By Neil Patrick Healy
In what turned out to be a Cinderella run, the Wolf Pack qualified five fighters to nationals and walked away with four individual national champions and the team title. This year, as the defending national champion, Nevada boxing will look to claim its second straight title this weekend in Seattle, Washington. Here are some of the key storylines entering the weekend.
Six boxers qualify
Nevada qualified six fighters for nationals during the regionals, including two regional champions. JJ Mariano, 147 pounds, and Garrett Felling, 195 pounds, each won their third straight regional championship. Mariano won two at 139 pounds and one at 147 pounds, while Felling won two at 185 pounds and this year’s at 195. Kirk Jackson, 139, placed in the top two and earned a berth at nationals, while Zach Smith, 156, placed third (the Western Region gets to qualify a third fighter in each weight class in 2016). Tristan Harriman, 165, and Dre Gordon, 175, each earned at-large bids.
Felling’s continued dominance
Felling enters this year’s nationals on a continued hot streak. Since joining the boxing team almost three years ago, he has won three regional titles, two national championships and has not lost a single fight in the college ranks (Felling lost his first career fight in the second round of the Olympic Qualifiers last October). Felling goes into nationals looking for his third straight national championship.
Mariano’s career coming to a close
Mariano goes into his final trip to nationals at the tail end of a prolific career. Since joining the program, Mariano has won three regional titles, a national championship and is riding a 14-fight winning streak dating back to his sophomore season.
Smith, Jackson get second chance
Senior Zach Smith was the only member of last year’s national championship team that did not earn a regional or national championship. After losing in the second round of regionals, Smith was able to qualify due to a fighter being disqualified because of an injury. After losing in the first round of nationals, Smith took the first semester off in order to move up in weight. Once he moved up to 156 pounds, Smith qualified for nationals again after finishing third.
Kirk Jackson fell just short of a berth in regionals last year after a logjam in the 147-pound division forced him and Smith to have a box-off to determine who would represent Nevada in that weight class. After losing to Smith, Jackson worked on his footwork and conditioning, while moving down his weight class to 139 pounds. Jackson placed in the top two of his weight division and qualified for his first appearance in nationals.
Nevada has two fighters going to nationals that are underclassmen. Tristan Harriman, 165, turned his up-and-down sophomore season into a third-place finish in regionals via TKO against Air Force’s Najia Bseiso 51 seconds into the second round. Freshman Dre Gordon, 175, entered the ring for the first time in the first round of regionals and won his first career fight before losing in the second round after the referee stopped the fight. In what was supposed to be his third career fight, Gordon earned an at-large bid after his opponent was disqualified due to injury.
Building the future
Of the six fighters going to nationals, four have remaining eligibility after the season. Mariano and Jackson graduate, but Felling and Smith come back for their senior year, Harriman returns for his junior year, and Gordon will build on his postseason experience as a springboard into his sophomore year. The national championships will be a stepping stone for the future, as well as an opportunity to capture a second straight title.
Neil Patrick Healy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at NP_Healy.