By Neil Patrick Healy
It was days after the Nevada boxing team flew home from Miami, Florida, as national champions last spring. The media was in full force at the Fourth Street gym and Garrett Felling, JJ Mariano, Johnny Aguilar and Jarred Santos were sitting back and enjoying the spoils of their victory in the form of their bright gold championship belts and the tall gold team trophy. While all this was going on, one of the new boxers was in the gym and he cracked a smile.
“Don’t smile,” Felling said from across the gym. He held up his championship belt and said, “You don’t get to smile until you get one of these.”
This gold standard is one that the Nevada boxing team has been accustomed to over the years, but the feeling of pride and the burden of high expectations has only increased after the Pack defied all odds and won the collegiate boxing team national championship last April. Despite only entering five fighters into the tournament, four won national championships in their weight class and their title run is considered one of the best in program history.
The climb to the top was only the beginning for Nevada boxing, and they are poised to make a run at a repeat, but they will have to do so without some familiar faces. Santos and Aguilar have both finished their eligibility, so their main concern has been replenishing talent.
“You’re always going to have veterans leaving and new guys coming in, so we hope to pass on what we’ve learned and to keep the tradition going strong,” Felling said. “We lose two great fighters, and we want to fill that void with new young guys that we can breed to be the best when they get experience under their belts.”
Some new fighters will walk into their first scheduled regular season fight on Saturday, but they have benefited from having the two-time undefeated 185-pound champion Felling and the 139-pound champion Mariano as sparring partners.
“The benefit for the new guys is that they have the best sparring partners in all of college boxing,” said long-time head coach Pat Schellin. “When the new kids feel like they’re not getting better I have to remind them that they are sparring with guys that are better than anyone they will see in the ring.”
New fighter Tristan Harriman will fight at 167 pounds on Saturday and he says that being new isn’t intimidating, but having to live up to the national championship expectations is what drives him.
“It’s a good learning experience sparring with guys that have won national titles,” Harriman said. “You learn what not to do. If you duck or drop your hands or something you’re not supposed to they will make you remember and make you pay for it. They show you now, so in a real fight you won’t do it.”
Harriman and others make their fighting debut, while others look to build on their shame of not being a part of the championship run. Senior Kirk Jackson fought last season at 147 pounds, but only one fighter from each weight class could qualify for the regional championships. Before regionals, Jackson and teammate Zach Smith had a box-off to decide who qualified. Jackson lost and Smith ended up qualifying for nationals and was a part of the title run. Jackson took it upon himself to train and to improve his game, and Schellin has noticed.
“Kirk is looking good,” Schellin said. “This is his senior year and he will look to step up and go to nationals. I don’t think he was ready mentally last year and he let it go. He’s one of the guys that will surprise some people.”
Another story of redemption comes in the form of 156-pound junior Zack Shipton. Shipton qualified for regionals last March, but he suffered a loss by TKO in the first round. He too took the offseason to build on his defeat.
“Zack Shipton has come a long way,” Jackson said. “He is faster, more fluid with his movements and he isn’t predictable. You can tell he has gotten more confidence, so I think he will surprise people this year.”
For Felling and Mariano, the first fight of the year is business as usual, but for the younger fighters it means a lot more. Either to establish themselves on their road to redemption or the first step in being apart of a championship winning program, the season debut answers questions.
“In the first fight they think they have worked out hard and have learned something, but a minute and a half into that first round he has never been so tired in his life,” Schellin said. “They feel like there’s no way they can finish two more rounds, but they always get through it. That’s the best part of the first fight of the year.”
Nevada’s first fights of the season are Saturday, Sept. 26, at 7 p.m. at the Silver Legacy. Student tickets are available at the door with a student ID.
Neil Patrick Healy can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @NeilTheJuiceMan.