2003-04 Season Review
May 17, 2004
The 2003-04 Air Force wrestling team suffered one of its toughest seasons in recent history, finishing 3-7 in dual competition. The team struggled to stay healthy, enduring through an injury-riddled season that saw as many as half of the team's regular starters and several top reserves sidelined with various injuries.
The Falcons opened the season with one returning national qualifier - Heath McKim (125 pounds). McKim got off to a strong start, winning first place in the team's opening tournament, the Cowboy Open in Laramie, Wyo. Three additional Air Force wrestlers took home first place trophies, while several others were place winners in their individual weight classes.
McKim breezed through his bracket, going 4-0 to take home top honors. In the Under 19 division, freshman Chris Nissen, wrestling in the first collegiate event of his career, went 4-0 to finish in first place in the 149-pound weight class. Beau Tresemer (165 lbs) and Jacob Lillich (174) each won four matches to grab first-place honors.
In their second event of the year, the Northern Colorado Open, three Air Force grapplers took home top honors. Matthew Benza (133), Justin Gabbard (157) and Blaine Brown (165) all won their respective weight classes, while several others were place winners in the tournament.
The Falcons then split their first two dual meets of the season. Wrestling at a neutral site in Las Vegas, the team fell to UC Davis 27-9 then defeated Utah Valley State 35-3.
Against UC Davis, the Falcons fell behind quickly and never recovered. They dropped their first four matches and were behind 17-0. Nissen (149) got his first career dual victory, a 10-3 win, to get the Falcons on the board. Lillich (174) and Lucas Lefever (184) also won their individual matches, but the Falcons finished the meet with just those three individual wins.
Air Force rebounded in the second dual meet with a 32-point victory over Utah Valley State. Of the 10 weight classes, Air Force lost just one dual match. Nissen notched a pin, while Lefever and heavyweight Kurt Skarstedt both scored major decisions.
Three Falcons would compete at the prestige Midlands Wrestling Tournament, held at Northwestern University. McKim (125) finished the tournament with a 3-3 overall record, and captured eighth place. Lucas Lefever (184 pounds) was 1-2 in the tournament, while Josh Peterson (149) lost both his matches.
The team then went on to compete in the 2003 Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational, where the team had two place winners. McKim continued to wrestle well, placing fourth overall. Gabbard (157) placed eighth at the event.
In the team's third dual competition of the season, the Falcons suffered one of their worst losses of the year. Hosting Nebraska, who was ranked third in the nation, the Falcons suffered a 43-3 defeat. Nebraska won the first five individual matches and nine out of 10 matches. Jacob Lillich (174) was the lone winner for the Falcons.
The team would then travel to Golden, Colo., for the annual Colorado Collegiate tournament. They would compete without their lone nationally ranked wrestler, Heath McKim, who injured his knee against Nebraska and would be lost for the remainder of the season. The team would forfeit the 125-pound weight class in two tournaments and in their final seven dual meets.
Air Force finished in third place overall with two champions and four second-place winners. Air Force claimed individual champions in Brown (165) and Lillich (174). Brown notched a major decision over Adams State's Scott Cleve, winning the championship match 13-2. Lillich won a 10-2 decision in the championship match over Western State's Cameron Bretz.
Four Falcon grapplers won second place in the tournament. Seth Weatherman (133), Gabbard (157), Lefever (184) and Brenden McLean (197) were each runners up in their respective weight classes.
It was a disappointing finish for the Falcons, but not as disappointing as their fifth-place finish at the 10th annual All-Academy Championships the following weekend. It was the lowest finish for the Falcons in the history of the event, as the team was held without an individual champion. Two Falcon grapplers placed second in the event.
Brown was the Falcons' first second-place finisher. Brown suffered a 15-4 loss to Navy's Mike Barikian in the final match. The team's other runner up was Lucas Lefever, who lost a 12-6 decision to Army's Luke Calvert. In addition, Lillich (174) placed third overall and Skarstedt (Hwt) placed fourth.
Air Force scored only 36.5 team points in the event. Prior to last year's third place finish, the Falcons had won the previous two All-Academy Championships. The Falcons, who had never finished lower than third place, were affected by injuries. They forfeited two weight classes and wrestled just five of 10 regular starters.
In their fourth dual meet of year, Air Force fell to Adams State 28-16, despite winning half of 10 individual matches. The Falcons split the 10 individual matches evenly, but could not overcome three Adams State pins and a forfeit at the 125-pound weight class.
Despite losing the dual by 12 points, the Falcons outscored Adams State 49-38 and held them to just three takedowns. Air Force had 12 takedowns, but could not keep pace with ASC's bonus point victories. Air Force had won the previous seven meetings between the teams.
Next up for Air Force was a dual competition against Northern Colorado. The Falcons notched a 21-21 victory, winning on criteria. Air Force won six of the 10 dual matches to win the dual, marking the second consecutive season the Falcons defeated the Bears on criteria.
Injuries continued to plague the Falcons, as they lost their next dual meet to Chadron Stqate, 35-6. Chadron State won eight of the 10 dual matches to win the dual, avenging a 33-9 Falcon win from a year ago. Lillich and Skarstedt were the team's only individual winners. The very next night, the team faced North Dakota State, the top-ranked Division II team in the country. NDSU dominated the match, winning all nine matches and picking up a forfeit at 125 pounds for the 42-0 victory.
The team lost its third consecutive dual meet competition to Western State, ranked seventh in the nation at Division II. Western State won seven of 10 individual weight classes en route to a 32-12 victory over the Falcons. The Falcons lost all five of the lower weight classes, where they had been hit hardest by injury, and they trailed 23-0 midway through the dual. Brown, Lillich and Skarstedt each notched victories, but the Falcons were never in contention for the victory.
Air Force snapped its three-match losing streak by defeating visiting Colorado School of Mines 33-9 in the team's final home dual meet of the season. The Falcons won eight out of 10 individual matches to win the meet handily.
In their final dual meet of the year, the Falcons traveled to Laramie to face conference rival Wyoming. The Falcons won just two of ten individual the Cowboys, falling 31-9 and ending a disappointing dual season. The Falcons got their first points when Wyoming forfeited at 149 pounds. Air Force's lone earned match victory came in the 174-pound bout as Jacob Lillich defeated Wyoming's Trevor Murray by a 7-2 decision.
The Falcons looked to rebound at the West Regional Tournament, which they hosted. Although the Falcons finished in fourth place out of five teams, freshman Chris Nissen and sophomore Brandon Strong each won second place to earn a spot at NCAA Championships.
Nissen (149) entered the tournament as the fifth seed. After defeating Eastern Illiniois' Adam Beeler 7-0 in the pigtail match, he faced off against the top seed Jeff Harrison of Northern Iowa. In arguably the most exciting match of the tournament, Nissen notched an escape and a takedown with just a few seconds on the clock for a 10-9 victory. In a close championship match, Nissen surrendered a takedown with three seconds remaining in the match to fall 8-7 to Casey Olson (Fresno State).
At 133 pounds, Brandon Strong had a similar route to the finals, pinning Joe Stewart (FSU) in a pigtail match for the opportunity to wrestle the top-seeded Patrick Garcia (UNI). Strong won handily, defeating Garcia by decision, 11-6. In the championship match against Pat Dowty (EIU), Strong kept it close throughout. He trailed by one point with under a minute remaining, but lost by fall after a risky takedown maneuver failed.
Two-time NCAA qualifier Heath McKim finished in fourth place, losing both his matches. McKim returned to the line up for the first time six weeks after being sidelined with a knee injury and did not seem fully recovered. Another Air Force hopeful, Benza (141), failed to make weight and could not wrestle.
Wrestling at the national tournament, Strong was pinned in the third period by No. 11 Ed Gutnik of Wisconsin in his opening round match. Nissen was also pinned in his first match by No. 4 Ryan Churella of Michigan. Nissen suffered the fall with just 12 seconds remaining in the match.
The duo did not fair better in their second matches, as both were pinned again. Strong lost his second match to David Hoffman (Virginia Tech) by fall at the 2:53 mark of the match. Nissen was pinned in the first period of his second match, falling to Michigan State's Darren McKnight at the 2:29 mark.
Despite the disappointing record, several individuals had standout seasons, including the team's two national qualifiers. Brown had 24 wins in his final season, the most on the team. Lillich also topped the 20 mark, tallying 22 victories and a team-high .733 winning percentage . Brown also led the team with 70 takedowns and 34 near falls. Lillich led the Falcons with six major decisions. Freshman Matthew Crippes notched a team-high 11 pins and Skarstedt led the squad with 51 escapes.
The Falcons hope to be fully recovered from injuries in time for the 2004-05 campaign. All but one of the team's starters - Blaine Brown who is graduating - will be returning, and a solid recruiting class will help the Air Force wrestling team rebound from a disappointing season.