Just north of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Training Center in the central part of Colorado is the campus of the United States Air Force Academy. It's a daunting, sprawling section of land across 18,500 acres that is home to some of the nation’s toughest Division I wrestlers.
Air Force is one of three Division I service academies with wrestling programs in the United States. The others are the United States Military Academy and the United States Naval Academy. Virginia Military Institute (VMI) and The Citadel offer similar experiences. I spoke with some of the coaches and wrestlers from these programs to get an idea of how big-time college wrestling can mesh with the other demands of a service academy.
Air Force head coach Sam Barber said he knows that some people have misconceptions about how wrestling can fit within a military experience. But he wants fans and recruits to know that the Air Force Academy is not so restrictive that it prevents someone from having a life or enjoying their college experience.
“The service academies are actually really positive places to be," he said. "It’s hard work, it’s not for everybody, but it can be if you have the right mindset. College wrestling is supposed to be a transformational experience, it’s supposed to be transformative, who you are going to become as a young adult, and we do a good job of that.”
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Air Force senior Dylan Martinez remembers growing up in Colorado and driving past the Academy, not realizing that the buildings made up a college campus and certainly not realizing that the buildings encompassed the college campus that he would end up moving to after high school.
He assumed the Air Force was only a place for intense, military-first individuals, and he did not necessarily expect for this place to be his home. Flash forward four years and Martinez is entering his final season as a Falcon. He's since discovered that the school isn't just for a certain type of single-minded athlete. As the team’s starter at 149 pounds for the last three years, Martinez found himself fully embracing the “three pillars” of the Air Force lifestyle — athletics, academics and service — as a Big 12 wrestler and future officer.
“We’re known as tough people that want to go out there and make a mark”
For some athletes, the goal of joining a program like VMI, Army, Navy, The Citadel or Air Force is one they’ve been working towards for years. Navy captain Jacob Koser, for instance, said he knew in eighth grade that he wanted to earn a spot at the Naval Academy. Josh Evans of VMI similarly noted that he was looking for programs with a military focus during his recruiting process. Other wrestlers, like Army junior Ben Pasiuk, learned about these teams in high school and then became interested in the discipline, leadership and drive that comes from such environments. The unifying factor across all of these athletes though is their desire to win wrestling matches for their teams.
Koser, a three-year starter and two-time national qualifier for the Midshipmen, is 61-28 overall in his career and now wants to finish on the podium at NCAAs. The senior 197-pounder made important steps toward those All-American aspirations last year when he picked up his first career national tournament victory against Ben Smith of Cleveland State in a dominant 12-0 major decision shutout. He would go on to drop a match to Greg Bulsak of Rutgers in the consolation bracket by major decision as well to end his tournament run, but the win against Smith was key. Koser scored points, and he put Navy on the board. Fellow midshipman Josh Koderhandt also notched a win during his tournament experience at 133 pounds while teammate Andrew Cerniglia qualified for nationals and fought tough in his two battles.
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Navy head coach Cary Kolat said fans should expect this team to continue to improve, especially as his new recruiting class — which he said has been ranked as high as No. 7 in the country — continues to adapt to the training. He believes he has a number of guys that can challenge to become Navy’s first NCAA champion since 1973, though he did not want to identify any one person in particular. He emphasized that the structure of the Naval Academy itself breeds success and gives all of his athletes an advantage on the mat and in life.
“If you want to be a national champion, you have to pick the hardest partners in the room,” Kolat said. “You have to pick the people who are going to push you, and that’s what the academy does automatically.”
As a team, Navy finished 6-5 last year with wins over Hofstra, Ohio, Cleveland State, Bucknell and Clarion, but the most important dual win came at the end of the season, against longtime rival Army. The Midshipmen ran away with the win, 22-9, though Army plans to come back this season and reverse that result.
The Black Knights, like Navy, qualified multiple wrestlers for the national tournament last season including, P.J. Ogunsanya, Markus Hartman, Ben Pasiuk and J.T. Brown, three of whom earned at least one win in their bracket.
Pasiuk hopes to have all 10 of the team’s starters qualify for the tournament. While this may seem like a lofty goal, Army will certainly have a solid lineup that will strive to push rival Navy and fellow EIWA foes throughout the dual schedule.
Before the dual with the Midshipmen, though, the Black Knights will welcome 2021 NCAA Champions Iowa to West Point on Nov. 17 for a battle that Pasiuk expects to be competitive. He's ready for the Hawkeyes.
“Most people would be like 'they don’t have a chance,’ but we all believe in ourselves, and we believe we have a chance, so we’re going to go out there and give it all we have to come out on top of that match because that would be a huge victory for us,” Pasiuk said. “We have the heart, and I think we’re going to be able to prove people wrong that maybe that don’t believe in us, and people that do believe in us, we’re going to be able to prove them right, so I’m really excited for that."
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Army head coach Kevin Ward said this dual with Iowa has been on the schedule since the fall of last year after the Black Knights agreed to wrestle the Hawkeyes in Carver-Hawkeye Arena following the cancellation of Iowa’s dual with Oregon State. Ward said he has been looking forward to this meeting since it first materialized as an idea, and it’s one of several competitive non-conference bouts that the Black Knights have set up this year in an effort to elevate their game. Army will also see Nebraska on Nov. 12, less than a week before the Iowa bout, and they’ll also wrestle Penn State on Nov. 20 as well as NC State on January 14.
Ward and Pasiuk are not afraid of this schedule. They have trust in the quality of their team and believe that the high standard of the program will generate greatness from their squad.
⬛️ 𝐖𝐀𝐋𝐋𝐘 𝐂𝐑𝐔𝐌 𝐀𝐖𝐀𝐑𝐃 🟨— Army Wrestling (@ArmyWP_Wres) May 8, 2021
This award, established in 1985, is presented to the most courageous wrestler from the fourth class. Maj. Edward "Wally" Crum (USMA, '60) was killed in action in Vietnam in February of 1968.
Congratulations to 𝐁𝐞𝐧 𝐏𝐚𝐬𝐢𝐮𝐤.#GoArmy pic.twitter.com/ihsH198GRv
“We’re known as tough people that want to go out there and make a mark,” Pasiuk said. “This year, something that we are going to try to do is be even tougher and break people...and make them not want to wrestle us again.”
This is the kind of mental toughness that West Point inspires, and it’s the kind of mindset that Pasiuk carries with him in the classroom, on the wrestling mat and in his service obligations.
Service and leadership on and off the mat
A junior this year, Pasiuk has one more season before he has to start thinking about his life after West Point, but the Ohio native knows that his experience at the United States Military Academy has prepared him to serve his country in whatever role he’s in next. Pasiuk said he’s particularly interested in field artillery and engineering, and he’ll have options when his wrestling career comes to an end.
These opportunities, and the assurance that graduates from these institutions have a path to successful careers, are key talking points in conversations with recruits, Kevin Ward said.
“The day that you graduate from here, you’re going on payroll. You have a job the day that you graduate for at least five years and more if you want it. That message is appealing to a lot of people,” Ward said. “We have something pretty special to sell.”
Barber said he shares a similar message with his recruits at Air Force. He views the service requirement at his institution as an opportunity, rather than a burden for his athletes, and he said his team embraces the privilege of being able to “impact other people’s lives immediately” after graduation as commissioned officers in the Air Force. Barber said that the chance to compete in the Big 12 is also a draw for future athletes, and he’s proud of the way his athletes have taken advantage of the benefits that his school has to offer.
One of his athletes in particular, Cody Phippen, previously interned with a Space Force Ops program, an impressive opportunity for the wrestler who has also been a consistent starter on the team and holds a 36-23 wrestling career record. Phippen's teammate Giano Petrucelli, the Falcons' starter at 157 pounds last year, completed a "gliders" program during his summer work where he learned how to "generate his own lift." Senior captain Sam Wolf also came to Air Force with goals of flying and has since completed a "power flight" airmanship. This real-life experience offers athletes the chance to learn skills in a hands-on way starting their freshmen year and connect with alumni who can support them on their path toward post-grad service.
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The potential to graduate as an officer and enter into the military following a four-year wrestling career is also an option for athletes at VMI and The Citadel too, though service is not a requirement at those institutions. VMI head coach Jim Gibson said that about half of the Corps choose to serve, but, regardless of an athlete’s career decision, each individual still learns the values of discipline and service embedded in a place like VMI.
“[VMI] is a good option for guys that might be a little bit on the fence about whether they actually want to make a career out of the military,” he said. “They can come here and experience this lifestyle and take the advantage of the leadership, the honor, the integrity — it all goes into the education here.”
✅ EFFORT— VMI Wrestling (@VMI_Wrestling) September 14, 2022
✅ TOUGHNESS pic.twitter.com/u2m8rWTRjZ
VMI offered heavyweight wrestler Josh Evans the perfect place to pursue a military path and continue wrestling at an elite level. Other teammates, including last year’s fourth-place SoCon finisher Tyler Mousaw and senior Zach Brown intend to pursue civilian opportunities after graduation. Regardless of their post-graduation plans, all of these athletes train with people that Brown describes as the “toughest in the country.”
Competing for a service institution is a journey, one with its own set of rules, norms and practices. Graduates of some of these schools will go on to defend their country, but they are also Division I student-athletes with big goals. They are far from the "stiff and rigid" stereotypes that Kolat said recruits might envision, and they aren't necessarily the stoic military men that Dylan Martinez expected either when he first heard of the Air Force Academy.
Instead, these athletes are the nation's "best and brightest" college wrestlers in the country, Kolat said, and they'll be worth following this season as they chase their goals academically, athletically and professionally.