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|Lester, Meneely return to freestyle circuit in style by winning titles at University Nationals|
By Craig Sesker USA Wrestling
AKRON, Ohio - Two guys who haven't wrestled freestyle in the last handful of years provided two of the biggest storylines of the University Nationals.
World Greco-Roman bronze medalist Harry Lester had not competed in freestyle in more than five years while past double Junior Nationals champion Todd Meneely had not wrestled freestyle in about four years.
The time away didn't hurt either wrestler much as both wrestlers turned in impressive performances to win titles at the University Nationals on Sunday afternoon at the University of Akron.
Lester won a loaded 74 kg/163 pound weight class by beating three-time NCAA All-American Travis Paulson 3-0, 0-2, 3-0 in the finals. The explosive Lester countered shots in the first and third periods to turn Paulson for a pair of three-point moves. Making Lester's win even more remarkable is that he competes in Greco-Roman at 66 kg/145.5 lbs. and was competing against noticeably bigger wrestlers in freestyle.
It was a memorable weekend for Lester, who returned to his hometown of Akron.
"I didn't plan on losing this weekend," said Lester, who won University Nationals in Greco-Roman on Friday. "I knew I was going to have some tough guys in my weight. I went into it serious, but I was having fun with it too. I went in with the idea that I would compete as hard as I can. It feels good to win. I'm not going to say I didn't expect to win."
Winning in Akron was extra special for Lester, who said the home fans who supported him made a big difference. Lester's high school coach, Dave Bergen, was in Lester's corner coaching him in the finals. Lester won four state titles at Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy.
"They helped me big-time," Lester said of the local support. "My mom works a lot and can't come to many of my tournaments. To be able to look up in the stands during my match and after my match and see my parents and my family up there feels really good."
The 23-year-old Lester, who will try to make his third straight World Team in Greco-Roman wrestling at the U.S. World Team Trials on June 9-10 in Las Vegas, said this will be the last time he competes in freestyle. Lester was a Cadet National freestyle runner-up, but that was nearly eight years ago.
"Oh yeah, I'm done with freestyle," Lester said. "I was going to leave my shoes on the mat, but I thought it was a little much so I didn't do it."
Meneely capped a strong tournament at 60 kg/132 lbs. with a methodical 2-0, 2-1 win over Chattanooga's Josh Keefe in the finals. The powerful Meneely won a bruising, physical battle with Keefe.
Meneely, who won Junior Nationals in freestyle and Greco-Roman in 2002, has had a huge comeback season after returning to the mat. He started his college career at Iowa before leaving the Hawkeye program during his redshirt freshman season. He came back this year to win a NCAA Division II title for Nebraska-Omaha at 149.
"I felt real strong against a lot of these guys and tried to overpower them," Meneely said. "I had to adjust to their quickness and adjust to wrestling freestyle again. I felt a little bit rusty and I'm hoping to come out to the (Olympic) Training Center after I get out of school to help me get ready for the Trials."
The top two finishers in each of the seven international weight classes at University Nationals qualify for the U.S. World Team Trials on June 9-10 in Las Vegas.
"That was the goal, to come out here and qualify for the World Team Trials - that's why I came out here," Meneely said. "There are a lot of things I need to work on in freestyle. I still have the dream of being a World champ. I know it's still a long, long way away, but I'm not going to stop until I try to accomplish that. I'm not the type of person who is just going to go in there to compete - I want to go in there and win the Trials. I'm not going to take a backseat to any of those guys."
Dropping down to 132 was not easy for Meneely, who has a short, stocky, chiseled physique. He cut little, if any weight, during the college season to make 149.
"It was a real tough cut," Meneely said of making 132. "I did it all in a month and usually you take a couple months to get your weight down. My weight will be down better for the Trials."
Meneely is glad to be back competing after being away from the sport for a couple of years.
"It was tough when I first came back," Meneely said. "Wrestling has pretty much been my life since I was 5 years old. It feels good to get out there and compete again. It's something I needed to do. I wasn't going the right direction with my life and it's definitely got me back on the track. I am starting to see the big dreams again and the big picture. I kind of lost that for a while."
The remainder of the champions Sunday included Tanner Gardner of Advanced Training Wrestling Club at 55 kg/121 lbs., Jake Strayer of Penn State at 63 kg/138.75 lbs., Teyon Ware at 66 kg/145.5 lbs., Ryan Morningstar of the Hawkeye Wrestling Club at 70 kg/154.25 lbs., Mike Galante of the Lehigh Valley Athletic Club at 79 kg/174 lbs., Ian Murphy of the Titan Wrestling Club at 84 kg/185 lbs., Mike Tamillow of the Wildcat Wrestling Club at 96 kg/211.5 lbs. and Matt Fields of the Hawkeye Wrestling Club at 120 kg/264.5 lbs.
Tamillow was named Outstanding Wrestler in freestyle.
One of the early stunners on Sunday came when Penn State true freshman Dave Rella upset 2007 NCAA champion Trent Paulson 0-1, 6-1, 2-2 in the quarterfinals at 74 kg/163 lbs. Rella placed eighth at the Big Ten Tournament at 165 this past season. Rella, from nearby Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, was named Outstanding Wrestler after winning the FILA Junior Nationals two weeks ago in Las Vegas.
Rella came to Penn State with glowing credentials after winning a pair of state titles and capturing the crown at the National High School Championships. Paulson was looking to repeat as University Nationals champion.
Rella was swept 6-0, 1-0 in the semifinals by Lester in a battle of local Akron wrestling stars. Rella finished fifth.
Another returning University Nationals champion, Franklin Gomez, also fell in the quarters. Keefe downed Gomez 2-5, 5-4, 3-1 in the quarterfinals at 60 kg/132 lbs.