When and wherever the Thunderwolves prowled the wrestling mats this spring, they have come out on top.
In a season that was delayed, disrupted and defined by pandemic precautions, Niagara County Community College maintained the championship standard and All-American aspirations that have been pillars in the program’s 48-year history.
Undefeated in dual matches for the second time in history, NCCC claimed its 24th Region III title and qualified wrestlers in all 10 weight classes for the NJCAA Championships, which begin today in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
On the eve of the Thunderwolves’ trip to nationals, coach Keith Maute was even more proud to note that the wrestling team did not record a single positive COVID-19 case since workouts started Feb. 1, while amassing a 3.19 grade-point average that’s “higher than it’s been in a long time.”
“It’s been a challenging year,” said Maute, who was named Region III Coach of the Year for the ninth time in 10 seasons. “We have a great group of kids that really love wrestling. We’ve had double sessions and they didn’t even blink an eye. They want to do it. And they have all been great students, too.”
Leading the way for NCCC has been sophomore Josh Thibeault, a former state champion at Niagara Wheatfield and the lone Thunderwolf returning to the national tournament from a year ago. Thibeault is 6-1 at 197 pounds with two pins and two tech fall victories, and was named Most Outstanding Wrestling at the Region III tournament.
“He’s worked extremely hard to get better,” Maute said. “And he works just as hard in the classroom. His GPA is 3.93.”
Steve Liebler also has been a team leader, going 9-0 at 184 pounds with four wins by pin and three by tech falls. Liebler wrestled at nationals as a freshman — nine years ago — and returned to NCCC this season after he helped coach the wrestling team at Grand Island.
David Crow has balanced time with his young family in Newark Valley and crashing with NCCC teammates to go 6-0 in win the regional championship at 157 pounds.
Tommy Berner (165 pounds), Newfane native Nikalis Voelker (141 pounds), Niagara Falls’ Tommy Berner (165) and Cheektowaga twins Matt Ash (125) and Zack Ash (133) also won regional titles.
Maurice Jackson of Niagara Falls qualified as regional runner-up at 285. A student senator, Jackson won five matches by pinfall despite giving up more than 60 pounds to most of his heavyweight foes. Jackson wrestled last season at 197. Jacob Mancuso (149) and Cole French (141) also qualified as regional finalists.
The Thunderwolves went 5-0 in dual matches for their first unbeaten season since finishing 12-0-1 in 2007. Maute said the lack of tournaments on the schedule allowed more time for teaching and training, but could be a liability going into nationals.
“Wrestling up to four matches in a day is going to be new to them,” Maute said. “The conditioning standpoint, you can’t replicate in practice.”
All NJCAA athletes are eligible to compete again next season, and Maute expects most of the squad to return, along with a recruiting class that he hopes will regain the regional footprint NCCC has established over the years.
“It’s going to be tougher with no state tournament,” said Maute, while also noting the uncertainty around whether Section VI will have a wrestling season in the spring. “But we have a lot of overall good kids in the program right now, so the culture will be good. I think we’ll have a lot of momentum going into next year.”