Bucknell tests its newest wrestlers ahead of opener

LEWISBURG — Bucknell’s intrasquad scrimmage last month was all about testing its newest wrestlers. Head coach Dan Wirnsberger sat in his chair shouting instruction and watching how his wrestlers reacted.

He already knew how veterans like Tom Sleigh, Victor Lopez, Tyler Smith and Tyler Greene would react to the spotlight of a real collegiate match. But it was freshmen like Montoursville graduate Garrett Hoffman, New Jersey’s Zach Firestone and Bethlehem Catholic’s Joey Gould who Wirnsberger was most interested in.

With the Bison opening the season today at top-ranked Oklahoma State, he wanted to make sure those younger wrestlers got a taste of a match in front of a crowd with an NCAA official on hand. And the 12th-year head coach of the Bison saw a lot of what he was hoping to see.

“I saw a lot of positive things,” Wirnsberger said. “But there’s a lot of things with our youthfulness we do have that we have to work on. Yeah, there’s going to be some growing pains, but those guys are going to be out there looking to score points, and it’s going to be fun.”

Hoffman impressed in his appearance with the Bison. The three-time PIAA placewinner who was a Class AA state runner-up last year at Montoursville, was leading teammate Kyle Inlander, 15-4, when he sank in a half-nelson and got a fall in their 184-pound match.

Hoffman’s high-paced offense is going to be a good fit for the style Wirnsberger likes to see his kids use. Wirnsberger also said his style may be a better fit for collegiate wrestling than it was on the high school level.

Hoffman recorded four takedowns in the win, the third of which he scored when he locked up a cradle from neutral for a six-point move. Hoffman is likely to get the start today at Oklahoma State where he will face returning All-American Nolan Boyd, who is ranked fifth in the country by both Intermat and FloWrestling.

“There’s no hesitation whatsoever with Garrett,” Wirnsberger said. “He’s a tough, hard-nosed kid. He has length. He knows how to wrestle and he’s a big guy. He has endurance. His style is made for college wrestling. The sky is the limit for him. It’s going to be a matter of continuing to clean up some smaller areas and get to be a little bit better wrestler and gain some experience at this level. The future is really bright for him.”

Gould was the only wrestler to win a pair of matches during Bucknell’s intrasquad. The Bethlehem Catholic graduate defeated New Jersey state champ Zach Firestone in his first match, scoring a fall with a cradle in 5:02, in a match he was leading by just two points.

Gould followed that up later in the night with a 5-2 win over Ben Bliss, who had five wins in limited action with the Bison a year ago.

“Gould is a tough guy to wrestle,” Wirnsberger said. “He’s awkward, he’s funky and he’s hard to finish on.”

Wirnsberger likes the balance the Bison will have when they take the mat Sunday in Stillwater. Smith, Lopez and Sleigh are returning NCAA qualifiers who are capable of wrestling with some of the best talent in the country.

But Wirnsberger will look to these young kids to fill a void left by Paul Petrov, a multi-time NCAA qualifier for the Bison at 125 pounds. Bucknell will also have to find a way to replace heavyweight Joe Stolfi who graduated as the school’s career leader in pins.

“There’s good balance from the standpoint of leadership and experience with four or five guys,” Wirnsberger said. “But the two or three really exciting true freshmen are going to be in the lineup. Our hope is we have them developed well enough by the end of the year that they’ll be taking a trip to St. Louis with a chance to get on the podium.”