Cary Kolat was hired as Navy wrestling coach amid a pandemic, and his first season leading the program was pretty much a wash.
The Midshipmen competed in just six dual meets and the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association Championship was a shell of itself since the Ivy League schools did not participate.
Last season, however, was much more productive, and Kolat believes he’s beginning to establish a culture in terms of philosophy and expectations.
“Taking over during that COVID year was tough. We strategically took a plan to not implement too many things because we only had a short window to get to know the [wrestlers],” Kolat said. “I think we’ve finally settled in. Now we have some guys who are in their third year of wrestling under this coaching staff. I think what we expect and the way we want to wrestle has been better established.”
Navy returns starters at eight weight classes and Kolat brought in another talented recruiting class to bolster the roster. Senior captain Jacob Koser leads a squad that has shown well during three early season tournaments.
Blaize Cabell and Mike Evans came with Kolat from Campbell and the staff relished having a full offseason to work with the wrestlers.
“Every year we’ve progressed as far as offseason and preseason training,” Kolat said. “I think we squeezed them down a lot tighter than we have in the past, then built them up mentally and physically.”
Navy placed seventh out of 17 schools at the 2021 EIWA Championships with two runners-up and a third place. Josh Koderhandt, Andrew Cerniglia and Koser were the only Midshipmen to qualify for the NCAA Championships.
Kolat readily admits the standard on both counts needs to be higher for Navy wrestling.
“Any time we don’t challenge for an EIWA Championship we’re falling short. In my opinion, Navy should consistently be ranked in the Top 20 at the very least and be pushing into the Top 10 range more often than not,” he said.
The Midshipmen should also be sending six or more wrestlers per season to the NCAA Tournament, Kolat said. So there is still much work to do and the coaching staff hopes the program takes significant strides forward in 2022-23.
Navy placed fourth last weekend at its own Navy Classic on the strength of runner-up performances by Koser (197 pounds) and Grady Griess (285). Koderhandt (141) took third, while four other Mids finished fifth or better.
Koser is a two-time NCAA qualifier coming off a 26-9 campaign. The Pennsylvania native captured the 197-pound championship at the Bearcat Open and placed third at the Clarion Open.
Koser won a match at the NCAA Tournament in March and is hoping to go deeper next time around. He is currently ranked 24th nationally by InterMat.
“That captain role really suits Jake because he carries some extra responsibility in that leadership capacity,” Kolat said. “Jake needed to get better on his feet and has done that. He’s scoring more points from his feet and has also made great gains in the neutral position.”
Cerniglia, currently ranked No. 22, is another two-time NCAA qualifier and looks to improve upon a runner-up finish at the EIWA Championships. He made a strong season debut by amassing 38 points en route to claiming the 157-pound crown at the Bearcat Open, outlasting Alex Hornfeck of West Virginia in the final.
“Andrew has really matured and we expect big things out of him,” Kolat said. “Andrew has the tools, athleticism and experience to compete with the best guys at 157. Every wrestler is always trying to improve their mental approach to the sport. I would say mat management is the main area [Cerniglia] needs to work on.”
Koderhandt made plenty of noise as a plebe, posting a 26-9 record and placing second at the EIWA Championships. The former Illinois state champion beat five ranked wrestlers last season and won a match at the NCAA Championships.
Koderhandt bumped up from 133 to 141 pounds and is still making the adjustment. He placed second at both the Clarion Open and Bearcat Open with basic mistakes proving costly in both championship bouts.
“Josh was back in the room Monday morning working on his own to correct those mistakes. He is always pushing to improve,” Kolat said. “Josh is gritty, technical and tough. I’d like to see him add a little more slickness and finesse.”
Junior Tyler Hunt has dropped down to 133 pounds after starting at 141 a year ago. Two other returning starters — sophomores Cael Crebs (184) and Ryan Catka (285) — have yet to see action so far this season.
Senior Val Park and junior David Key are both back after starting nine of 11 matches at 164 and 184 pounds, respectively. Key won two matches at the NCAA Tournament after qualifying as a plebe but had a somewhat disappointing sophomore campaign with a 16-10 record.
“David has become more offensive. We wanted him to add to his takedown game and has done that,” Kolat said.
Sophomore Sammy Starr has moved up to 174 pounds after earning two starts at 165 last season and has a fourth-place finish (Clarion Open) and two fifth-place results in the three tournaments held to date.
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise so far has been junior Grady Griess, who is 13-1 and ranked No. 18 by InterMat after three tournaments. Griess captured heavyweight championships at both the Clarion Open and Bearcat Open before suffering his first loss to No. 8 Wyatt Hendrickson of Air Force in the finals of the Navy Classic.
Greiss, a three-time Nebraska state finalist, did not wrestle a match as a plebe after suffering an injury. He compiled a 19-6 record, almost exclusively in open tournaments, as a sophomore.
“Grady has been looking really good. He’s got great potential, but still has a long way to go,” Kolat said.
Zach Espalin, a four-time state champ out of Arizona, is challenging junior Grant Teaster for the starting spot at 125 pounds.
Kolat noted that Navy still must improve the overall depth across the lineup so there is no dropoff due to injuries or illness. He believes the Midshipmen have “the experience and maturity” at most weight classes to push for a top-five finish at the EIWA Championships.
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