knocking off multiple ranked opponents on their way to the NCAA Championships. 

With two NCAA qualifiers at 133 pounds in Oakley and Carter, there is a chance one of them slides over to 125 pounds if the team thinks it’s best. However, with others announcing weight class changes and both sticking at 133 pounds there seems to be a real battle that might not get solved until the final hour. 

As Many wrestlers have shifted weight and the lineup looks to be a work in progress, 141 pound junior Heath Gonyer should be the starter at his weight class when the season opens. Gonyer has placed top three at the conference championships in each of his two years as a starter, coming runner up in 2021 and finishing third last year. 

At 197 pounds, sophomore and last year’s SoCon Freshman of the year Carson Floyd will most likely get the nod on opening night. Floyd showed out as a true freshman last season, placing first at the Mountaineer Invitational and Patriot Open. He went 24-9 overall and was a SoCon finalist after breaking into the NCAA top 30 at 28th to end last year. 

Redshirt-sophomore Luke Uliano, who wrestled well at 184 pounds last season seems poised to get the start at 174 pounds. Uliano placed fourth at his first ever SoCon championships last season, beating out multiple upperclassmen before falling in the semifinals.

The youth begins to show in the 184 and 125 pound weight classes. Two redshirt-sophomores Dalton Battle and Joe Zovistoski round out 184 pounds, while junior Chad Bellis is the only wrestler at 125 pounds with real experience under his belt. All three wrestlers had more than eight wins as backups last season, showing real promise at invitationals such as the Mountaineer Invitational or the Appalachian Open. Battle was the lone wrestler who picked up an in conference win as he took down VMI’s starter by fall. 

Rounding out the lineup is senior heavyweight Jacob Sartorio, who received high praise from Bentley saying he’s improved the most out of anyone over the summer.

“I think Jacob Sartorio has made the most gains of anyone this summer,” Bentley said. “He’s in great shape and his hand fighting skills are some of the best of any heavyweight we’ve ever had.”

Sartorio went 19-14 and captured the Appalachian Open title which led to him getting the start at heavyweight the rest of the year. Sartorio came second at the SoCon championships after avenging his one of two conference losses against Campbell’s Taye Ghadiali in the semifinals. 

The Mountaineers will welcome three top programs to Varsity Gym this year, with NC State opening the season and UNC shortly after, with a matchup between top-10 Cornell and App State Feb. 18. Both Cornell and NC State finished last year in the top eight of the NCAA’s team rankings and top ten at the NCAA Championships with the Wolfpack coming 10th and the Big Red finishing third. UNC did not finish ranked to end last season but finished 12th in overall team points at the NCAA championships.

App State defeated UNC last season 19-16 in Chapel Hill for the first time since 2016. The matchup against Cornell will be the first meeting between the two teams ever and will fall on a double header as the Mountaineers take on Bellarmine just hours before the matchup against the Big Red. 

The team will travel to Durham to face Duke and Blacksburg, Virginia to face Virginia Tech where they hope to avenge last year’s 23-11 loss at the hands of the Hokies. 

SoCon action begins Jan. 21 with a matchup against The Citadel. The Mountaineers will face off against rival and preseason No. 1 in the SoCon Campbell Feb. 2 in Buies Creek, North Carolina for a match the preseason No. 2 Mountaineers definitely have circled on the calendar. 

The SoCon championships are once again in Boone this season at the Holmes Convocation Center, all-day on March 9.

Season tickets can be purchased directly online on the App State Athletics website, through the ticket office at (828) 262-7733 or at the App State Athletics ticket office located at the Holmes Convocation Center. 

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About the Contributors
Trey Blake
Trey Blake, Reporter
Trey Blake (he/him) is a sophomore digital journalism major, media studies minor, from Clayton, NC. This is his second year writing for The Appalachian.
Ashton Woodruff
Ashton Woodruff, Photo Editor
Ashton Woodruff (she/her) is a junior IDS Criminal Justice/Photojournalism major, and a Social Work minor. This is her second year with The Appalachian.
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