The 2023 US Open in Las Vegas late last month was a success for Northern Michigan University’s National Training Site — in two age divisions.
Three athletes — Kenneth Crosby (55 kg), Max Black (60 kg), and Mike Altomer (82 kg) — earned crowns in the U20 (Junior) age-group. Black, for whom it was a repeat performance, defeated ’21 Cadet silver Corey Land (Panther RTC) in the final round, while Altomer toughed it out opposite Darion Johnson (Mustang). Crosby, seeded sixth in his bracket, nearly went untouched en-route to victory as he piled up three quick and volatile shutout VSU’s among his four individual wins.
On the Senior level, Black’s showing impressed more than his runner-up performance a year ago. He placed third in Vegas; but gained a measure of revenge over two excellent competitors who had defeated him in ’22, Phillip Moomey (Spartan RTC) and Randon Miranda (Unattached). Black’s only loss in the tournament came against eventual champ and former NMU athlete Dalton Roberts (Army/WCAP) in the semifinal. National Team member Payton Jacobson (77 kg) took third for a second-consecutive year, and ’21 U23 World Teamer David Stepanyan finished fourth at 67 kilograms, the tournament’s most potent bracket. Two-time National champ Kendrick Sanders (82 kg) returned to competition and wound up sixth, this despite not having been able to fully train for the event.
Two NMU representatives made significant strides in their own right. Jonathan Gurule, who like Black was on the Junior World roster in ’22, generated shockwaves during his time in Vegas. Up one full weight category from 55 kg, Gurule began his tournament with a resounding triumph at the expense of Moomey, was edged by National Team member Mason Hartshorn (NYAC/West Coast Greco RTC), and picked up two more wins before falling to Dylan Koontz (TMWC/Dubuque RTC). At 67 kg, Nick Leonetti lost a tight battle to champ Robert Perez III (Sunkist) and then proceeded to go on a run that resulted in his qualifying for the Senior World Team Trials next week where he will be joined by all of the Seniors mentioned above.
For NMU/NTS head coach Andrew T. Bisek, there has been an atypical degree of concentration when it comes to managing the preparation for an assortment of wrestlers who this spring are competing in multiple events with little rest in between. Now that the US Open is concluded, the Senior, U20, and U23 World Team Trials still remain on the horizon, with Final X: Newark serving as the capper to the domestic season. How Bisek has perceived this crush of events for which his charges are training, as well as his perspectives on several key players, stand as the primary discussion pieces for this latest report.
5PM: There was only one tournament held in the US this season prior to the US Open, which was New York in November. You did take athletes to Bulgaria during the winter, but for the most part there has been little to no competition. But then late April comes, and it is one tournament after another. What are the challenges you see with regards to events being crammed together in this manner?
Coach Andy Bisek: It’s nice in one sense not having to be ‘go, go, go’, but I do think it can hurt them switching to being hardened for competition and having that edge in knowing that, This is when it matters.
5PM: Are short turnaround times harder or easier when it comes to weight management?
AB: I think that the time-frame with which we have been working, how it has been three weeks from the Open to the Trials, is a good turnaround for most of the guys now. There is not a long waiting period and most of our guys are managing it well. It’s not super-drastic. I think the three weeks are fine. It gives them a chance to reset while still being able to stay focused on living that disciplined lifestyle.
5PM: I was impressed to see how strongly Gurule took to 60 kilograms, and sometimes that can be a jump going from 55 to 60. In Vegas, he had some dynamic matches, including the win against Moomey. Why does Gurule look like he is wearing 60 so well?
AB: Last year, he kind of struggled with that decision, too, determining whether to go 55 or 60. He went 55 and made the Junior Team, but it was a big commitment for him. For him to go 60, I think that, aside from making the Junior Team, that is where he belonged, anyway. He was going to be there at some point.
5PM: Last year, Black placed second at the Open, this year it was third, but it was actually a stronger performance given the circumstances. What did you take away from how he wrestled?
AB: Max did awesome, but everything he did was everything that I knew he was capable of doing. We are super-excited for him. It is all very well-deserved. He comes in everyday and works extremely hard and asks the right questions. When I’m giving him answers, he is responding and using those, and making changes. He is just a great guy to work with.
5PM: What did you want Jacobson to learn from the tournament? It was solid. He placed third again, he had lost to (Aliaksandr) Kikinou in the semis, who is a World medalist from earlier in his career. I don’t know how you chalk a loss like that up to anything other than having gone against a vastly more-experienced pro. How has Payton driven forward as he now prepares to try to make the World Team?
AB: We’ve had some time to work on several individual things. We talked about how to move and place his hands more purposefully. And in certain tie-ups, how to take things away from his opponent. He has been great the past week. He is still very hungry and eager, and a little more settled-down compared to right after the tournament, too.
5PM: Even though it is going to go quickly, we’re only through one leg of the selection season with three World Team Trials coming up. For you as a coach, what has been the most rewarding part of the season thus far? And what has been the most challenging?
Coach Andy Bisek: I almost feel like they are the same thing but with different aspects of it. We already talked about it, the limited competitions. Even the competitions you do have, they usually don’t carry weight for the Open, they don’t set up the Trials like the Open does. Not everyone in our program gets to tournaments before the Open, so they spend six months preparing for it. They are preparing for something they don’t even know, really. Then when the times comes, it is, How will they perform?
At the same time, it has been rewarding to bring a few guys go overseas, get that kind of experience, and have their eyes opened.
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