Coast Guard wrestling off to nationals with a program-record four qualifiers
New London — There's nothing fancy about Coast Guard Academy's wrestling workout room.
Just your basic sweat palace.
It's where the Bears develop their never give in, wrestle until the final whistle mentality.
"We have a really hard work ethic in the room and I think it shows on the mat," sophomore AJ Aeberli said. "Every guy goes out there just looking to battle and scrap and perform."
So it's no surprise to anyone in the program that they're sending a program-record four wrestlers to the NCAA Division III national championships this weekend in Cleveland, Ohio.
Aeberli, who competes at 174 pounds, freshman Jonathan Wagner (197), junior Nick Remke (165) and sophomore Owen McClave (133) each earned their first trip with a top three finish at the Northeast Regional in late February.
That impressive number could have been even higher, according to Kevin Bratland who's built the program into a regional power in his four seasons as head coach. Bratland added former Ledyard High School standout T.J. Hepburn to his staff about midway through the season.
Senior Chris Sullivan just missed out on going to nationals, finishing fourth at 157 and taking home all-region honors for the second straight season.
"That's tremendous," Bratland said of his team's performance. "To put yourself in a position to go to the national tournament basically means you had to have had a good season and wrestled well all year. You've had to have beaten quality competition all-year round. We did that."
The Bears were in a good spot — mentally and physically — entering the Northeast Regional. They were rested, injury-free and ready to go.
Each wrestler carved out his own path to the nationals.
McClave lost his first match and then fought his way out of the consolation semifinals, defeating WPI's Stephen Jendritz, who beat him in overtime in their last meeting, by a 4-2 margin. He went on to take third place with a decisive 11-1 major decision.
"Owen basically just won on riding time," Bratland said. "He's known more for his take-downs than his riding. I thought that was pretty inspiring for the rest of the guys. It was a gutsy win."
The most surprising qualifier is Wagner, who accomplished the feat as a freshman. He placed third by securing a 6-4 decision over Southern Maine's Brandon Cousino and became the first CGA freshman to reach nationals since Nate Giorgio in 2012.
"He's been solid all year," Bratland said. "The guy is just a winner. He knows how to win."
Remke earned his spot in nationals with a pin five minutes, 44 seconds into his match to take third place.
Aeberli had Coast Guard's highest finish, placing second. He lost a controversial championship match but already had qualified to move on.
Now the Bears step up to the national level. Competition runs Friday and Saturday at Cleveland Public Auditorium. Eighteen wrestlers per weight class compete in the double elimination tournament.
Coast Guard's goal is to wrestle with the same mentality that's carried it to this point.
"The tournament is interesting...," Bratland said. "The seeds sometime don't even mean anything. It's who shows up. Everybody is good. Anybody can beat anybody any given time. It's just wild. That's what makes it so exciting.
"For our guys, if they keep wrestling the way they've been wrestling, they've got an opportunity to be on the podium."
No matter the results, the experience alone will help the program's growth and serve as motivation for future success.
The Bears believe they're representing this year's team as well as past wrestlers in the program.
"I feel a big part of it is the past teams and people that graduated last year and the year before, they taught us how to wrestle here," Remke said. "It's been a process along the way."
Remke, who's from Marengo, Ill., will have his own cheering section on hand. His family, including parents Amy and Tony, and friends plan on making the roughly seven-hour trip to the championship site.
"I've been lucky to have the amount support that I've had from everyone back home," Remke said. "My parents come to almost every match. My grandma comes to like every other match. At the All-Academy Championship (in Charleston, S.C.), my aunt and uncle and four little cousins came. So that whole crew is coming. Then there's even more people coming out."
"... They're all pretty crazy (fans). They're always yelling. I can hear my grandmother the most."
One of best parts about qualifying for nationals for Aeberli is that he'll have some traveling companions.
"I'm psyched about it and I'm really happy that we have four guys going, including myself," Aeberli said. "It's a big deal. And I'm very proud to be representing Coast Guard on a national level. ... I love the postseason. You've just got to get excited for it. That's where dreams come true."