Blue Raider wrestler Eric Feuerbacher (right) battles against an Apprentice School opponent March 5, 2013, in Lynchburg, Va. (Photo submitted)
One of the most successful club sports at Middle Tennessee State University, wrestling, qualified several of its athletes for the National Collegiate Wrestling Association championship during the Mid-Atlantic Conference Championships last week in Virginia.
Ten wrestlers, including two former Blackman High School stars, finished high enough in the final standings to mark their place in the national tournament, scheduled for Thursday, March 14, in Texas.
One of those Blaze alumni, sophomore Eric Feuerbacher, finished runner-up in the 133 pound class, which was the highest finishing position by a Blue Raider wrestler.
Fellow graduate and sophomore Adam Wells also qualified for nationals with a sixth place finish in the 235 pound division.
Head coach Brian Knepper, who is a member of the NCWA Hall of Fame, said he was pleased with both of their performances during last week's important meet, and he talked about the key roles that each play on the team.
“Eric is a leader ... not necessarily with his words, but with his work ethic on his skills on the mat,” said Knepper, who joined the team as head coach in 2007. “He is going to make an excellent head wrestling coach one day, and he is actually one of four of our youth program's coaches for the spring and summer team.
"Having already won a TSSAA state title at 125 in 2011, he has continued to push himself to strive to be better on the mat. The kids in the area who we recruit look to him as a mentor and something to strive for.”
As a freshman, Feuerbacher placed ninth overall in the country in 2012 by going 5-2 at 133.
As for Wells, he still qualified for his second consecutive nationals, even through some of the tournaments the MTSU team competed at this season did not have his weight class of 235.
“He keeps the team in good spirits, and he can always turn tough situations into a comedic event,” Knepper said.
Overall, MTSU finished in fourth place in the team competition behind Liberty University, the Apprentice School and James Madison University.
Knepper admitted the team was hoping for a better performance during the meet, but he said he was still pleased to have a program record of 10 athletes advance to nationals, especially given that there are no seniors on this year's team.
“I think coaches are never really satisfied with results because, especially in wrestling, there is always room for improvement,” Knepper said. “Having said that, the team performed great as a whole, with some stepping up their level. If you asked some of the individuals, they would undoubtedly tell you they were disappointed as many of them had prepared to be conference champions.
"We finished in fourth as a team with our goal being to win it all. Injuries have really held back the team from breaking into that 'elite' status in the Mid-Atlantic Conference with our team being down five starters from the original roster in October.”
The other MTSU wrestlers who also advanced to nationals comprise Shane Shaffer, Anthony Patnode, Everett Colbert, Khris Sawyer, Jonathan Roberts, Robert Anderson, Rashied Rayford and Tyler Bond.
Jasmine Cothran will also take part at nationals in the women's division, and Tim Vara also earned a spot to next week's meet but he is unable to compete next week.
In the past two seasons, a combined 19 Blue Raiders wrestlers, including some who will make their second consecutive appearance, qualified for the nationals.
Knepper credits the recent success of the program to four different areas of the team: recruiting, coaching, the creation of the MTSU Wrestling Foundation and dedicated practice facilities.
All four of these areas have helped the team because the Blue Raider wrestling team has not been sanctioned by MTSU Athletics and the NCAA since 1980. It reappeared as a club sport on campus as a member of the NCWA in 1999.
Heading into next week's nationals, Knepper said he feels the team has improved in the past six years in part to the coaching staff's hard work in getting the word out about the club during big meets around the Volunteer State.
“I, along with my coaching staff, have built up a reputation with the surrounding wrestling community as a place for high school and middle school wrestlers to come and learn technique and get great workouts,” Knepper said. “We are heavily involved in the state high school wrestling tournaments and make ourselves visible to that community.”
The team also uses its own logos for the club and website, www.blueraiderwrestling.com, to help build awareness of the program.