FORT WORTH, TX — Packed brackets, plenty of important, if not captivating early-round match-ups, and an underlying sense of pressure for those athletes who still need to secure spots in the Olympic Team Trials have defined the first day of wrestling at the US’ premier domestic showcase.
Day 1 of the 2023 US Nationals/Olympic Trials Qualifier began at 10:00am local time from the Fort Worth Convention Center in Fort Worth, Texas (11:00am ET) and streamed live on FLOWrestling.
With Ildar Hafizov (Army/WCAP), Kamal Bey (Army/WCAP), and Cohlton Schultz (Sunkist) each enjoying byes the final round due to having medaled at the Pan-Am Games last month, the brackets for 60, 77, and 130 kg were run similarly to those typically presented in Trials events — with the victors from the semifinals meeting to determine who would face the aforementioned trio tomorrow night in their respective weight classes.
At 60 kg, that man is three-time National Champion Hayden Tuma (NYAC), who last season was an Open champ at 63 and had previously found success in the 67 class. There were no ill effects of which to speak from the weight cut for Tuma. Seeded third, the Idaho native defeated Billy Sullivan (Army/WCAP) and Dylan Koontz (TMWC/Dubuque RTC) to set up a semifinal showdown with two-time World rep Sammy Jones (Sunkist/CTT). In what was a predictably tight and tough contest, Tuma prevailed via decision 3-1.
On the other side of the bracket, Max Black (NMU/NTS) emerged victorious after a 2-1 nod over his main domestic rival — and the #1 seed — Randon Miranda (NYAC). Thus, it was Tuma and Black clashing with the winner earning the right to face Hafizov on Saturday. The explosive offensive prowess and penchant for follow-up scores for which Tuma is known were on full display as he scored the requisite number of points to collect the 9-0 VSU.
Tuma does have previous experience against Hafizov. In the best-of-three final at the ’17 World Trials, Hafizov won in two straight.
77 kg — Peak
“Mr. Fantastic” Benji Peak (Sunkist/NTS) was forced to miss the entire ’23 spring selection season due to surgery/recovery. Prior to Friday, he had not wrestled a match since the fall of ’22. In other words, beyond a full calendar year.
It made no difference.
Peak overwhelmed Tommy Dantzler (Front Range Twisters, who had originally embarked on a full-time Greco career five years ago but was himself returning today on the heels of a long layoff) and surging prospect Ashton Miess (Combat WC) to get started. In the quarterfinal round, ’22 National Champion Britton Holmes (Army/WCAP) awaited. Holmes, who himself endured a surgery/rehab process earlier this year, recently returned to action at the Military Worlds in Azerbaijan. The match began in highly-competitive fashion but Peak had dynamite brewing in his legs and soon got on a roll. With the chance to finish from par terre top, Peak executed a booming lift to score the points he needed; however, upon impact, Holmes appeared to re-injure his left knee and was in agony as the post-match histrionics played out.
Next up for Peak was the semifinals and ’09 World bronze/’23 US National champ Aliaksandr Kikiniou (NYAC). Kikiniou, too skilled and experienced not to have a say in the outcome, pressed the issue in spots; but Peak seemed to be just a step ahead, with a crucial land-on-top after an over/under skirmish helping to set the tone. Another exchange near the edge created a little more space in the margins, and Peak, impressively, moved on with a 5-1 win.
It was interesting elsewhere in the bracket as Peak’s close friend and longtime training partner Payton Jacobson (Sunkist/NTS) was also having himself a day with triumphs over the likes of Tyler Eischens (CARTC) and ’18 World Team member RaVaughn Perkins (NYAC) — to whom Jacobson fell in the National Team match back in June.
The two friends had no choice but to battle it out with Bey looming in the shadows. This is what they signed up for. Unsurrisingly, offense was at a premium. Tension, sure; but it was more than that. Intimate familiarity with one another made it so that each exchange appeared make-or-break, such was how thin the line was between the two. Passivity was doled out on Peak in the first period, and Jacobson’s attempt from top came up empty. In kind, Jacobson was dinged in the second, and Peak, too, was unable to muster a score. On it went, with neither finding lanes with which to open attacks. Then with a minute on the clock, Peak was chosen to hit the deck in par terre bottom. Jacobson did his best to gather an actionable lock but Peak held firm. Back on the feet with time a factor, and Jacobson had little recourse other than to hunt the body. A last-gasp hurl on the edge looked promising for him — yet Peak deftly avoided danger and secured the victory via criteria 1-1.
Peak will now stand across from Bey in Saturday night’s final. Given how they have competed in different weight divisions throughout the sum of their respective careers, it will be a first-time affair.
130 kg — Coon
’18 World silver Adam Coon (NYAC/Cliff Keen) dominated on the top side of the heavyweight bracket by earning technical superiority wins against Brandon Ballard (MN), Michael Rogers (NLWC), and ’22 Junior World bronze Aden Attao (Beaver Dam RTC). On the bottom end of the chart, Courtney Freeman (Marines) was just as remarkable in pounding out Timothy Eubanks (NMU/NTS), Donovan King (Olivet WC), and, for a second-straight tournament, ’21 Pan-Am Championships silver Donny Longendyke (Minnesota Storm).
Also for the second consecutive event, Coon and Freeman were the last two men standing. Last month in New York, Coon took advantage from par terre to rake a succession of guts to acquire Bill Farrell gold without surrendering a single point to Freeman.
That is not what happened today. Rather, it was Freeman who drew first blood, first by unfurling an arm spin to spin behind back for a takedown, and then by cranking a gutwrench off the boundary to net two more. But, Coon struck back. He coerced Freeman off the edge for a point and, after a reset, snuffed out the next arm spin try to yield takedown points, four more from two gutwrenches, and closed the sequence with a 7-4 lead. Another step-out increased his tally by one more — until Freeman roared back with a takedown that closed the gap to 8-6. They were both scoring points and a lot of them.
Coon assumed a more controlling posture once the second period got underway and proceeded to walk Freeman out of bounds for a third time, and the effort came attached to a fleeing caution on the Marine. 10-6. It happened again. Another restart, and another Coon step-out point, which Freeman had tried to avoid with a counter-throw. 11-6. He wasn’t done. Coon scored a fifth step-out point with less than :40 hanging on the scoreboard. 12-6. Freeman had to do something, anything, to alter the tide, even if time was of a most precious commodity. On what would turn out to be the last reset of the match, Freeman bounded up in the air as if to perform a “Flying Squirrel” — and Coon caught the attempt, locked Freeman around the body, and landed on top for to net four points and the win by way of technical fall.
Saturday night will mark the fifth time Coon and Schultz are set to square off in a domestic final. Coon downed Schultz at both Final X: Lincoln (’19) and the ‘2o Olympic Trials (four matches total), while Schultz defeated Coon in the ’23 US Open and swept him at Final X: Rutgers.
87 kg — Woods & Sebie
Two-time United States World Team member Spencer Woods (Army/WCAP) — seeded 4th in this tournament — did not have an easy path on Friday. How could he, with 87 standing as the tournament’s most competitive bracket? Still, “The Alaskan Assassin” carried with him a determined, workmanlike approach in defeating ’23 Malar Cupen gold Tyler “Truck” Hannah (Combat WC) as his momentum-builder. The quarterfinal brought to bear ’20 Olympian/’23 Military World bronze John Stefanowicz (Navy WC) in what was one of the round’s most-anticipated bouts. Woods was awarded the first passivity/par terre chance and capitalized with a front headlock for two following a try at a reverse lift. Late in the second frame, the score was 3-1 for Woods when Stefanowicz bull-rushed for a step-out but no point was distributed. Instead, the officials cited Stefanowicz for head-clash caution to provide Woods with two more points along with a 5-1 lead that he would not relinquish.
The win put Woods in the semis opposite reigning World Teamer Zac Braunagel (IRTC), who wasted no time in hustling his opponent off the line to pick up a point. They dug back into the dirt upon the restart, with the Army athlete refocusing on his positional integrity so as to not allow his center of gravity to become compromised. Just as they had begun to find a rhythm, action was halted on account of a Braunagel caution due to a head knock. This resulted in two points going to Woods in conjunction with a ketchup time-out. Now adorned with a head-wrap, Woods sauntered back to center and the duo resumed bruising one another up in the ties. There was no further scoring in the period.
Braunagel benefited from passivity just past a minute into the second. Woods defended the lock and a reset was ordered. No quarter was offered or accepted by either party. Each and every motion was both calculated and violent whenever meaningful contact was made. But, in the eyes of the officials, at least, Braunagel was not expressing the type of contact they preferred. Under :30 remained when he dashed towards Woods, who responded with a shuck that caused Braunagel to go off-balance. Before the Illinois wrestler could make his way back to the middle for a restart, the referee was signaling for the second caution of the contest. Two more points adjusted the score to 4-2 on Woods’ behalf, and he would stay upright the rest of the way and in the process stamp down a place in his fourth-career National final.
Mahmoud Sebie, the ’16 Olympian for Egypt who this year garnered eligibility to compete in American domestic selection tournaments, survived a rough go-round with two-time US Olympic Teamer Ben Provisor (NYAC/Dubuque RTC) in his opening bout ahead of defeating ’21 Trials runner-up Fritz Schierl (Minnesota Storm) and multi-time National Team member Rich Carlson (Minnesota Storm). More than anything else, it was Sebie’s fluid work from par terre that bore the responsibility for his run to the final, and it is that skill-set he will likely try to deploy against Woods on Saturday.
67 & 97 kg
’20 Olympian and two-time World Team member Alex Sancho (Army/WCAP) scorched his way to the final round following VSU’s over Diego Romero (NMU/NTS), Maddox Khalimsky (NMU/NTS), and Hunter Lewis (Wolfpack WC), respectively, but had to bite down in order to turn back his runner-up from Final X this past season, Robert Perez III (Sunkist). Perez held a 1-1 criteria lead midway through the second period when Sancho darted inside and thumped Perez down and out for two points in what eventually became a 3-1 decision.
’19 Junior World bronze/’21 Senior World Team member Peyton Omania (MI) was crisp and electric in his return to Greco-Roman competition, recording wins against Scottie Bonds (Minnesota Storm), ’23 Fargo champ Brett Back (Dubuque RTC), and ’23 Open winner Justus Scott (Army/WCAP). In the semifinal, David Stepanyan (NYAC/NTS) challenged Omania in, and out of, a variety of positions and had appeared to execute a takedown/gut combo near the boundary that would have given him a late lead. But upon review, the points distribution was amended and Omania escaped with the win by a score of 7-5. He now has his sights on Sancho.
In ’21, Omania put on quite the spectacular display at the World Team Trials and advanced to the best-of-three finals, where he managed to defeat Sancho in two straight to earn the 67 kg spot on that roster. They met once more during selection season the following spring with Sancho walking away the victor before going onto the make the ’22 US Team that competed in Belgrade.
Rau & Vera
Joe Rau (97 kg, TMWC, 5PM #1) found himself in comeback mode right from the start against a very tough Brandon Marshall (Big Game) in the round-of-16. Marshall — who has acquitted himself admirably on the Senior level when given the chance — countered a pursuing Rau with a modified inside-out arm toss on the edge and put up four big points. The bout had only just begun when the score occurred. But passivity soon changed the dynamics of the match. Marshall was dinged in the first period, and Rau converted two guts to take an outright 5-4 lead. Scoring was capped following the sequence and Rau moved on by the same margin. The three-time World Team member got past Mac Kukowski (Minnesota Storm) and two-time National titlist Nick Boykin (Sunkist) in the quarterfinal and semifinal, respectively, to make Saturday’s final.
After recently declaring his jump up to 97 from 87, two-time World Team member/three-time National Champion Alan Vera (NYAC) performed brilliantly in his three bouts today in Fort Worth, as well. Betraying a physical composition that allows him to look as if he were carved out of even more granite than ever before, Vera also competed with added fluidity in taking out the likes of DM Hallet (NMU/NTS), “Muscle” Mike Altomer (Curby 3-Style, and who has also had his moments in this event), and ’23 Final X runner-up Christian DuLaney (Minnesota Storm).
Vera has two wins against Rau dating back to when both were competitors in the 87 kg division. Back in ’19 at the Dave Schultz Memorial, Vera defeated Rau via technical fall and won by decision in the finals of the October ’20 version of this tournament (often referred to as the “Coralville Nationals”).
UPDATE (12/16): Miranda and Jones have, according to the updated brackets, defaulted out of the 2023 US Nationals. In the consolation semifinal, LaMont was scheduled to face Jones whilst Gregerson was paired with Miranda. With Jones and Miranda no longer in the bracket, LaMont and Gregerson will now comprise both sides of the third-place bout at 60 kg.
*All times +1 hr ET
Saturday, December 16
10:00am-1:00pm — Consolation semifinals & placement matches for 3rd through 7th
7:00pm-8:30pm — Finals
2023 US Nationals/Olympic Trials Qualifier
December 15-17 — Fort Worth, TX
FINAL ROUND PAIRINGS
60 kg: Ildar Hafizov (Army/WCAP) vs. Hayden Tuma (NYAC)
67 kg: Alex Sancho (Army/WCAP) vs. Peyton Omania (MI)
77 kg: Kamal Bey (Army/WCAP) vs. Benji Peak (Sunkist/NTS)
87 kg: Spencer Woods (Army/WCAP) vs. Mahmoud Sebie (FL)
97 kg: Joe Rau (TMWC) vs. Alan Vera (NYAC)
130 kg: Cohlton Schultz (Sunkist) vs. Adam Coon (NYAC/Cliff Keen)
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