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Greco-Roman preview: Past World medalists Byers, Ruiz lead field at World Team Trials

The name of the game in international wrestling is winning medals on the World and Olympic level, and the U.S. World Team Trials is the event that gives athletes the chance to do just that. The athletes who win in Sioux City this weekend will earn the right to compete at the World Championships set for Sept. 26-Oct. 1 in Guangzhou, China.

In Greco-Roman wrestling, the United States has developed into a competitive nation that is consistently in the hunt for medals. However, going into the 2006 season, there are only two current athletes who have taken home a medal for their nation in the classic style.

In 2002, Dremiel Byers of the U.S. Army went to the World Championships in Moscow, Russia and had his best career performance, winning the gold medal and throwing each of his opponents. Byers battled many years against U.S. stars such as Rulon Gardner and Matt Ghaffari, finetuning his skills and experience. Since Gardner retired after the 2004 Olympics, Byers has owned the 120 kg/264.5 lbs. division in the United States. Yet he still seeks another shot at a medal at the World level, including missing the medal rounds at the 2005 World Championships in Hungary.

In 2005, Justin Ruiz of the New York AC capped off a strong season by winning a bronze medal at 211.5 pounds in the World Championships, the only U.S. medalist last year. The former Nebraska All-American also competed in the Worlds in 2003. He paid his dues for a number of years battling 2000 Olympic bronze medalist Garrett Lowney, now retired.

What the U.S. World Team Trials offers this year are very competitive battles in most weight classes, a mix of veterans and young talents in all divisions. The main question will be whether the United States will bring a team with experience at the World level, or if some new young stars will get their shot at winning medals.

Perhaps the most intriguing weight class is at 55 kg/121 lbs., where returning World Team member and current U.S. Nationals champion Lindsey Durlacher of the New York AC may face young talents Spenser Mango of the Gator WC and Sam Hazewinkel of the Gator WC.

Other weight class of interest is at 66 kg/145.5 lbs, where 35-year-old national champion Marcel Cooper of the U.S. Marines looks to hold off 2005 World Team member Harry Lester of the Gator WC, who was unable to compete at the U.S. Nationals this year, along with a very deep weight class of challengers.

The competition is expected to be fierce, and the results may be a bit unpredictable. The final goal is to develop a 2006 U.S. World Team capable of bringing home some hardware from the World Championships in China in the fall.

55 KG/121 LBS.

Lindsey Durlacher won his first career U.S. Nationals title after many years knocking at the door, including a number of runner-up finishes. Durlacher earned his first trip to the World Championships in 2005, where he was eliminated by the 2004 Olympic champion and did not medal. He has more experience than anyone in the division, and is coming off another solid season on the winter tour scene.

Bringing new excitement to this division this year has been Spenser Mango, who is one of the rising talents from the U.S. Olympic Education Center program at the Univ. of Northern Michigan. Mango has made his mark in age-group wrestling circles, with impressive throws from the reverse lift position. Durlacher was able to beat Mango in a very tight battle in the U.S. Nationals finals, but Mango was able to get some throws on the experienced veteran.

Sam Hazewinkel of the Gator WC, who has placed third three times at the NCAA Championships for the Univ. of Oklahoma, also took third at the U.S. Nationals this year. Hazewinkel was the U.S. Nationals champion in 2005, beating Durlacher in Las Vegas, but fell to Durlacher in the World Team Trials. He may need to get past Mango for another shot at his first World Team.

The U.S. military programs have placed a number of challengers in the field here, including Jerrmaine Hodge, Neal Rodak, Josh Habeck and Eric Albarracin of the U.S. Army, along with Anthony Brooker of the U.S. Air Force. Another qualifier in this division is Terry Allison of the USOEC. Joe Betterman of the New York AC, from the USOEC program, has been successful here in the past, but moved up to 132 pounds for U.S. Nationals this year.

60 KG/132 LBS.

There is a new U.S. Nationals champion at this weight class, the exciting young Jeremiah Davis of the Sunkist Kids, who is from the USOEC program at the Univ. of Northern Michigan. Davis actually took home a second place trophy at the U.S. Nationals in April, dropping the gold-medal match to 2005 World Team member Joe Warren of the New York AC. However, Warren tested positive for a prohibited substance (metobolites of cannabis or THC), and lost his U.S. Nationals title. Davis has been improving rapidly in recent years, and had his best Senior-level performance this year. Davis automatically gets the No. 1 seed at the World Team Trials because of his national title, although he lost in the University Nationals finals later that month.

According to the penalty announced by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), Warren received a three-month suspension, which includes an education program. The suspenstion is deferred, allowing an immediate return to competition. Warren remains a strong favorite to win the World Team spot. He was ninth in the World Championships last year, and will fight for the chance for another shot at a World medal.

Taking second place at the U.S. Nationals after the placements were adjusted was Joe Betterman of the New York AC, from the USOEC program. Betterman recently moved up from 121 pounds, and looks to make an impact at the new weight class. The USOEC has loaded this weight class with talent, including national placewinners Marco Lara, Kerry Regner and Chaz Tillman. The University Nationals champion, Nathan Piasecki, now trains in Colorado Springs but was previously with the USOEC team.

James Johnson of the U.S. Army, second last year at the World Team Trials, dropped to fifth at the U.S. Nationals and seeks a return to the finals. Another U.S. Army athlete, veteran Duaine Martin, qualified through the Rocky Mountain Regionals. U.S. Marine Jeremy McLean qualified through the U.S. Nationals, and Northern Plains champion Chad Vandiver is also in the field.

66 KG/145.5 LBS

At the age of 35, after deciding not to retire after the 2004 Olympic Trials, Marcel Cooper of the U.S. Army won his second career U.S. Nationals title with a strong effort in Las Vegas this year. Cooper was a member of the 2001 U.S. World Team, and seeks another chance at winning the medal he did not capture that season.

Missing from the U.S. Nationals due to injury was 2005 World Team member Harry Lester of the Gator WC, the star of the USOEC program. Lester won a World University bronze medal last summer but lost his only bout at the Senior World Championships. Healthy in time for Sioux City, Lester will be a strong favorite based upon his progress in recent years.

Taking second at the U.S. Nationals was veteran Mike Ellsworth of the New York AC, who last made the national finals in 2003 when he was also second. Ellsworth has been close before, taking second at the 1997 World Team Trials, but at 34 years old, his time is running short, just like Cooper's.

The rest of this division is loaded with experience, with Glenn Garrison of the U.S. Army third, Oscar Wood of the U.S. Army fourth, Mark Rial of the Gator WC fifth and James Shillow of the U.S. Marines sixth in Las Vegas. Wood was a 2004 Olympian. Both Garrison and Shillow have placed second in past World Team Trials. Rial placed third at the World Team Trials last year. All of these athletes have the ability to reach the finals here.

The USOEC has added depth to this division, with Jacob Curby and Mervin Ford qualifying for the Trials by placing 1-2 at the University Nationals. Donny DePatto of the Marines joined the field at the Northern Plains Regional, and Zach Lamano also qualified by taking seventh in Las Vegas.

74 KG/163 LBS.

T.C. Dantzler has been to the World Championships three times, but until 2006, he had never won a U.S. Nationals title. Three times he had been second in Las Vegas, but this year, with a change in training and focus, Dantzler took home his first U.S. Nationals crown. The defending World Team Trials champion, Dantzler saw his career revived with the addition of the reverse lift position to Greco-Roman wrestling, one of his strongest moves. He will be favored in Sioux City, with extra confidence going in.

The U.S. Army swept the next three spots behind Dantzler in Las Vegas, with Keith Sieracki in second, Brandon McNab in third and Jess Hargave in fourth. Sieracki has been a longtime rival against Dantzler, and competed at the 2001 World Championships. He has more experience than anyone in the field. McNab and Hargrave come off strong winter seasons, both seeking their first spot in a national-level finals.

Cheney Haight of the New York AC and Jacob Fisher of the USOEC, both who train with the Northern Michigan program, qualified for Sioux City by placing at the U.S. Nationals. Haight was second at the Dave Schultz Memorial this year, losing to Dantzler in the finals. Sasa Petkovic of the New York AC, sixth in Las Vegas, won a gold at the New York AC Holiday Championship this year. Joining the field by winning the Northern Plains Regional was Iowa State college star Travis Paulson of the Cyclone WC, who also qualified to wrestle in freestyle in Sioux City. Kevin Lozano of the USOEC is also in the competition after taking second at the University Nationals.

84 KG/185 LBS.

There is a new U.S. Nationals champion at 185 pounds in Greco-Roman, veteran Jacob Clark of the U.S. Marines. He defeated longtime rival and 2004 Olympian Brad Vering of the New York AC in a hard-fought match in the finals in Las Vegas. Clark avenged many years of frustration of losing to Vering at the major national-level events. Clark was second on the Greco ladder behind Vering the last three years, losing in the Trials event every time. This will be the first time that Clark enters the World Team Trials as the No. 1 man, and with renewed confidence.

Vering has represented the U.S. the last four years, including grabbing fifth place finishes at the 2002 and 2003 World Championships. Injuries have been a challenge for Vering, who seeks another chance at the World level for another shot at a medal. He has been a leader in the U.S. program for years, but will have to rebound to maintain his edge here.

Veteran Aaron Sieracki of the U.S. Army, who has won several Armed Forces titles and has been a contender for years, placed third at the U.S. Nationals. Sieracki switched services from the Air Force to the Army, and seems refreshed after a break away from the sport. The other four athletes who qualified by placing at the U.S. Nationals have experience, but have yet to challenge for a spot in the finals. Brad Ahearn of the U.S. Army, John Wechter of the Sunkist Kids, Jake Plamann of the Gator WC and Zach Dominguez of the Sunkist Kids have paid their dues, but are still seeking a breakthrough.

Justin Millard of the U.S. Air Force was third at the World Team Trials last year, and qualified for the World Team Trials at 211.5 pounds. If Millard comes down, he becomes a threat. Ken Cook, who has placed on the Senior level a number of times in the past, earned his spot in the field through with a University Nationals title, beating Chas Betts of the USOEC in the finals, also putting Betts in the field. Getting their tickets to Sioux City through Regional events were Abram Haddon and David Spangler.

96 KG/211.5 LBS.

Fresh off his World Championships bronze medal, Justin Ruiz of the New York AC is seeking an encore this year. He has had a winter of mixed results at international tournaments, working on ways to improve his skills in a difficult weight class. Ruiz won his third straight U.S. Nationals title in Las Vegas this year, and seems to be peaking again when it is time to qualify.

Emerging as the top challenger to Ruiz is Adam Wheeler of the Gator WC, who has thrived since joining the USOEC program Wheeler was second to Ruiz in Las Vegas this year, and was also second at both the U.S. Nationals and World Team Trials last season. Wheeler scored a win over Ruiz at the Dave Schultz Memorial this year, and hopes to find a way once more if they meet in Sioux City.

Phil Johnston of the U.S. Army placed third at the U.S. Nationals, a strong finish for an athlete who has paid his dues in recent seasons. Veterans Kevin Vogel of Cliff Keen and Al Sankey of the U.S. Army qualified for the World Team Trials by placing at the U.S. Nationals. Also getting into the tournament with a medal in Las Vegas were young athletes Gerard Habibian of Team Extreme and Robert Smith of the USOEC. Smith also won the University Nationals title.

J.D. Bergman of Ohio International was third at last year's World Team Trials, and qualified with a silver medal at the University Nationals. Bergman also qualified to compete in Sioux City in freestyle. Joining the field with medals at two international events was R.C. Johnson of the Sunkist Kids. David Walker of the Bronco WC and Justin Millard of the U.S. Air Force joined the mix through wins at Regional events.

120 KG/264.5 LBS.

Dremiel Byers of the U.S. Army has a World gold medal that he won in 2002, but is hungry for another medal. He made his third U.S. World Team last year, but fell short of the medal rounds. Byers has as much talent and experience as anybody in the U.S. Greco-Roman program, and remains focused on his goals. Byers can lift almost anybody in the world, and is confident that he can win at the highest levels once again.

The top challenger to Byers has been Russ Davie of the New York AC, who has been second at the U.S. Nationals and World Team Trials to Byers the last two years. Davie beat Byers once overseas last winter. However, he will need to continue improvement to find a way to beat him twice if they should meet in the Championship Series this weekend.

The rest of the field needs to make up some ground to get a shot at the final series. Frank Workman of the U.S. Marines moved up to third at the U.S. Nationals this year and is among the most experienced of the challengers. None of the other placewinners from Las Vegas have been close to a national-level finals. Brandon Ruiz of the Sunkist Kids, Jake Marquardt of the USOEC, Mark Simmonds of the U.S. Navy and Gabe Beauparthy of Colorado got into the field through the U.S. Nationals. Earning their spots through Regional events were Everette McDaniel of the U.S. Army and Timothy Taylor of the U.S. Army. University Nationals runner-up James Hollis of the U.S. Military Academy is also a qualifier.
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