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|Navy’s Burnett, Stolpinski have homecoming at All Academy Tournament in Colorado|
By Gary Abbott USA Wrestling
Watch Match - Jantzen v. Frayer COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. - U.S. Naval Academy head coach Bruce Burnett is very familiar with Colorado Springs, having lived there for a decade as an employee of USA Wrestling. This weekend, Burnett returned to his old stomping grounds with his Midshipmen team to compete in the All Academy Championships held at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
"My kids still live here, my grandkids are here. It is where USA Wrestling's headquarters are, and where the U.S. Olympic Committee has its home. It always has a special place in my heart. Every time I come here, it brings good memories. It has a lot of good people, a lot of good wrestling people. I am proud to be associated with them all," said Burnett.
Something is different this time for Burnett, who is in seventh season at Navy. He comes back to Colorado Springs as the coach of the No. 1 ranked team in the rugged Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association (EIWA), according to the most recent poll.
"I'm proud," said Burnett. "It is voted on by the coaches. Somebody noticed. Our kids work hard at being good wrestlers."
It is the first time that Navy held the No. 1 spot in the poll since 1990. The Midshipmen are currently ahead Lehigh, Cornell and Penn, all who are considered among the top programs in the nation. The EIWA, which features 14 Div. I programs from the East Coast, has gained strength in recent years and is considered one of college wrestling's elite conferences.
The Mids are 9-4 overall and own a 5-0 record in EIWA matches, defeating Rutgers (42-0), American (31-9), Brown (35-3), Lehigh (26-12) and East Stroudsburg (40-6).
"The rankings are based upon dual meets," said Burnett. "The kids stepped up against Lehigh."
Burnett is no newcomer to success. As USA Wrestling's National Freestyle Coach, he directed the men's freestyle program during the most successful years in American wrestling history. During Burnett's term, the U.S. freestyle team won the 1993 World Team title, the 1995 World Team title and captured the medal count at the 1996 Olympic Games. Many of the greatest wrestlers in American history competed under Burnett, including World or Olympic champions Bruce Baumgartner, Kevin Jackson, Dave Schultz, Tom & Terry Brands, Kendall Cross, Kurt Angle, Brandon Slay, Les Gutches, Melvin Douglas, Sammie Henson and Stephen Neal.
Prior to that, he was the assistant wrestling coach at Oklahoma State Univ. when it won two NCAA Championship titles. He first made his mark as a high school coach in Idaho, leading Meridian High to a 154-13-2 record (.917) and four state championships. One thing is for certain. Bruce Burnett can coach.
Now Burnett is building a winning Div. I team with athletes named Baker, Cox, Stolpinski, Predergast and Uztics, names that are not anywhere near as well known as the stars he coached when leading the USA at the Olympic Games. He is working with a different kind of athlete, and it has stretched Burnett's skill as a coach.
"There are some frustrations," said Burnett. "I have kids who work hard. I do a lot of individual stuff with the wrestlers, putting in time honing the skills. It is frustrating when they can't do it in their matches. When I had elite athletes at the Olympic level, they visualize it, know it and do it. I tell my guys now that they have to seek brilliance in the basics. If they can do it, they can compete with anybody."
There was another reunion going on in Colorado Springs this weekend. Burnett was competing against new Air Force Academy head coach Joel Sharratt, who worked six years with Burnett as an assistant coach at Navy. Sharratt knows this Navy team inside and out. Although his job is now to beat the Navy wrestlers, he takes some pride in the Midshipmen's success.
"I am happy they are having the success they are having," said Sharratt. "They are great people. I am happy I had a chance to work with them. I wish them well, except for when I am in the other corner. I didn't need a scouting report this week against them."
Burnett has similar feelings about facing Sharratt on the opposite side of the mat.
"It is the nature of the sport," said Burnett. "I love Joel Sharratt and wish him all the success in the world. I just don't want him to beat us. Joel Sharratt understands what it takes to win. But it is not automatic. It takes time, hard work and the patience to make it happen."
Sharratt has seen something special about the 2007 Navy team, in comparison to the ones he helped coach in the past.
"I think the No. 1 thing you see from them that is different is consistency," said Sharratt of this year's Navy squad. "They beat who they are supposed to beat, and once in awhile beat people they are not supposed to."
"The overall strength of the team is something that a service academy team can flourish with," he continued. "You have 10 guys who can score for you. Navy is ranked about 20th now. They have one guy in the top eight, some more in the top 12, four or five in the top 20. That can get you into the top 20 as a team at the nationals. What they don't have now is a guy who can win the national tournament. As you know, one champion can score more than four guys in the top 12."
Sharratt credits his years with Burnett as helping him get the opportunity to take over the Air Force program, which had been led by Hall of Fame legend Wayne Baughman for 27 years until his retirement last year.
"There is no question it was a great developmental opportunity for me," said Sharratt. "The learning curve when you go to a service academy is tremendous. The athletes are amazing people. Here at Air Force, the resources we have, my relationship with USA Wrestling and all the other factors will make a difference. I am excited that I can bring another service academy to compete at a premier level that they should compete at."
Competing in Colorado Springs today was also a homecoming for Navy's star 174-pounder, junior Matt Stolpinski. A high school star from unheralded Westfield, Mass., Stolpinski was not on the radar screen for many top Div. I programs. Instead of going right into college, Stolpinski spent a year at the U.S. Olympic Training Center, working out with the nation's best freestyle wrestlers every day, as well as top foreign athletes who came to Colorado Springs for competition.
"For me, it was like my redshirt year," said Stolpinski. "There is no better place to be than at the Olympic Training Center. I got to work out with the best wrestlers in the world. It was an experience I will never forget and never match."
Stolpinski entered the All Academy Tournament at No. 10 in the InterMat/NWCA national rankings, and No. 2 in the EIWA poll. In the championship finals, in a hard-fought battle, he edged Darius Caldwell of The Citadel, 3-2. Stolpinski became the fourth Navy wrestler to win three All-Academy titles, joining Mark Conley, Greg Gingeleskie and Tanner Garrett with three titles at this event.
"This is the last tournament before the EIWA Championships," said Stolpinski. "It's a good chance to see how we are feeling at this time. I haven't seen any of these guys all year and it's good to face new wrestlers. It's a fun tournament, being here with the other service academies. I have a lot of friends on the other service academy teams, and it is a great atmosphere."
Burnett is pleased with Stolpinski's progress and effort since coming to Annapolis, but cautions that he always needs to be at his best to keep the edge on his opponents.
"Matt Stolpinski has done a good job," said Burnett. "I know Sammie Henson might not agree, but Matt's one of the hardest working athletes I have dealt with. With hard work, success will come. But if he doesn't do the basics, it will be hard for him to beat those gifted athletes. He knows his strengths and weaknesses. He makes me a better coach. He is always looking to get better."
The All-Academy Championships is an eight-team event, featuring military academy institutions. It includes five Div. I teams, the three well-known service academies (Army, Navy, Air Force), plus VMI and the Citadel, along with Div. III colleges Norwich, Coast Guard and U.S. Merchant Marine. All of these colleges prepare their students for military careers serving our nation.
Winning their fourth straight All-Academy team title was not as easy as Burnett would have liked, as he entered without three starters. Two of the missing Midshipmen are national contenders, No. 9 ranked Joe Baker of Poway, Calif. at 133 pounds along with John Cox of Grand Haven, Mich. at 149 pounds. In addition, starting 197-pounder Tyler Moyer did not make the trip, replaced by Matt Parsons.
"Their No. 2's are no step back from their No. 1's," said Sharratt of Navy's team depth.
Navy entered the finals with a 20 point lead over Army, and nine wrestlers in the finals. The Midshipmen dropped the first head-to-head match, when Fernando Martinez of Army beat defending All Academy champion Alex Usztics at 125 pounds. 10-6. With Navy had no medalist at 133 pounds, and Army won that division with William Simpson taking the title.
At 141 pounds, another Army-Navy battle went into overtime, with Matt Kyler of Army scoring the winning takedown over Brad Canterbury of Navy, 8-6. It was Army's third straight title of the finals. At 149 pounds, Navy remained without a champion, when Joel Ahern of Navy lost to Sam Alvarenga of VMI, 7-2.
Navy's first title came at 157 pounds, when Jon Jarred defeated Tommy Cunningham of VMI, 6-1. At 165 pounds, Army gave Navy another finals loss, as Justin Jacobs of Army stopped Brian Rowan of Navy, 3-1.
Stolpinski gave Navy its second All Academy title of the night at 174 pounds. Navy beat Army in the finals for the first time at 184 pounds, when Antonio Miranda stopped Richard Starks, 5-3 in overtime. At 197 pounds, Matt Parsons of Navy pinned Army's Conner Sanders in 4:25. The heavyweight finals went to Navy's Ed Prendergast, ranked No. 9 in the nation, who stopped Scott Buhlman of VMI, 3-2.
Navy won the last four matches, and five titles overall, to defeat Navy in the final standings, 124.5 points to 96.5. Navy had its seventh career All Academy team title in the 13 year history of the tournament. VMI was third, The Citadel fourth and Air Force fifth.
"This is not a good performance for us," said Burnett. "We won. That's a good thing. That is a testament to the program, how far it has come. We have won this tournament four years in a row, and that is moving in the right direction. We lost a lot of close matches tonight. We have to do things right to win. They can't make mistakes against better athletes. We made some basic mistakes. If we can fix those, we are a pretty good team. But we have to prove it every time we go out there."
Navy's strength comes from its depth. None of the Navy wrestlers are No. 1 in the EIWA poll, although eight team members are in the top six. Stolpinski is highest ranked at No. 2. Holding onto its spot in the EIWA will be very difficult.
"It's awesome. We deserved it," said Stolpinski of the No. 1 conference ranking. "We have worked so hard. We haven't earned anything yet. It is not over until the EIWA Championships. It doesn't mean anything until we go in and win the EIWA Tournament. It is one of the toughest tournaments out there. As a team, we are hoping to do well."
But can Navy hang onto that top ranking the rest of the season? And can Navy put it all together in a tournament format and win the EIWA Championships?
Navy will face EIWA members Bucknell (Feb. 10) and Army (Feb. 18) before competing in the 2007 EIWA Championship on March 2-3 at East Stroudsburg.
"We can win. We need 10 guys to wrestle to the best of their ability," said Burnett. "This conference is tough and it is spread out. We need 7-8 guys on the medal stand. And it is also important that we put maybe four wrestlers in the finals. That will give us a chance. We have a team capable of doing that."
But can a service academy win a national team title on the college level or claim individual national champions? Burnett, Sharratt and the other coaches at the All Academy Championships understand the challenges with that, but have a special respect for the athletes in these programs. These wrestlers have a bigger picture in mind.
"The thing that makes it hard is the kids are so special," said Sharratt. "They can choose a much easier path than wrestling at a service academy. They have to choose the way of a warrior. What makes them special is they make that choice. They are so much more than just athletes. The skills that they learn in wrestling will serve the United States in a positive way in their careers."
INTERNET BROADCAST NOTE:
The All Academy Championships finals will be posted free on the internet at
In addition, according to Sharratt, many of the the Air Force matches will be posted next week on GoAirForceFalcons.com. "Our guys who are serving in Iraq want to see them wrestle," said Sharratt. "It allows our alumni to watch, even when they are in harms way."