By Neil Patrick Healy
The regional championships were another stepping stone in Nevada boxing’s postseason success. With two regional champions and four fighters qualifying, Wolf Pack boxing will send six fighters to nationals in Seattle beginning on April 7. Junior Garrett Felling and Senior J.J. Mariano won their regional championships on Saturday and will be No. 1 seeds at nationals.
Mariano won his third straight regional title (two at 139 pounds and this year at 147 pounds) after beating Air Force’s Pedro Barrientes on Saturday, and he will look to win a second national championship of his career. He is currently riding a winning streak that dates back to his sophomore season, when he lost in the national title fight. Mariano won outstanding fighter of the lower weight classes.
Felling defeated Air Force’s Den Tati-Mackaya in the 195-pound division to win his third regional championship after Air Force coaches held Tati-Mackaya out of the fight following the second round.
Felling has won two 185-pound regional and national championships in his first two years and has not lost a collegiate fight in his career.
“We’ve been living a life of luxury,” said head coach Pat Schellin. “We had a Cinderella year last year and won the national team tournament and then we go to regionals with six guys and two of them haven’t seen more than 30 punches, so they’re as fresh as can be. We brought six guys into regionals and we get six guys into nationals. It’s been a ride for the young guys. They go into the ring and step up big time. Everyone stepped up.“
The unlikely results from Saturday were Tristan Harriman and Dre Gordon qualifying. Harriman beat Air Force’s Najia Bseiso by TKO 51 seconds into the second round to earn a third-place finish. The top two finishers in each weight class for each region qualify for nationals, but Harriman won one of the three third-place bouts on Saturday that earned him a spot. With more success with the younger fighters, the team believes that both the present and the future are in good hands.
“I see this as kind of a building year,” Felling said. “It would be nice if we could win it again and I think it is possible, but last year was such an upset. With losing half the team from last year and having to replace those guys makes it important to get these new guys experience and make this a foundation for years to come.
“Even if these guys go up against fighters with a lot more experience and have more tough fights ahead of them, it’s really invaluable experience. You don’t need to win every fight to get something out of it, so any chance we get to throw those guys in the ring and have them get a feel for what it’s like they’ll be a better fighter for it.”
In what was supposed to be just his third fight of his career, the 175-pound Gordon received an at-large bid after his opponent on Saturday could not fight due to an injury. Gordon lost to Air Force’s Gytenis Borusas on Friday after the referee stopped the fight midway through the second round.
Kirk Jackson finished second in the 139-pound division after losing to Air Force’s Landon Tomcho in a controversial split decision. This is Jackson’s first berth in nationals in his career.
“Last year Kirk boxed off for the 147-pound spot for regionals, but got beat by Zach Smith,” Mariano said. “This year we had openings around his weight class and he didn’t have to box off again. We wanted to fill up weight classes and Kirk stepped up to the occasion this past weekend and showed what he was made of.”
Zach Smith, 156 pounds, rounds out Nevada’s fighters that go to nationals in April. Smith lost to Air Force’s Johnny Wells in a split decision, but managed to qualify for nationals for a second straight year. Smith qualified for nationals last year in the 147-pound division when a fighter in the eastern region dropped out due to injury. Out of the five members of last year’s national championship team, Smith was the only one who did not win an individual national championship.
Nevada looks to defend its title in Seattle after going on a Cinderella run last season while only qualifying five fighters. With the Wolf Pack qualifying six this year, a title repeat isn’t out of the question.
“This shows that whoever shows up here is going to be the best,” Felling said. “We don’t get many guys to walk through the door, but the ones we do get we turn into the best college fighters in the country. That’s just what this program does. We showed that last year and we’re showing it again this year.”
The Wolf Pack gets a little less than two weeks before flying off to Seattle to compete in Nationals from April 7-9.
Neil Patrick Healy can be reached ay firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @ NP_Healy.