Later this month, the 2017 CISM (International Military Sports Council) World Military Wrestling Championships get underway in Klaipeda, Lithuania and the US service members participating comprise a very, very strong squad despite some roster changes — something that US Marine Corps/US Military World Team coach Jason Loukides can’t help but feel good about.
“You’re always excited,” Loukides says. “At this time of the year, sometimes guys are hurt or they’re recovering from injuries, but there are athletes right behind them, and it just shows the strength of our Armed Forces to have such good people behind the number one guy.”
For two of Team USA’s athletes, Ildar Hafizov (59 kg, Army/WCAP) and Ellis Coleman (66 kg, Army/WCAP), the 2017 World Military Wrestling Championships represent another shot a World medal this calendar year, as both wrestlers were on the Senior team that competed in Paris, France last month. Hafizov lost in his only bout of the day to Vazgen Khachatryan (ARM) and Coleman tech’ed out Diego Ribeiro Romanelli (BRA) before dropping a frustrating 3-1 decision to Mate Nemes (SRB).
Dillon Cowan (75 kg, Army/WCAP), one of the country’s most technically-sound competitors, will be lacing them up in Lithuania, as well. Cowan has been a fixture on the domestic Senior scene for some years now and is coming in off of a World Team Trials performance that included a breakaway tech fall win over perennial standout Kendrick Sanders (NYAC-OTS) en-route to a fourth-place finish overall. Right after Cowan in the lineup resides Courtney Myers (80 kg, Army/WCAP), the bruising punisher who came back to life in 2017 after suffering a potentially career-ending injury. Once Myers was fully healed he quickly rounded into form and went on to make the National Team (yet again) in April and has been focusing on this event ever since.
“The camp we have going on now, it’s good,” Myers said two weeks ago. “It’s a battle every day and it is getting us ready 100% for CISMs.”
Wrestlers who finish first in their weight class at the US Armed Forces Championships claim the World Team spot for the Military Worlds, but there are a few champs from this year’s event who won’t be making the trip to Lithuania and they are all from Army (Army swept the team tournament back in February) — Michael Hooker (71 kg), Lucas Sheridan (85 kg), Endhyr Meza (98 kg), and Toby Erikson (130 kg). However, their respective understudies are four capable competitors who have impressed before and will be looking to do so on a much bigger stage than they are perhaps used to.
At 71 kilograms is Brandon Mueller (Air Force). Because Air Force does not yield a full-time Senior-level training environment the way the Army or the Marines do, Mueller hasn’t had all that many opportunities to establish himself nationally. But even on a limited basis, he has shown glimpses. The Wisconsin native sports a natural intuitiveness for Greco, particularly on his feet, and presents a tough customer to deal with in the pummel. Mueller has also gained some solid experience in 2017, including action at an overseas tournament. He went 2-1 at the Armed Forces (with a 6-2 decision to Hooker as his lone defeat). In early April, Mueller went over to Estonia for the Kristjan Palusalu Memorial and grabbed himself a silver, his first Senior international medal. A 2-3 showing at the US World Team Trials later that month is where he left off.
“Hopefully, he (Mueller) can go in there and win the championship not only for him, but also to show the Air Force that they have the wrestlers in their program who could go to the Olympics and the other tournaments just like the other guys,” Loukides explains. “It could give the Air Force the opportunity to see the same value in wrestling the Army and the Marine Corps do. Giving them some results to look at will hopefully provide some incentive and support grows for airmen to pursue wrestling more.”
Stepping in for Sheridan is John Stefanowicz (Marines), one of Loukides’ three Marines on the US team. Stefanowicz, who saw the brunt of his matches this year at 80 kilos and even wrestled at 75 for the Armed Forces, is up a full weight class for the Military Worlds, but that isn’t a bulletpoint neither he or his coach are too concerned about.
“The weight class is not his major focus,” Loukides says of Stefanowicz. “The World Championships don’t come around every day. He’s just excited to get out there to compete and have a chance to win a medal for the US.”
It has been quite the nine months for the 25-year-old. Following a pronounced break from the sport due to military obligations, Stefanowicz returned to competition at the Nationals in December, where he took fifth. Then it was the Schultz Memorial in February and another strong showing which included a win over Barrett Stanghill (Minnesota Storm) and a close loss to former Junior World bronze medalist and 2017 Japan Senior World Team member Shohei Yabiku. A few weeks later, Stefanowicz came in second at the Armed Forces Championships after an exciting bout with seasoned technician Cowan. That’s when things kicked up a notch.
A controversial loss to two-time Olympian, former Junior World silver medalist, and two-time European Championships winner Zurabi Datunashvili (GEO) in the bronze medal round of the Hungarian Grand Prix in March announced Stefanowicz’s presence as a legitimate threat to make a run at the World Team Trials five weeks later. And that he did. A clutch two-point arm throw in the semis against Geordan Speiller (Florida Jets) put him in the best-of-three final, though he was unable punch it all the way through, falling to Cheney Haight (NYAC) in two close matches. Still, Stefanowicz’s clinching of a National Team spot following the gaps in his competitive career has made an impression.
“John is obviously developing,” says Loukides. “He wrestled at the Nationals and the Armed Forces last year with zero practices. He just showed up. We were able to get him released from his unit to come to the tournament to just wrestle. I knew he was going to develop a lot once he had more consistent training.”
Two more Marines are there to bring up the back-end. 98 kilograms sees Daniel Miller get the call. Miller is an alumni of the Naval Academy and has become a top contender in Greco as he continues to focus on the style. He also competes well against foreign opponents — Miller picked up bronze medals at both the Paris International and the Hungarian Grand Prix in 2017, making him one of five US Seniors to place multiple times this year overseas (Alex Sancho — 66 kg, NYAC-OTS; Patrick Smith — 71 kg, Minnesota Storm; Speiller; and Ben Provisor — 85 kg, NYAC). Miller had defeated Meza prior to February’s Armed Forces, but the Army wrestler turned the tables big time that afternoon, coming away with a tech thanks to two four-point throws. The tide turned back in Miller’s direction at the Trials, where he blanked Meza 8-0 for seventh place.
Eric Fader is taking the place of Erikson. A powerful specimen, Fader has taken steps forward domestically and garnered valuable overseas experience at the World Wrestling Clubs Cup last November. And sandwiched between a fourth-place finish at the Open and a bronze at June’s University Nationals was a fourth at the Paris International. In other words, Fader is doing what he needs to do to assert himself competitively and that drive could help him when he needs it most a few weeks from now.
“He has really changed a lot in the last couple of years,” Loukides offers. “He has gotten a lot bigger as a person. He’s only 21, so he’s growing into being a Senior. Most guys who go to college are getting roughed up that first year and then they start growing up. They become a lot more like men, especially in the upper weights. Eric is finally getting a lot bigger and getting out there a lot more and not just struggling to stay on the mat. The next step is gaining confidence in his wrestling, which he has been doing and he wrestled really well at the Trials. He is one of those guys who can medal and then start getting his mind ready for the next level, and that’s what I’m hoping for.”
2017 CISM World Military Wrestling Championships
September 20-23, Klaipeda, Lithuania
TEAM USA GRECO-ROMAN ROSTER
59 kg: Ildar Hafizov — Army
66 kg: Ellis Coleman — Army
71 kg: Brandon Mueller — Air Force
75 kg: Dillon Cowan — Army
80 kg: Courtney Myers — Army
85 kg: John Stefanowicz — Marines
98 kg: Daniel Miller — Marines
130 kg: Eric Fader — Marines