This weekend in Lewisburg, Penn., three Harvard wrestlers earned bids to the NCAA Tournament. Competing at the EIWA Championships, freshman Hunter Ladnier, tri-captain Josef Johnson, and tri-captain Jeffrey Ott bested enough opponents to punch elusive tickets.
“There’s so little that separates talented guys at the top,” Ott said. “It just comes down to who believes that they can do things that other people can’t do.”
Ladnier reserved his passage to St. Louis by upsetting Laike Gardner from Lehigh in the semifinals. Simultaneously, the victory vaulted Ladnier to the finals, the first Harvard rookie to reach that stage since former NCAA champion J.P. O’Connor, who graduated in 2010.
“I [wanted to] go out there and wrestle hard,” Ladnier said. “Believe in myself, believe in my coaches, and believe in my training—just go out there and compete.”
Ladnier ultimately fell, 8-5, but the guarantee of the NCAA Tournament remained intact. So did the thrill of that surprise win over Gardner.
“It was one of the most exciting matches I’ve ever seen,” tri-captain Jeffrey Ott said. “He just kept battling. It was amazing for him to make the finals.”
Teammates might draw similar amazement from Ott’s performance.
EIWA wrestlers qualify for the NCAA Tournament by finishing above a certain place. The number of top-ranked opponents in a weight class determines the number of bids.
In Ott’s case, a win in the semifinals would ensure a berth. The trouble was that Ott, a seven seed in the 16-wrestler bracket, had to square off against Kevin Devoy, a three seed from Drexel.
The matchup came to a sudden halt when Devoy felt his knee turn and screamed out in pain. A trainer’s decision ended the contest and handed Ott the NCAA bid.
It was a grotesque finish, to be sure, but carried a touch of irony. Earlier this season, a knee injury had sidelined Ott for around a month.
“I didn’t think I was going to wrestle for the rest of the season,” the senior said. “I’m just fortunate that I was able to step on the mat. I’m relishing every opportunity I get to strap on the anklets and wrestle one more time.”
Twice previously, Ott had left the EIWA Championships after overtime losses. The senior’s hopes seemed close to crashing again when, in the second round, the second-seeded Esteban Gomez Rivera held a late lead. But Ott spun around his opponent to grab a 6-3 victory.
That result set up the bout with Devoy—and the final elation.
“After that match in the semifinals, I went, sat by myself, and just cried a little bit,” Ott said. “It was something that I’d been working toward for so long.”
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