40% of those who will compete for a spot on the 2022 United States World Team at the Final X Series (beginning next week in Stillwater, OK) belong to Army’s World Class Athletes Program. And because there are two head-to-head match-ups pitting Army against Army, the nation’s highest-profile team is therefore guaranteed at least two World Teamers.
The math is not hard to follow. Nor is Army’s recent string of domestic success. But none of it is enough to allow Army/WCAP assistant coach Spenser Mango the chance to breathe out just yet, as there is more work to do in a compressed period of time.
Mango — who last week was announced as USA Wrestling’s Greco-Roman Coach of the Year for ’21 — is still busy compartmentalizing the aftermath of the World Team Trials Challenge Tournament. It was only days ago when, one after another, Army wrestlers were piling up wins inside of the Xtream Arena in Coralville, Iowa. Most of the results were expected.
As usual, Army’s lightweights dominated through the semifinal round. From 55 kg to 67, the four Final X-bound members of WCAP’s “Ninja Squad” torched the opposition by a combined score of 65-1 with seven technical falls and one pin among their nine victories.
Reigning two-time World Team member Max Nowry (55 kg, world #11, 5PM #1) went 2-0, with both of his wins coming via VSU. ’16 Olympian/multi-time World Teamer Jesse Thielke (63 kg, 5PM #2), just like Nowry, was an offensive force. He scored 17 points in two matches, gave up zero in return, and all 17 were offensively-earned.
At 60 kilograms, both returning US World rep Dalton Roberts (5PM #1) and ’20 Olympian Ildar Hafizov (5PM #2) did their jobs in Coralville, which means that for the second-straight year fans will be treated to an intense best-of-three showdown between the two with World Team placement on the line. Four weight classes north is another big story. Kamal Bey (77 kg, 5PM #3) defeated hot prospect Payton Jacobson (Sunkist/NTS, 5PM #6) and ’21 World Team competitor Jesse Porter (NYAC, 5PM #1) to earn his second Final X appearance in as many tries. Standing across from Bey on June 8 in New York will be ’22 US Open champ and fellow Army athlete Britton Holmes (5PM #4), whose performances have skyrocketed since joining the program last year. Holmes got past ’21 National titlist Alec Ortiz (Minnesota Storm, 5PM #5) and highly-decorated top seed RaVaughn Perkins (NYAC, 5PM #2) to punch his own ticket to the main event in NYC.
Spencer Woods (82 kg, 5PM #2) is again scheduled to square off against two-time Olympian Ben Provisor (NYAC, 5PM #1) after requiring only one win at the Challenge Tournament. Taking on ’22 Pan-Am Championships bronze Tyler Cunningham (MWC, 5PM #5), Woods raced out to a 6-0 first-period lead before icing the contest shortly into the second. Woods and Provisor — set for the Stillwater card on June 3 — have met in the final round of each domestic tournament dating back to the ’21 Trials, with Provisor thus far owning the rivalry despite the “Alaskan Assassin” hanging in very close on the scoreboard.
Mango, with a flair for details steeped in brevity, as well as immense appreciation for his athletes’ efforts, addresses all of the above and more in this long-awaited first Fort Greco of the season.
5PM: Although there have been tournaments since the Olympic Trials last year, including an actual World Team Trials last September, this tournament kind of tied the bow around a one-year cycle. Your brother, Ryan, already announced that he was done earlier this year, but did it at all feel strange to be coaching at another Trials without him on the mat?
Coach Spenser Mango: Hmmm, not too much, just because we’re living together right now. We see plenty of each other. I’ve known for quite a while that he wasn’t competing, so I think it just kind of settled into my mind. It’s a different relationship now. It is no longer us being “athlete, coach/brother”. Now I can just focus on being a brother.
5PM: You were voted Coach of the Year by USA Wrestling, deservedly so. You do a fantastic job and it is not just Army athletes who feel that way. Everyone you have worked with or cornered internationally also thinks you are a great coach. You’re six years into your coaching career. Operating in that time-frame, what do you see as the three most important things you’ve learned so far?
SM: One is that not everyone is in this to become a World or Olympic champion. So, coming to terms with that, I guess. As a competitor, I always wanted to be the best. That’s what drove me. But some athletes who I’ve met are okay with being National Team. They love being in the wrestling community, they’re pretty good at wrestling, and they enjoy doing it — but they don’t necessarily want to be the best. That’s one thing I have had to learn to cope with so far.
Another is patience. A lot of guys come from different backgrounds, so they respond differently to different coaching styles. It is being patient and learning which style works best for each guy.
The third would be trying to prepare these guys to become self-sufficient. I think a lot of times thus far, I’ve gotten wrapped up in doing things for them, or having all of the answers for them. Teaching them, Hey, you can go watch video on your own, or, you can know what time the weigh-ins start, what time the tournament starts on your own… So it is trying to teach them to be disciplined and self-sufficient. And I can see that growing inside of them as athletes.
5PM: You have had good athletes in and around 77 kilograms before, but this is two Army guys at 77 going head-to-head (Britton Holmes and Kamal Bey) with a World Team spot up for grabs. Usually it is the really light weight athletes people associate with Army in that situation.
5PM: Since Britton has come aboard and then Kamal shortly thereafter, how has the dynamic in the room changed when mixing these two in with the other wrestlers in their general weight range?
SM: Oh man, these guys bought in. Like you said, we’ve had tough, tough little guys. I feel like in the room during previous years, there was this separation in the room between the little guys and the big guys. Now? Everyone is on the same page. Everyone is getting it. Just because you’re a big guy doesn’t mean that you are going to wrestle a different way, or do anything differently. Everyone now has that killer mentality that our little guys have had for a while, and I think it is paying dividends. Our guys went out and wrestled amazingly at the Trials. We are looking to keep that ball rolling going into the Worlds.
5PM: When it comes to injuries, you, Bruce (Robinson), and even the athletes put that stuff in a vault of secrecy that is almost like what Bill Belichick does with the Patriots. But Kamal was wearing a knee sleeve that basically went from his ankle to halfway up his thigh, so he’s clearly hobbled to whatever degree. Given his explosiveness — and he was still explosive here with reattacks — were there adjustments made strategically for him in order to mitigate further injury risk?
Coach Spenser Mango: Right, not putting himself in so many positions where he might potentially get injured. That was definitely part of the game plan. Kamal is one of the most explosive athletes I’ve ever seen in my life; so if we can just limit some of those opportunities to get injured while at the same time have him still scoring some points, then he would be much better off.
It kind of showed at the Trials. He wasn’t as active on his feet, but he picked certain situations where he exploded and scored. Right now until he is 100%, that is the approach we’re going to have to take. But Kamal Bey at 70% is still a dangerous wrestler.
5PM: Britton has become a verifiable force in this weight class, and he did not have to make Final X for that to be true. This has come about the most since joining WCAP last year before the Last Chance Qualifier. In this particular tournament, he seemed to have a solid game plan for Ortiz, and then RaVaughn (Perkins) after that. With Ortiz, did he just figure, Okay, don’t get into crazy positions in this match?
SM: Yeah, kind of. Britton is a dog. Britton, you put him next to anyone and he thinks he is going to win. He is super-confident. But sometimes, that confidence he has can put him in bad situations. He gets out there sometimes and gets a little wild. That is something we’ve been working with him on. “You can still be a dog, but a dog under control’. I think he perfected that at the Trials. He wrestled lights-out, he’s an awesome pummeler, and he has a huge heart. And it showed. Now he is going to Final X.
5PM: Woods now how his next date against Provisor. The fight is booked. He knows it’s happening. He knows when, even what time. Do you think that helps Woods at all, especially since their matches thus far have been very, very tight and physical?
SM: He can just focus on one person. This next week-and-a-half, he can just focus on Provisor. He can do some film and really try to hone in on a game plan. It definitely helps him because he can prepare without having to worry about any other opponents. We’ll get out there and see what happens.
5PM: Sancho does not have anything to prove domestically at this stage of his career. I don’t think he is someone who needed validation from this event, but I’d have to imagine it was nice for him to shut down Peyton (Omania). What was his state of mind before and after the tournament?
SM: (Laughs) Sancho was the same before and after. He knew that he was going to secure that Final X spot, to be honest with you. He just stayed disciplined with his weight cut. He knew what he needed to do and executed. He knew before this tournament started that he was going to be in Final X. He wasn’t worried about past results or what happened at the Trials after the Olympics. He was focused. When he was focused like that, it helped me out. It helped me not worry so much. But he is a gamer, and that is one of his biggest strengths. When it’s time to wrestle, he gets after it.
5PM: Jesse has been through so much with his neck and it really disrupted his career, but he worked extraordinarily hard to get back. Now look where we are. The one word I would use to describe him in Coralville is “efficient”. In fact, viciously so. He hit an absolutely gnarly arm throw and I don’t even think of him as an arm thrower.
SM: (Laughs) Yep.
5PM: What is it about him? Is there some realization that since Jesse is so incredibly skilled, he doesn’t necessarily need to expend himself from certain positions?
SM: Right, yes. I think when he was younger, it was easy to get caught up in, Oh, I have to do all this extra stuff in matches. And it’s like, No, hit your techniques and get off the mat. That’s what he did. I don’t know how long he even wrestled at this tournament, but it wasn’t very long. He went out there and tried to get to positions, execute techniques, and I think he was 100% on the techniques he attempted. He was able to get off the mat and keep his body fresh for Final X.
5PM: Nothing was surprising about Max’s performance, and he has a familiar opponent next in Brady Koontz. What have been the protocols for keeping Max fresh and healthy, just due to the last year or so with recovery and injury management? Does work load change?
SM: For sure, work load changes. He doesn’t do all of the practices some of the younger guys do. He has his pool days where he goes swimming to try and help his body recover. It’s about taking that work load and cutting it down quite a bit. He has been at this for a while. He knows his body better than anyone else. Some days he will come in and say, No, I’m going to do the workout, and some days he will go to the pool. We leave it up to him and the training staff to dictate the schedule that he will be following. But he has been doing it for a while and he’s a professional, so we trust him.
5PM: Everyone is keying in on 60 kilograms, which is customary at this point it seems like. No shockers here, other than perhaps Dalton defeating Randon Miranda in the manner that he did, if only because they’ve had some shootouts in their history. What have you been seeing from Dalton tournament-to-tournament, along with how he bounced back so impressively after having to leave the US Open early?
Coach Spenser Mango: For the Open, he actually had that injury before he left for Vegas. But Dalton being Dalton, he wanted to give it a go. After the first match, he realized, Okay, maybe I need to take a little time off. So, he injury-defaulted after that. We came back in the room and took it easy. He still goes 110% on his feet but we went real light on par terre. He kept telling us, It’s feeling better, it’s feeling better. I wasn’t sure if it actually felt better, or if it was just Dalton being Dalton and he’s tough.
Going into this tournament, he said he felt great. Then he went out there and put a show on. He is a tough dude who really wants to be the best wrestler in his weight class in the world. That guy is quite the workhorse and I’m really excited for the Final X matches between these two.
5PM: Managing time on target has been a theme with Max, but Ildar is in a similar boat. Normal people, they care about what they see on a mat when score is being kept. You’re there for Ildar on the mat, off the mat, in between. You see it all. How has Ildar been with managing his recovery since the last Trials?
SM: It is pretty much the same as Max. He knows his body better than anyone else. Some days he will come in and do a Bulgarian Bag workout instead of getting on the mat. Really what he does is manage his mat time with the way his body feels. He has been doing for a long time, so he knows. He knows. He is a professional. It’s not like if he were to say, Oh, I’m going to work out off the mat today that I would tell him he has to get on the mat. I mean, Ildar, he has been doing this longer than me (laughs). So, he knows his body and communicates with myself and the rest of the coaching staff. We let these guys be grownups and do their thing.
5PM: Will there be any separation between Ildar and Dalton in the room before Final X?
SM: From what I’ve seen, they will wrestle each other sometimes. But we also have so many guys near their weight, and all of these guys like wrestling each other. It is not like guys just stick to their own weight classes. I feel like our room is a big family.
I’ll see them wrestle together occasionally. I think before the Trials that I didn’t notice it as much as I usually do. But I don’t blame them. Coming up before Final X, it will probably be less than it was before the Trials. That being said, we have a few 55’s, Jesse (Thielke) at 63, Sancho, they go with (Michael) Hooker, they wrestle with Britton and Kamal… I’m assuming that they will separate a little bit.
5PM: Did Sheridan require a pick-me-up after Saturday night’s loss to Braxton Amos? You know, a hand on the shoulder, a talk. How did he bounce back and get his mind right for the third-place round?
SM: No, he didn’t need anything. Robby (Smith) and I went to the back to talk to him. He knows where he messed up. It was really about finishing this tournament strong and executing in the way we all know that he can.
5PM: How would you compare this World Team Trials Challenge Tournament to what we saw at last year’s Olympic Trials?
SM: Personally, I thought this World Team Trials was very exciting. You saw a lot of scoring, a lot of throws… I heard the crowd getting into it, or at least the few people who were there (laughs). It seemed like Greco was well-received by the audience. This was definitely a higher level of wrestling compared to the Olympic Trials of last year. There was some good wrestling, some really good wrestling. I also think the referees did a better job of calling it the same way that you would see at a World Championships. They let these guys wrestle and didn’t get involved in the matches too much.
I really thought these guys put on a show. We had some great pummeling and offensive techniques. It was better than anything that I have seen since pre-COVID.
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