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Can Hofstra remain “Beast of the East” in Div. I wrestling?

Parity has taken hold in college wrestling. Many teams feel very good about their chances when the NCAA Championships will be held in Michigan in March.

College teams from the East have often been among the nation's elite. There is a storied history of college wrestling on the East Coast, going back more than a century. Often, the best college team in the region is called the "Beast of the East," something of great pride among the schools. Programs that have received such acclaim have included Penn State, Lehigh, Cornell, Penn, Edinboro and others.

So far this season, based upon rankings, the Beast of the East has been the Hofstra Pride, a small Div. I college on Long Island, N.Y. that competes in the unheralded Colonial Athletic Association (CAA).

It has been a season of ups and downs for this band of warriors, led by new head coach Tom Shifflet and a group of veteran athletes. The Hofstra program steadily improved to national prominence under Coach Tom Ryan, who moved on last spring to become the head coach for Ohio State. Shifflet has inherited a strong lineup, and many believe the team has continued to improve under its new coach.

"Coming from UNC-Greensboro to Hofstra, the mentality here is different," said Shifflet. "These wrestlers have high goals and are a motivated group. That is very motivating as a coach. These guys want to win. As a coach, that is what you dream of, to help these guys to achieve their goals."

In late November, Hoftsta upset then No. 1 Minnesota, 18-17, in the Journeyman Northeast Duals in Albany, N.Y. In December, the Pride stopped respected Penn State, 24-10. The season has included three dual meet ties, twice against Central Michigan and another tie versus Michigan.

A week ago, Hofstra, then ranked No. 3 in the nation, placed sixth at the National Duals held in Cedar Falls, Iowa, facing the nation's top wrestling powers. Among Hofstra's losses were to traditional Midwest powers Iowa State and Iowa. Hofstra now stands at a No. 6 national team ranking, with all five teams ahead of them from the Midwest.

"That was tough for us," said Shifflet. "I learned a lot about our guys at National Duals. When you wrestle against athletes from Iowa, Iowa State or Minnesota, they come hard for the entire seven minutes. We were winning some matches, and lost them in the second or third period. It was a wakeup call for us. We need to keep the pressure on for the full seven minutes. There was some good and some bad that came out of that experience."

The Hofstra lineup is strong in almost every weight class, with a nationally ranked athlete in eight of the 10 weight classes. The highest ranked wrestler at this point is senior James Strouse, No. 2 at 157 pounds. The team has a pair of returning All-Americans in seniors Mike Patrovich at 165 pounds and Chris Weidman at 197 pounds. Shifflet believes this team can do well in both dual meet and tournament competition.

"We have a lot of talent," said Shifflet. "The difference between us and teams like Cornell or Missouri is that we don't have a Ben Askren or a Troy Nickerson, someone who should make the national finals and get a bunch of team points. We could get a few NCAA finalists, but we could also have five or six All-Americans."

"We don't have any depth," he continued. "You look at Minnesota, Iowa or Iowa State, and they can put other guys in when they have injuries. We have 15 guys on our roster, and have had some injuries. In our matches against Minnesota and Penn State, we beat good teams, but we also beat some very good individuals. We have had flashes of brilliance. We have both a dual meet and tournament team. Coming out of the CAAs, if we can get nine qualifiers for the NCAAs, we have a shot."

This past weekend, Hofstra bounced back from the National Duals by winning five dual meets at the annual CAA Duals, held in Fairfax, Va. The CAA covers a great deal of territory, with colleges as far North as Massachusetts and as far South as North Carolina. This event gives each of the 11 CAA programs a chance to face conference opponents that are not nearby, and is very important in determining individual seedings for the CAA Championships, which is the NCAA qualifying event.

Focusing on their conference opponents the week after falling a bit short at the National Duals was a challenge for Shifflet and his troops.

"They have to understand that this is all about training," said Shifflet. "We have to stay positive, move ahead and keep going. It wasn't an easy week. We came back with our tails tucked in a little bit."

Hofstra defeated two of the top teams in the CAA this past weekend, with a 23-13 victory over Old Dominion and a 26-15 win over Drexel. Other wins were against Binghamton (31-2), James Madison (34-12) and George Mason (34-9). Hofstra was without two of its starters but still managed to show dominance in all of its matches.

In the long term, winning against the CAA teams and helping build a stronger conference is very important to Hofstra if it wishes to have national title aspirations every year. The CAA has 23 qualifiers for the national tournament, and the performance of those athletes at the NCAA meet will determine how many qualifiers the conference will have in the future.

"There are some strong programs in the CAA," said Shifflet. "Rider and Drexel have been strong, and Coach Steve Martin is bringing along the team at Old Dominion. Some of the other teams are on the rise. We want to continue to win the duals in the conference and take as many to nationals as we can. It is important for our conference to send its best guys to the NCAAs. We need to send guys who can be All-Americans and can place in the top 12 in their weight class."

Under Ryan, Hofstra has built its reputation with athletes from the Northeast. Except for freshman Mitch Smith from West Virginia (149), every one of the Pride wrestlers comes from states in New England or the Mid-Atlantic region. Hofstra is a winner competing with wrestlers from the strong Northeast wrestling programs.

"If I have 10 guys in the lineup from Long Island, that would be great. If had 10 guys from New York, that would also be great. Our focus as been in the Northeast. You have New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. There is very good wrestling here. I do look nationally, however. I signed a talented wrestler from California in the early signing period. We are like anybody else. We want the best kids in the country to want to wrestle for Hofstra. But it is also good for our program to have wrestlers who come from here," said Shifflet.

Shifflet is originally from upstate New York, and competed for a strong Edinboro program in college. His previous coaching stints including assistant roles at Georgia State and Cornell, before spending four seasons as head wrestling coach at UNC Greensboro, rebuilding the program to respectability. He understands the importance of Hofstra's success to wrestling in the state and the region.

"When we went up to Albany and beat Minnesota, that was great for our program and great for New York wrestling," said Shifflet. "It was great for the fans to see that we have a team in New York that can beat the best in the country."

Realistically, Hofstra still has not yet fully established itself as the best team in the East. Ahead on Hofstra's dual meet schedule are matches against traditional Eastern powers Penn, Cornell and Lehigh. Victories in these matches could truly make Hofstra the "Beast of the East" for this season.

"They will be competitive dual meets," said Shifflet. "We have Penn next Friday, and they are solid. It will be tough to win at Penn. We have Lehigh on Saturday at the New York Athletic Club. They are also very talented. Then we also wrestle Cornell again at the New York Athletic Club. Wrestling those teams will be like facing a Penn State or a Minnesota. Our best guys will have to win, and some of our others will need to step up. I want to win those dual meets, but I'm also very excited about the competition. It is a great atmosphere for wrestling. We want to win them all."

Ultimately, Shifflet and his team seeks to be the best team in the nation, not just from his region. He notes that in the age of parity in major college wrestling, a program such as Hofstra can dream big dreams and go for it all.

"Look at the Missouri team this year," said Shifflet. "Brian Smith has created a positive atmosphere there. He has motivated the kids to be champions. Tom Ryan built that here at Hofstra. The guys truly believe. It is exciting for me. Tom got that going here."

But can Hofstra, a team from the CAA, really put it together and win a national team title?

"I truly think so," said Shifflet. "Is it easy? I don't think so. In the past with Hofstra, it has been about our depth. If we can hold it together and be healthy, we have a chance. We don't have to go through the tough Big Ten tournament before we get to nationals. I think for a Hofstra, a Cornell or a Lehigh, it is not out of the question to win the nationals. These days, there is more parity. More schools are bringing in talented wrestlers."

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