By Drew Brantley
After Mark Feeley finished third at 152 pounds for Murray County in the Georgia High School Association’s 2006 Class 4A traditional state tournament, he pretty much had put his wrestling career behind him.
Then he enrolled at the University of Georgia, saw a chance to return to the mat and hasn’t left.
“Once I got on campus, I started seeing advertisements for club sports — they had one about wrestling,” Feeley said.
Now a graduate student in accounting, Feeley was in Dalton this weekend, where he joined dozens of wrestlers with similar stories from 20 college teams as they hit the wrestling mats for the National Collegiate Wrestling Association’s third National Duals tournament. This was the first year the two-day competition was held at the Northwest Georgia Trade and Convention Center.
California Baptist defeated Central Florida 42-4 in Saturday night’s finals. Mercer was the highest-placing Peach State school at ninth, and Georgia defeated Georgia Southern, 30-24, for 10th.
The NCWA formed 14 years ago to help provide better opportunities for wrestling, executive director Jim Giunta said.
“We wanted to bring all the teams into the NCAA,” Giunta said. “We wanted to start as club teams and build them up enough until, hopefully, the NCAA schools would take them over. We started the NCWA with the hope of extinguishing ourselves.”
While the NCWA has grown from 26 schools in 1997 to nearly 200 this year, Giunta said some of their programs have been able to graduate to the NCAA.
“We’ve had 18 programs become NCAA in the 14 years of our experience,” Giunta said. “But for every team we’ve lost, we’ve picked up 10 or 12. But we found there were many schools that can’t join the NCAA.”
Over the past three decades, most universities that would have started wrestling programs have not been able to do so because of restrictions on their programs in relation to Title IX, which promotes gender equity. During the 1980s, wrestling programs were cut from 96 NCAA schools. Since wrestling doesn’t have an equivalent female sport, many wrestling programs were easy cuts for university administrators.
Only the truly elite of the sport wrestle at the NCAA level now, because most universities across the nation can only provide club activities that often are not associated with the athletic program.
Some teams are emerging as club-type teams are state schools like Georgia, Mercer and Georgia Southern, and others are nationally known such as Auburn, Connecticut and MIT. But some are schools that simply don’t have a place to compete for a national title, like champion California Baptist, a Riverside, Calif., school in the middle of a transition from NAIA to NCAA Division II, which means it cannot compete in either organization’s postseason for now. The Apprentice School, a Newport News, Va., trade school owned by shipbuilder Northrop Grumman, which finished fourth, has a different reason for competing in the NCWA.
“We don’t give four-year degrees,” Apprentice coach Bruce Schumaker said. “We give trade certificates. We can’t get in the NAIA because we don’t give four-year degrees, and we can’t get in the NCAA because we don’t give four-year degrees. (The NCWA allows us) to compete for a national title.”
Teams compete under the same rules as the NCAA, NCWA sports information director Scott Farrell said.
“Grades have to be maintained and they have five years to complete four years of eligibility,” Farrell said.
Giunta said the trade center has provided an optimum location for this event, citing access to I-75 and the airports in Chattanooga and Atlanta.
“We know high school wrestling in this area is strong,” Giunta said. “This is a great place to build a huge classic-type tournament that grows every year.”
He added the NCWA would like to return to Dalton next year, adding a national high school tournament to run concurrent to the college competition. While a high school event such as that might bring more exposure to the wrestling opportunities some colleges can offer, more students are finding out more about what is available now.
Lithia Springs senior 171-pounder Jake Swinson competed in an invitational tournament Saturday in Marietta before joining his Lithia Springs community coach and Southern Polytechnic State University freshman Joseph Furr on a recruiting trip to see the Georgia Southern team compete.
“I didn’t really know they had a program at Georgia Southern,” Swinson said. “The Southern coach talked to me about it, and we came up after my tournament.”
Furr, who graduated from Lithia Springs in 2010, said he is considering making a move to Statesboro to restart his wrestling career.
“I thought it was over, actually,” Furr said. “It would mean a lot. I really love the sport. I would love a chance to do it again.”
Making the transition from high school to a higher also presents challenges for college students, Feeley said.
“You can play a pick-up game of basketball or touch football, but you have to be in pretty good shape to wrestle a seven-minute match,” Feeley said. “This is definitely a step up from high school.”
Feeley, who wrestles at 165 for Georgia, said making his weight is not too much to ask himself to be able to do something he enjoys.
“Actually it’s not too hard,” he said. “My natural weight is probably 170. I just wanted to come out, compete and have fun.”
Feeley joined the club team as a freshman at Georgia and is still on the squad after receiving his bachelor’s degree last spring. He sat out of competition his senior year after suffering an injury during his junior season.
Feeley’s best season at Georgia so far has been his sophomore year, when he finished eighth at the national traditional tournament. Georgia coach Drew Craver said Feeley is an example of what an opportunity to compete for the school can bring.
“He’s one of our captains,” Craver said. “He was an All-American. He’s a terrific leader and Murray County should be proud of what he’s accomplishing.”
Craver, a Pickens High alum who graduated from Georgia in 2001, said coaching the Bulldogs wrestling team is a win-win for him.
“I get to watch my favorite sport at my favorite school, and I get the best seat in the house,” Craver said.
Feeley’s house created another bonding opportunity during the Bulldogs’ trip to the duals.
“We stayed at my house instead of going to a hotel,” Feeley said. “It was tight, but we managed to get enough beds.”