After upset wins in the first two rounds Thursday, 184-pound redshirt sophomore Blake Stauffer’s Cinderella run at the NCAA tournament fell short Friday night.
Stauffer faced No. 9 Michigan freshman Domenic Abounader, knocking off one of the top Big Ten wrestlers with a 4-1 victory on Thursday morning.
Stauffer spent most of the match in control, and accumulated a minute of riding time in the third period, adding a point to cushion his 3-1 lead and hold off Abounader’s last furious rally.
ASU wrestling coach Shawn Charles was pleased with Stauffer’s performance in the early rounds.
“He wrestled well, stayed in control, and increased his output throughout the match,” Charles said.
Stauffer faced another Big Ten standout, No. 8 Timothy Dudley of Nebraska in the second round.
From the opening whistle, Stauffer was in command, forcing Dudley to wrestle defensively; Stauffer only surrendered a pair of escapes in a 7-2 win.
“(Stauffer got a) really good draw. He’s a tough kid, capable of beating anybody,” Charles said. “His expectations were for him to go out and do well.”
The road for Stauffer did not get any easier from there. Standing in the way of advancing to the semifinals was Maryland senior Jimmy Sheptock, the top seed in the 33-man bracket.
Sheptock got ahead early in a physical first two rounds, and though a late takedown sparked a comeback attempt in third, the clock was not on Stauffer’s side, and Sheptock held on for a 6-2 win.
Charles acknowledged that the margin for error against Sheptock was narrow, and despite Stauffer’s high energy and attention to detail, even the slightest mishaps would be magnified against a wrestler of Sheptock’s caliber.
“He wrestled well, but made a couple of mistakes,” Charles said. “I can’t take anything away from Sheptock, he’s the real deal.”
The tournament’s double-elimination format gave Stauffer a chance to stay alive even after the humbling third-round loss, much like the wild-card bid gave Stauffer a second chance after losing opportunity to clinch the automatic bid by losing in the finals of the Pac-12 Championships.
Following the first loss, Charles told Stauffer to “take shots when they are there, to stay focused, and stay on his game.”
Charles also addressed the environment inside Oklahoma City’s Chesapeake Energy Arena during the three-day tournament, which featured eight connected mats with matches going on simultaneously on each one.
“It was very chaotic, but we were all still intent on making sure that he did the right thing,” Charles said. “He practiced with Coach (Tyrel) Todd the morning before each round.”
With a short turnaround before participating in “wrestlebacks,” Stauffer was now in a win-or-go-home scenario against No. 11 Penn junior Lawrence Thomas on Friday night.
In a tight, back-and-forth consolation round, Stauffer fell 7-5 to his Ivy League counterpart.
Charles was encouraged by his top wrestler’s performance against the country’s best Big Ten and ACC competition, and conceded that some of the veterans may have had a mental edge over his top wrestler, one of the youngest wrestlers in the 184-pound bracket.
“He had a good tournament,” Charles said. “Blake stayed focused on the task at hand, I’m impressed on how he handled (everything) and competed this weekend.”
Stauffer’s preparation for next season begins when he returns with the ASU coaching staff to Riches Wrestling Complex in Tempe, where his returning teammates have already begun offseason workouts.
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