UTICA — Last season’s Utica wrestling team featured no seniors, and the young lineup struggled to get wins.
This year, those underclassmen who struggled against older opponents are now the ones enjoying a bit of prosperity, as Utica has started its season with a 7-6 record.
This year’s senior class has seen its up-and-downs while at Utica, including a 22-win season two years ago. Utica senior captain and four-year wrestler Kyle Teller knew that last year would be a learning experience to use as a springboard into his senior season.
“Coach (Clint Davis) was telling us last year that we were a young team so that it would be a two-year experience, and there would be some tough losses because we’re giving up voids in some weight classes but just to keep your head up, and that’s what I had to learn,” Teller said.
As a leader, it was especially important for Teller to set the tone for the other members of Utica’s program.
“When the team was struggling and when I was struggling last year, I just had to remember to keep working hard, and never stop and keep the intensity up,” Teller said.
Utica coach Clint Davis, who is in his eighth season, said that last season’s struggles did not prevent his roster from improving.
“They knew that we were a young team; they knew that we just had to keep working at it,” Davis said.
Despite the improvement in experience, the Chieftains still face a challenge because they do not have any wrestlers at 103, 112 or 118 pounds. To make up for that, Davis said that in addition to Teller, he will be relying largely on a combination of seniors and sophomores.
“Sam Mason (170 pounds) has always been strong since the start; he’s had some wrestling background to begin with. He has a brother on the team who’s a sophomore, so they’ve been wrestling for a while,” Davis said.
His younger brother, Nick, is helping lead a strong group of sophomores.
“We had a lot of sophomores come out this year. They’re athletic, they learn fast, so I’m looking to a pretty good future with them. Nick Mason wrestles at 125. Ethan Culberson, our heavyweight, is really coming into his own this year, and Dominic Pipitone, who wrestles 189, is going to be all right, so we have a lot of good sophomores on the team,” Davis said.
Another senior on the team is Rafael Espinoza, who is wrestling at 135 pounds this season. Espinoza’s wrestling career was put in doubt when he suffered an ACL injury during football season his sophomore year, but Davis said Espinoza has worked tirelessly to get back on the mat.
“He battled back from his injury and actually joined the swim team in the meantime, but his heart was always with wrestling,” Davis said. “I’ve never seen a kid work so hard to come back from an injury when most kids would stop playing sports at that point, but he definitely worked his butt off to get back on the mat. He really loves wrestling. He’s a great kid.”
Utica will continue its season in the MAC Blue with a dual meet at Sterling Heights on Jan. 16.