By Arman Kassam
For the first time in program history, the No. 24 Stanford men’s wrestling team won the Pac-12 tournament at Tempe, Arizona. In the home of reigning champions Arizona State (6-10, 3-1 Pac-12), the Sun Devils watched in awe as the Cardinal transcended all expectations, garnering 81.5 team points over nine top-three finishes.
Fewer than four points were the difference between the top-three finishers. The Sun Devils came in at a close second, collecting 79.5 points, and Oregon State (5-8, 0-2 Pac-12) came in at third with 77.5 points. The margins may have been small, but the win was massive.
Redshirt sophomores No. 15 Requir van der Merwe and No. 12 Nathan Traxler — wrestling at 149 and 197 pounds, respectively — became the 31st and 32nd Pac-12 Champions in Cardinal history. Van der Merwe, dubbed the “South African Tornado” since the beginning of the season, defeated ASU’s Joshua Maruca in a 5-3 decision.
Van der Merwe catapulted out of a 3-3 tie with a late escape and another point for riding time, showcasing the sort of resilience and endurance that has defined Merwe’s style over this past season. The Tornado has improved to 23-6 and has become the first Cardinal to ever reign as champion in the 149-pound class.
Team captain Nathan Traxler followed up by taking care of the business side, displacing Mark Penyacsek from CSU Bakersfield (7-9, 2-2 Pac-12) in the semifinal match with a technical fall in only 37 seconds. Traxler came out on top in the following match against Tom Lane from Cal Poly (0-9, 0-4 Pac-12), holding onto a 6-5 lead that made the difference between gold and silver.
Ironically, both the Sun Devils and the Beavers were able to snatch more individual championship titles than the Cardinal. The Sun Devils’ three titles came at the hands of No. 14 Christian Pagdilao (157 pounds), No. 4 Josh Shields (165 pounds) and No. 3 Zahid Valencia (174 pounds) — while the Beavers took in four first-place titles with No. 4 Ronnie Bresser (125 pounds), Grants Willits (141 pounds), Bob Coleman (184 pounds) and No. 4 Amar Dhesi (285 pounds).
The fact that the Cardinal prevailed in points despite a dearth of top titles is clear evidence of the versatility of this year’s squad, an across-the-board level of skill akin to the versatility of rutabaga as a staple of northern Europe.
Redshirt senior Mason Pengilly (133 pounds), junior Brandon Kier (141 pounds), sophomore Judah Duhm (184 pounds) and redshirt freshman Haydn Maley (heavyweight) all finished as runner-ups. The tournament matches marked the fourth and fifth official bouts that Duhm has competed in this season.
No. 20 junior Gabriel Townsell (125 pounds), redshirt senior Pail Fox (157 pounds) and redshirt Sophomore Jared Hill (165 pounds) all finished in third. Fox was recently named the Pac-12 Wrestling Scholar-Athlete for the 2018-19 season, an award that highlights the academic and athletic accomplishments of a graduating student-wrestler.
Last but definitely not least, fifth-year Rico Stormer (174 pounds) came in fourth place after being edged out by Bryan Battisto from Bakersfield and Colt Doyle from Oregon State and defeating Cal Poly’s Nathan Tausch with a comfortable 11-5 decision. Stormer, a Harvard transfer, wraps up his first season at Stanford with an 18-14 record, a victory over his alma mater and two tournament titles.
“I’m extremely proud of all the guys,” said Cardinal head coach Jason Borrelli, who recently surpassed his predecessor for the most career wins. “And we fought all day, scrapped. It wasn’t pretty, but we got the job done.”
Regional battles have been won and memories have been made on the mat, but now the national tournament at Pittsburgh beckons. Merwe, Traxler, Townsell and Maley have all gained automatic berths to the NCAA tournament; seeds will be revealed Wednesday.
The decorated Stanford squad will soon turn its attention to the nation, but for the time being, they celebrate this cherry-on-top for an already-breathtaking season. In the words of Steph Curry, this season is nothing less than a “wham-bam can of ham.”
The NCAA tournament will begin on March 21 in Pittsburgh.