The Chippewa Challenge brings Head Coach Tom Borellis talented group of coaching disciples together from around the country in a family reunion so special they’re selling tickets to it.
They’re coming from Washington, D.C. They’re coming from Buies Creek, North Carolina. They’re coming from Bakersfield, California. The American University Eagles, the Campbell Camels, and the CSUB Roadrunners are all headed to Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, this Sunday. It’s the Chippewa Challenge and there is little doubt that the decades long Director of Chippewas wrestling fortunes, Head Coach Tom Borelli, sees this event through a special lens. “I look at this weekend as maybe an opportunity to have a homecoming for wrestling. You know we have a homecoming for football. This might be a homecoming for a lot of guys who are caught up in their own lives. I understand that. Maybe they have children and they’re caught up in the day to day, but it might be an opportunity for them to come back (and really) to see some of their friends. To see some of the alums and kind of have that homecoming for wrestling.” A few years back several Oklahoma State alum led wrestling teams ran a quad meet that moved between campuses but it petered out after a few iterations. The author feels this event may work out better. Its point of generation could prove to be the reason. Again, Coach Borelli: “Well, it started out talking to my son, Jason (Head Coach at American, prior to that 13 years at Stanford). He kind of started me thinking about the idea. (Jason said) you guys should probably get us all together for a quad.” OK, let’s just take a look at THAT, folks. A brand new event, involving four teams from four different conferences, literally from every geographic region in the US, smack dab in conference dual season. Sure, NO problem. And apparently it wasn’t. “I decided to contact all three of those guys. They said it would be great. Scotti (Sentes, Head Coach, Campbell, the SoCon) was real excited. Luke (Smith, Head Coach, CSUB, the PAC-12 Conference) was real excited. They all agreed and we decided to call it the Chippewa Challenge.” Who wouldn’t be jacked to come back to that place where you spread your wings as an athlete and a man, finding success in both venues? That’s a truism for not just the head coaches of the four involved schools but many of their staff as well. Campbell assistant Wynn Michalak was a 197lb monster for the Chippewas, winning 4 MAC titles, 3 Conference wrestler of the Year awards, and 3AA honors. Both Chippewa assistants, Ben Bennett and Colin Heffernan, wrestled at CMU. Bennett is Borellis and CMUs only 4X AA, while Heffernan was a three time NCAA qualifier and two time team captain. As for the head coaches Mt. Pleasant roots, well, they’re deep and varied.
Jason Borelli (American University, the E.I.W.A.) is the penultimate coaches son, a multiple athletic and academic award winner for father Tom from 2002-2006. The younger Borelli, now in his first season at American, (1) compiled a remarkable first HC stop to a career. In 13 seasons he led the Stanford Cardinal to 122 victories, the most by any coach (of wrestling) (2) in school history. Totally revamping both the roster and the direction of his new squad J. Borelli has had typical 1st season challenges, cross country relocation with young children notwithstanding. The Eagles have suffered two tough losses by a combined 5 points and are 1-5 so far in duals. They’ve scored an upset win over Duke. Heavyweight Isaac Righter took Silver at the Jonathan Kaloust Bearcat Open. The Eagles sent four wrestlers into the 5th place matches at the tough Navy Classic and they all finished in odd numbers. Freshman 125lb Max Leete followed suite at the Reno Tournament of Championships, finishing 5th with a 5-1 record. A-U is scrapping and while overmatched by the likes of Rutgers and Virginia they are becoming competitive. Coach Borelli is well, excited: “The opportunity to compete in the Chippewa Challenge is very exciting and very important to us….Any time you have an opportunity to wrestle great teams and great individuals you want to take advantage of it to see where you are.” And there’s more to it than just the competition. “We get a chance to expose our team to a program that we think that we can become. You look at CMU and what they have done over the last 25 years or so. Numerous Top 20 and Top 10 finishes, All Americans year after year.” It’s that consistency of greatness from Tom Borellis teams that has Jason excited, and hopeful, for his squads direction. “It’s great to come and see that and to have everyone in our program experience that.” And, you can’t really put a price on being able to, and to be welcome, when you go home again. “It’s exciting to be back in my home town. To be in the environment, around the community and the people that have played such a big part in my life and helped get me where I am.” For the Borellis, Mt. Pleasant goes straight to the heart. “My wife and I are both proud alumni. We love this place and so to come back here and be reminded of where it all started and where we came from, it’s really special. We are very excited about it.” THAT, folks, is family.
Luke Smith (CSUB, the PAC-12 Conference) (3) brings a well traveled troupe of RoadRunners to his original college wrestling nest where he terrorized the MAC as 125lb “Lightning” Luke Smith. A four time NCAA qualifier, Smith graduated in 2008 and has coached at his alma mater, Old Dominion and Eastern Michigan. This season, his 3rd as Head Coach at CSUB, has been beset by cancellations, postponements, and last-minute rearrangements. Tournament efforts have produced four champs and 15 podium spots spread over 5 events. Their matches with Northern Colorado and Little Rock were canceled. To make up for the missing events, CSUB worked a last minute invite to Reno and grabbed a dual meet with monstrous Iowa State. Smith’s troops were smooth at the Reno event, finishing 7th, but proved a Pecos Bill like effort was beyond their reach against the Cyclones. S’OK, there will be no loose feathers on their approach and landing in Mt. Pleasant. Whether or no star AA candidate 133lb Chance Rich competes is as yet unknown. Still, look for this columns All Overlooked and Underrated Team member 141lb Angelo Martinoni to make beautiful wrestling music Sunday. Ditto for gritty 174lb Albert Urias.
Scotti Sentes (Campbell, the SoCon) has the preseason Southern Conference favorites headed to the Challenge. The Camels have won three straight SoCon tournaments, two regular season titles and tied for a third. Sentes, in his 2nd season as Head Coach, helped shepherd in this spectacular success as a Campbell assistant for four years prior to taking the top spot. Like the RoadRunners the Camels have had schedule challenges. Two conference matches, with Gardner-Webb and Presbyterian, have been postponed while a big cross conference brouhaha with the Ohio Bobcats was canceled outright. Campbell is 4-2, and those two defeats equal half the number of losses in the past three years combined. Those losses BTW, to Arizona State, Pitt, Virginia Tech, and a fired up UTC squad, ALL on the road. Campbell has moved the needle on its National rating scale. They started as “scheduled win”, moved to “toss-up” then “don’t schedule, not worth it”. The last and most important nudge to “quality out of conference opponent” is a big deal for a non Power 5 Conference team, and the Camels are running with it. They made a strategic move to recruit Nationwide and significantly upgraded their facilities. Their roster often bulges with 40 plus athletes. Another significant marker in a schools ascendancy is both its attractiveness to transfers and where its departing athletes go. As to the former, wrestlers from NC State and Rutgers are on the Camels 2022 roster while ex-Camels are finding success at Lock Haven and Iowa State. Current Camels stars? Grad students 149lb Josh Heil and 197lb Chris Kober, along with sophomore heavyweight Taye Ghadiali, now stand a combined 26-5. As to thoughts from the head Camel, well, Coach Sentes was to the point in his latest newsletter. “This (event) means a lot to every coach involved as we all wrestled under…Coach Borelli.” Sentes, a shining light in Florida as a five time finalist, four time state champ for Riverdale High, was a 2X AA for Borelli, finishing in 2013. “Admittedly, there has been some friendly trash talk from all programs involved,” Sentes notes. Ya think?
For the host Chippewas the Challenge would be the 5th major in-season event CMU wrestled in but, when the Midlands canceled, that number dropped to four. A conference matchup with NIU has been postponed as well and rescheduling that meet looks challenging. The Chippewas are 2-2 with just 4 event champs but an eye opening 31 overall placewinners between the Michigan State Open, Journeymen Classic, and the Cleveland State Open. 141lb Dresden Simon, 149lb Corbyn Munson and 157lb Johnny Lovett are 27-10, very good but not quite great. This column expects and continues to believe in greatness for Lovett, an All Overlooked and Underrated team member. Greatness is a plateau reached regularly these past few seasons by super senior heavyweight Matt Stencel, a 2X AA, four time MAC champ and 113 match winner. In an unusual season he’s just 4-3, with two losses to Lehighs 2XAA Jordan Wood and one to Iowas 2XAA Tony Cassioppi. Heard Godzilla has an open date, Matt. Seriously, Stencel sits in the same boat as Wood. Both are super seniors with a chance to become their respective conferences first ever five time champs. Hopefully the injury loss to Cassioppi last time out isn’t a lingering issue for Stencel.
Folks, there’s a quick look at what can only be hoped will become an annual affair, becoming bigger and bigger as the Tom Borelli coaching tree continues to branch out. Good luck to all involved, stay healthy, score points and all you fans, remember….everyone wants to win. Please treat those who will next time the same as those who win Sunday.
See you sometime soon!
(1) American University President Sylvia Burwell was seen recently on a run rocking an Eagles Wrestling shirt. Game recognize game.
(2) Sport qualifier necessary, as Stanford is home to a number of incredible coaches, including the most successful Womans Basketball Coach of all time, Tara Vanderveer. An outstanding supporter of wrestling, BTW. Just stand to the side when you meet her, though, or she may blast double your sorry *ss. And laugh.
(3) Bakersfield, Cal Poly & Little Rock are conditional/provisional/sorta-kinda PAC 12 schools for wrestling purposes. Because….lots of reasons and no small amount of necessity.
[Special thanks to all the coaches mentioned and especially to Andy Sneddon of CMU and Karen Angell of American University.👍👏]