Anyone who has excelled in a particular sport understands that sports have a unique form of magical powers. On any given day in sports, someone can become an instant hero or an instant disappointment. An unknown can become a legend and a once-legend can return to an unknown. In sports, anything can happen on any given day. Whether it be by hard work, skill, or an outside source of superstition, you never know what will happen. This is what makes it so easy to root for the underdog in sports. This year, the underdog on campus is the Mount St. Joseph University wrestling team.
The Lions enter the season after taking the entire 2016-17 season off to rebuild. Three-time NCAA All-American and Mount alum Elliot Spence was hired to lead the rebuild, as the team’s new head coach. Spence inherited a program with a rich history of All-Americans and championships, but at the same time, it was hardly a desirable situation. Spence was brought in to rebuild the very same program that had thrived when he was a student, from scratch. He inherited a team with only one returning player from last year- a season in which the team did not compete. The team hadn’t recorded a win since 2014.
Like any great coach who is persuaded to revive a program from the dead, Spence spent his offseason writing letters, making phone calls, and visiting every high school within driving distance in hopes of not only scraping together enough talent to field a team, but to field a competitive one. The problem was that there were now two rising Division 3 wrestling programs in town. Throughout the history of Mount St. Joseph University wrestling, there was very little competition for Division 3 wrestling recruits in the Cincinnati area. However, in 2016, Thomas More College began a wrestling program right across the river. Now, Spence was not only tasked with restarting a wrestling team from scratch, but he also faced greater competition for recruits than any coach before him. Spence’s efforts that included anything the NCAA would allow were enough to bring in a freshmen class of nine student-athletes who were eager to leave their mark on an established, but rising program.
When asked about Spence, freshman Business Marketing major, Taishi Okamoto told me, “He’s a great coach and a great dude. He can definitely turn the program around.” Okamoto went on to say that all of the coaches connect well with their players. “We can talk to them about anything. The coaching staff is really great. We’ve got a really good program here.”
Coaches that connect to players on a deeper level beyond sports are a rare commodity. Anyone who has played sports will tell you that the best teams they have ever been part of were the teams that had a relatable coach. When an athlete reveres his coach as a person just as much as a coach, the player will push himself to levels beyond expectations in order to make the coach proud. A relatable coach is enough to bring freshmen wrestlers to the Mount, but is that enough to keep them here through the ups and downs of the rebuilding process?
As a matter of fact, the opportunity to be part of something great, something better than oneself, is exactly what this program has to offer. When asked why Okamoto chose to join the wrestling team, he said, “The rebuild. I wanted to be part of that. We’ve had some great teams in the past, so we hope to get back there.”
While many young athletes would shy away from a difficult situation, Spence has recruited a group of young men who want to be part of the challenging rebuild process and see it through for the next four years.
Okamoto says the young team has “a lot of hard workers and a lot of talent. We have a lot of untapped potential too.” Given the circumstances that Spence came into, finding blue chip recruits wasn’t very realistic. Rather, Spence needed to find wrestlers that had shown great promise, but for various reasons hadn’t proven themselves as elite wrestlers at the high school level. Spence needed to find raw talent and develop that talent into championship form. As Okamoto put it, “We don’t have too much experience but we’ve shown a lot of potential to work with.”
Spence has already proven that he can push this team to reach its previously unrealized potential. On just the second competition of the Spence era, the Lions travelled to Olivet College in Michigan, where the team notched its first victory since 2014. For a team that didn’t even have enough players to compete just a few months ago, this win was nothing short of a miracle.
Overnight, the Mount St. Joseph University wrestling team has gone from a team that many had forgotten about, to the Cinderella story on campus that everyone is talking about. In a short time, Spence has already proven to be the answer to the wrestling rebuild. Okamoto believes that “we’ve got a great group of guys, so we’re going to take a lot of people by surprise this year.” Their performance thus far would indicate that that’s exactly what they will do.