Oregon State’s Chad Hanke has reached his last hurrah in college wrestling.
The senior heavyweight from Dayton High School still plans to continue wrestling internationally with his eye on the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, but the NCAA championships will be his final stop representing the Beavers.
Competition begins Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa.
“It’s been a long road. Not many people go to school for six years,” said Hanke, who redshirted as a true freshman in 2007-08, and took an Olympic redshirt last season. “It’s been a great and successful career and I’m looking to top if off with a national title.”
You have to like his chances.
Not only does Hanke bring a No. 4 seed and 32-3 overall record into the tournament, but he’s competed on bigger stages. Don’e expect Hanke to be overwhelmed by the moment.
In February of 2012, Hanke placed second at the prestigious Outstanding Ukranian Athletes and Memoria in Kiev, Ukraine, in the freestyle heavyweight division. It was his arrival on the international stage.
The experience Hanke gained last year competing against the premier wrestlers in the world – he placed fifth at the U.S. Olympic Trials – helped prepare him one more shot at a national collegiate championship.
“I’ve wrestled tougher competition and traveled and seen different styles that most people aren’t used to seeing,” said Hanke, a three-time state champion at Dayton. “I’m just gonna take everything I’ve learned and apply it.”
The ninth-ranked Beavers will be sending seven wrestlers to compete in the 10 weight class at nationals: Hanke, senior Mike Mangram (No. 3 seed at 141), junior Scott Sakaguchi (No. 7 seed at 149), junior RJ Pena (No. 10 seed at 157), senior Cody Weishoff (174), senior Ty Vinson (184), and sophomore Travis Meeks (No. 5 seed at 197).
OSU, which has won back-to-back Pac-12 championships, placed 10th at nationals last year, its highest finish since placing ninth in 1998.
“We have a really good shot at getting a trophy (top four teams) this year,” Hanke said. “We have some horses at a few of the weights that can go really deep into the tournament.”
One of those “horses” is Pena, a four-time state champion at Sprague High School. Pena did not place in his first appearance at nationals last year, which has been a source of motivation.
For Pena and his teammates, the season is measured by success at the NCAA championships. The eight wrestlers in each division who survive the preliminary rounds to compete Saturday earn all-America status.
“You’ve got to get to Saturday and score a lot of points,” seventh-year coach Jim Zalesky said. “Most of these guys have been there before.”
Pena lost in the Pac-12 championship match, which adds even more fuel to the fire.
“Really, nationals is the only thing that matters,” said Pena, who is 32-5. “Pac-12 is a steppingstone. My goal was to win that, but the past is the past. Now I’ve gotta move forward and keep my head up.”
While wrestling is an individual sport, every victory at nationals helps in the team scoring. Additional points are awarded for major decisions, technical falls, and pins.
In what has been referred to as seven minutes of fury in the wrestling circle, the goal is to dominate. And be atop the victory platform Saturday.
It will be Mangrum’s fourth appearance at nationals after placing a career-high fifth in 2012.
“The last couple years going in I was nervous and stuff,” Mangrum said. “But I’ve been there three times by now. I’m pretty used to the (bright) lights and all of the hype.”
The NCAA championships are a time for wrestling to take center stage. It’s a sport in need of a boost in the wake of a recent decision by the International Olympic Committee to drop wrestling as an Olympic sport in 2020.
Wrestling, which has been included in every Olympics since the start of the modern Olympics in 1896, will be among seven sports with an opportunity to petition for reinstatement, with one spot open for the 2020 Games.
“I was stunned, shocked, angry, because wrestling has been around for so long,” Hanke said. “I’ve had people come up to me in classes who don’t know a thing about wrestling to ask me about it.”
Zalesky, who is hoping for reinstatement along with everyone else in the wrestling community, said the IOC’s decision could be a “real positive for our sport,” because it has forced wrestling to reevaluate it’s difficult to understand scoring system at the international level.
Pena called the Olympic snub “a shocker,” but there’s no time to dwell on that now with so much at stake this week.
“I know there’s people out there who love college wrestling,” Pena said. “College wrestling I don’t thinks ever gonna end.”