PHILADELPHIA, Pa. – Less than a decade ago, American University was nearly on the list of ‘former’ Division I wrestling programs.
Enter Mark Cody.
A 1987 graduate of Bellevue University in Nebraska, Cody was a two-time All-American at the State University of New York-Delhi before transferring to Division I Missouri, where he was an All-American as a senior in 1985.
For 12 years he was an assistant coach at Nebraska. Two of his pupils, Tolly Thompson and Brad Vering, won NCAA titles.
After two seasons on the Oklahoma State staff, Cody was asked to revive an American program that was on the brink of extinction.
“I could write a book right now,” said Cody, whose squad sits in fourth place at the 2011 NCAA Wrestling Championships with three in the semifinals on Friday night. “It’s very gratifying considering where we’ve been. It isn’t easy, especially with three little boys who I could spend time with being a human jungle-gym.
“I’ve got a great group of guys to work with and that makes it easy sometimes.”
In 2010, American finished 14th at the NCAA Championships. Cody has been able to find some “under the radar” student-athletes who take academics seriously – the Eagles’ grade point average is in excess of 3.2
Muzaffar Abdurakhmanov, a third-place finisher for AU in 2006, is a native of Uzbekistan who started his career at Colby Community College.
One of the 2011 tournament’s surprise stories is Ganbayar Sanjaa, a junior from Mongolia. He also started his career at Colby CC.
“(Colby CC head coach) Steve Lampe has done all the work,” Cody admitted. “These guys are already good on their feet and (Lampe) has taught them a lot of mat skills. I just have to get them in shape.”
Sanjaa won his third match of the championships on Friday morning, knocking off Michigan’s Eric Grajales 10-3 to advance to the semifinals where he will meet 2010 NCAA champion Kyle Dake of Cornell.
Under the radar before he arrived in Washington D.C. was Steve Fittery, a native of Denver, Pa.
A two-time All-American for Shippensburg (Pa.) State before transferring, Fittery was fifth at the national meet a year ago and compiled an impressive 34-4 mark.
“I was getting ready for my match but I heard (Sanjaa) won, which got me going,” said Fittery, who has two technical falls and a pin in the tournament. “This is an exciting time of the year. We are well-rested, well-nourished.
“(Sanjaa) barely knew the rules when he first got (to American).”
Tonight, Fittery (31-0) meets Penn State freshman David Taylor (37-0) in the 157-pound semifinals.
“(Taylor) likes to score but so do I. Hopefully I have some more highlights to give them,” Fittery said. “I just want to go out and wrestle, get my hand raised in that one too.”
Like Taylor, Fittery has a heavy arsenal of offensive attacks.
“He has a knack for wrestling and is very imaginative,” Cody said. “He has an ability to do things that a lot of guys can’t. He’s shown that in this tournament.”
“I’ve never really cared about giving up points because I know I’m going to score,” Fittery said. “Sometimes it looks like I might be going crazy out there but it puts a lot of my opponents out of position. They can’t keep up with the pace a lot of the time.”
A lot of Pennsylvanians can tell you where Denver, Pa., is located. But what about Schoenick?
“I grew up in Schoenick right by Denver. It’s pretty much a village,” Fittery said. “Denver is about an hour from here, so it’s fun to be able to wrestle in Philadelphia.”
Another journeymen is AU heavyweight Ryan Flores. The native of California was a 2009 EIWA champion for Columbia. The junior ended up in Washington, D.C., because of Cody.
Don’t be surprised if a few more don’t find their way to American University in the coming seasons.