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Freestyle star Chad Hanke of Oregon State making impact as top college heavyweight

Chad Hanke battles Jake Varner in the finals of the 2011 World Team Trials. Larry Slater photo.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Chad Hanke was relatively unknown on the national level.

But that changed when he burst onto the national scene with a pair of impressive wrestling performances in 2011.

Hanke knocked off NCAA champion Dustin Kilgore en route to winning a University Nationals freestyle title before finishing a surprising second to Jake Varner at the U.S. Senior World Team Trials.

Now back at Oregon State after taking an Olympic redshirt last season, Hanke is looking to make a huge splash nationally during the college season. Hanke is ranked No. 4 in the country after bumping up to heavyweight.

The powerful, 6-foot-2 Hanke captured a title last month at the Midlands Championships.

“Winning Midlands was huge because it’s a really prestigious tournament,” Hanke said. “It’s pretty cool to have my name up there with all the greats who have won it. It’s a great honor and it shows I am right up there with the best guys. I am taking the momentum from that and running with it going into Pac 12s and nationals.”

The 23-year-old Hanke, an Oregon native, earned wins during road duals at Air Force and Wyoming this past weekend.

“Chad’s bigger and stronger, and he’s a lot tougher this year,” Oregon State coach Jim Zalesky said. "The Olympic redshirt helped Chad with his maturity and with his development. We think he can do real well this season.”

Hanke burst onto the freestyle scene at 96 kg/211.5 lbs. in 2011.

“It was definitely an eye-opener for me when I finished second in the World Team Trials,” he said. “It was a big turning point in my career. That let me know I could compete with the best guys in the U.S. at the Senior level. It gave me a really big boost.”

Hanke bumped up to 120 kg/264.5 lbs. last season while concentrating full-time on freestyle while taking a break from school during his Olympic redshirt season.

Hanke earned a silver medal at the Outstanding Ukrainian Memorial in Kiev, Ukraine last year. He beat past Junior World medalists from Slovakia and Ukraine before falling to 2011 World bronze medalist Davit Modzmanashvili of Georgia in the finals.

Hanke went 1-2 at the 2012 Olympic Team Trials. He fell to eventual runner-up and 2010 World Team member Les Sigman and fourth-place finisher Jarod Trice at the Trials.

“I benefited so much from the Olympic redshirt,” he said. “I got a chance to do something I’ve never done before – I was able to travel the World and see a different style of wrestling. All of the people at USA Wrestling were really supportive. I trained in the Ukraine and Canada, and I was able to up my game so much. I saw a different style of training and was able to compete with a lot of really good wrestlers. I loved the whole experience. I think that experience is really helping me in college wrestling this year.”

For now, the Oregon State senior is focused on a strong finish to the college season.

Hanke wrestles in a strong heavyweight division that includes returning NCAA champion Tony Nelson of Minnesota. Missouri’s Dom Bradley and Trice, who competes for Central Michigan, also are back after taking Olympic redshirts. Bradley is ranked No. 1 nationally and Trice No. 5. Oklahoma State’s Alan Gelogaev is ranked third.

“Heavyweight is so tough this year,” Hanke said. “There are a lot of really good guys in this weight class, and I think I am right up there with all of them. It’s exciting to have a chance to mix it up with those guys. The key for me is not to get stuck in those low-scoring 2-1 matches. I have the ability to move around pretty well for a heavyweight, and I have a lot of offense and a lot of attacks. I need to open up against these guys when they try to slow me down.”

Hanke said the heavyweight division is a good fit for him now after he moved up to that class during the freestyle season last year.

“I think I’ve grown into the weight class pretty well now,” he said. “It’s real nice, not having to worry about my weight. It’s a big load off my chest to not have to cut weight. I can just focus on wrestling and focus on getting better. It’s been great moving up to heavyweight. I feel great.”

Hanke is on a strong Oregon State team that finished 10th in the 2012 NCAAs. The Beavers are ranked No. 10 this season by WIN Magazine.

Oregon State features returning All-Americans Mike Mangrum (141 pounds) and Scott Sakaguchi (149). R.J. Pena (157) and Taylor Meeks (197) also are ranked in the top 10 nationally for the Beavers.

“We have high expectations for our team,” Hanke said. “We had a good year last year, but we can do better. We can do a lot better. We haven’t really reached our potential and achieved what we can as a team yet. Come March, we are going to surprise a lot of people.

“We have some horses in our lineup that are going to go deep in the national tournament. A lot of people might be surprised when they see Oregon State looking to win a trophy this year, but we are ready to do it.”

Hanke went 1-2 at the 2011 NCAA tournament at 197 pounds.

“It wasn’t a respectable showing for me,” he said. “I know I can do a lot better than that. The thing I can take out of that experience is I’ve been there now and I’ve wrestled on the biggest stage there is in collegiate wrestling. That experience can definitely help me this year.”

Hanke’s goals extend well beyond winning an NCAA title.

“I love freestyle wrestling and I can’t wait to go back into it full-time,” he said. “I want to make a run at Rio – I think I have a legitimate chance to make the Olympic Team in 2016.

“I have wrestled with Jake Varner and I’ve been able to compete with guys like him. I saw what Varner can do and I was able to hang with him. He won the Olympics, so why can’t I?”
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