In the topsy-turvy world of college wrestling, where new NCAA Division II, III and NAIA teams are founded each year even as Division I programs continue to be frequent casualties of Title IX or funding shortages, athletes have to be increasingly flexible and willing to make sacrifices to pursue their athletic dreams.
Marcus Haughian will wrestle the final competitive match of his career this weekend at the NCAA Division II championship in Sioux Falls, S.D.
The Marysville native and former Marysville Pilchuck wrestler will compete in the 197-pound weight class for Colorado Mesa University as a redshirt senior this weekend, but Haughian began his career as a walk-on at Grand Canyon University in Arizona after graduating from MP in 2011.
When Haughian arrived at Grand Canyon, it was a Division II program, but the Antelopes accepted an invitation to join the Western Athletic Conference and reclassify as a Division I team in November of 2012, or right at the beginning of Haughian’s college career. (He redshirted as a freshman in the 2011-12 season but wrestled unattached for Grand Canyon.)
During the four-year transition process, Grand Canyon wasn’t eligible to compete in any NCAA postseason tournaments, but the decisions made above Haughian couldn’t extinguish his desire to test himself against the best collegiate wrestlers in America.
Haughian did get a small taste of the postseason by competing for Grand Canyon in the National Collegiate Wrestling Association Championships as a redshirt sophomore in 2014, an event that allows athletes from club teams to compete against those from transitioning programs who are ineligible for the postseason.
He finished third at 197 and was chosen as an All-American.
“At that event, they really made it feel like it was a real national championship, even though there were a lot of club teams,” Haughian said.
As authentic as the NCWA — which exists solely to be a governing body and safe haven for unrecognized or defunded college wrestling teams — tried to make that event, it wasn’t a real national championship.
Haughian wanted to compete for an NCAA championship.
When Larry Wilbanks, a Grand Canyon assistant coach during Haughian’s time there, was hired at Colorado Mesa for the 2015-16 school year, he persuaded Haughian, who had already graduated with a bachelor’s degree in forensic science but still had a year of eligibility remaining, to follow him.
“I wouldn’t have had a chance to go to an NCAA tournament at Grand Canyon, so I was looking for another school where I could come in for one year and help out,” Haughian said. “Colorado Mesa was a program that was really on the rise, and I’ve been able to take some more classes before I apply to dental school.”
That wound up being a prescient decision.
Grand Canyon unexpectedly eliminated its varsity wrestling program on Monday, with little explanation given to the athletes other than that their scholarships would be honored.
“I don’t want to say I was shocked,” Haughian said. “For some reason, when (schools) go from Division II to Division I, wrestling is the first thing to get dropped. I feel bad, because I know a lot of the guys who are still there. I’m not shocked, but it’s a little surprising when you don’t really expect it.”
After missing the first six weeks of the season with a knee injury, Haughian made his debut for the Mavericks at the Reno Tournament of Champions on Dec. 21, where he finished 2-2 after losing in the quarterfinals.
“He came in and just started working,” Colorado Mesa coach Chuck Pipher said of Haughian, who enters the national tournament with a record of 16-8. “He’s come in to a really tough weight class at 197 and has been ranked in the top three in the region, and he wound up taking fourth at the Super Region tournament to earn the spot to nationals.”
Colorado Mesa, which founded its program in 2006, is one of nearly 100 new programs created in Division II, III or the NAIA since 2001, according to a 2014 report by The Des Moines (Iowa) Register. The Mavericks are ranked 18th in the nation by D2wrestle.com and will have four wrestlers joining Haughian at nationals.
“I’ve got some mixed emotions,” Haughian said by phone from the airport with his teammates and coaches on the way to Sioux Falls. “I’m anxious, nervous, but mostly excited. It’s my senior year and I’m finally at the NCAA tournament. I’m just looking to go wrestle with a straight-forward mindset.”
Haughian will have a tough road to finishing in the top eight of the 16-man bracket at 197 pounds to earn All-America honors. The field is littered with former national champions and All-Americans, and Haughian’s first-round opponent, Joe Gomez of Northern State (South Dakota) is 27-3.
Haughian is undeterred, and plans to unleash his unorthodox style on the field when the action begins at noon Friday.
“Everyone got here because they’re one of the top 16 guys in the country, and everyone has to go and wrestle whether you finished first (at super regions) or fourth,” he said. “Confidence is the key. If you don’t have confidence in yourself, you might not wrestle to your potential.”
Instead of relying mostly on shooting at the legs of his opponents or using other flashy takedown techniques, Haughian prefers to use his strength — enhanced by wrestling most of last season at heavyweight against 260-pounders at Grand Canyon — to muscle opponents to the mat.
“I like to come in and hand-fight and beat guys up,” Haughian said. “My best attribute is getting on top, and being able to turn guys, pin guys and get back points. But I have to be solid in all aspects this weekend, get my escapes when I’m on bottom, defend and be solid.”
“He’s got a good underhook series to get to his single leg, but on top he rides tough with the leg,” Pipher said. “Once he gets that leg in, he’s tough and can work some guys over a little bit.”
He’ll have plenty of folks in Marysville wishing him well.
Marysville Pilchuck coach Craig Iversen, who guided Haughian to a sixth-place finish in the 4A state tournament as a senior in 2011, said Haughian relished the spotlight.
“He was one the nicest guys on our team, and one of the nicest guys in the school, but Marcus enjoyed when matches got rough,” Iversen said. “When things stepped up a notch, something happened competitive-wise and he would rise. He wanted the biggest match, and he wanted the best guy on someone else’s team. It’s a rare thing to have that.”
Haughian always makes time to stop into the Tomahawks’ wrestling room and offer pointers when he’s home on winter break, and trades Iversen a Colorado Mesa team poster for a Marysville Pilchuck T-shirt to wear when he’s working out.
“He’s one of the ones you hope for and root for,” Iversen said of Haughian. “He’s always been an incredible student and had a great love of the sport. He always wanted to get better. In high school he had some pretty unorthodox moves, but we thought if he went to college and could polish his techniques, it would bring him to the next level.”
Haughian is savoring his last weekend as a competitive wrestler before finishing work on his second bachelor’s degree (biology) before graduating in December.
“I’m just trying to enjoy every moment,” he said. “The last couple of practices and the last tournament. It hasn’t really sunk in yet.”
After a long road, Haughian’s last tournament will be the NCAA tournament.