By Devin Golden
Liberty University wrestling coach Jesse Castro easily recalls the moment when his program underwent a drastic change. At 3 p.m. on March 26, 2011, officials at the Lynchburg, Va., college reclassified the sport from NCAA Division I to club status.
“I’ll never forget that meeting,” Castro said.
Liberty comes to Dalton this week carrying a 13-1 duals record and a No. 2 ranking in the National Collegiate Wrestling Association coaches poll. The Flames (13-1) are one of 24 teams scheduled to compete in the NCWA National Duals on Friday and Saturday at the Northwest Georgia Trade and Convention Center, where eight of the top 12 teams in the poll will be in the field as the event returns to the area for the second straight year.
However, this is Liberty’s first year in NCWA competition, and the transition has been “difficult” for Castro’s squad.
“It’s a disappointment we were no longer in NCAA Division I,” Castro said. “When these guys sign on board to come to Liberty University, they have dreams to be a Division I All-American or a national champion. ... We lost a large part of our team to transfers and guys on campus that aren’t wrestling because of the transition.
“They don’t want to be involved in the NCWA for one reason or another. Right now we’re operating at about 30 percent of our team from last year. The 30 percent of our team that stayed have struggled through the transition and are buying into where we are right now. It’s not ideal, but it’s where we are right now.”
Liberty is one of many to endure this fate, and the reasons schools cut or reclassify their former NCAA programs range from budget cuts to Title IX, said Scott Farrell, the NCWA’s sports information director. Title IX, the law requiring that men and women be given equal opportunities to participate in athletics at federally funded educational institutions, has resulted in some schools cutting a men’s sports team. That was the reason at Liberty University, Castro said.
However, the sport has been given another chance at many schools through the NCWA.
“Even though (the school) couldn’t sponsor it as an NCAA program, they could still sponsor it as a program,” Farrell said. “The majority of these teams are done through their clubs and recreation department, not the school’s athletic department.”
The Liberty University athletic department website lists wrestling under “club sports,” separate from baseball, basketball and football. Castro believes his wrestlers are thankful for an opportunity to continue to compete against top-notch programs.
“I think they’re very appreciative to still compete,” Castro said. “(They are appreciative) for the NCWA to offer that opportunity and also for Liberty University to still be financially supportive for us to travel. I don’t want to underemphasize that ...”
The first round of the NCWA National Duals is set for 2 p.m. Friday, with additional rounds at 4 and 6 p.m. Wrestling will resume at 9 a.m. Saturday with the round of 16, and wrestling will continue throughout the day to set up the 6 p.m. championship dual and other matches to determine final places.
Three Peach State schools will participate in the duals — Georgia Southern, Mercer and the University of Georgia.
Liberty is the preliminary No. 1 seed for the event, although the final seeding will be decided when coaches meet tonight.
“Our goals are to come away with a NCWA National Duals championship,” Castro said. “We understand it will be a lofty goal, so our boys have to be ready. They’re excited.”
Two-day passes to the event are $20 for adults and $10 for students, with children ages 9 and younger admitted for free when accompanied by a paying adult.
In addition to Friday and Saturday’s college competition, several activities will accompany the duals. Castro will be one of eight coaches representing his team during a free clinic for youth wrestlers and their parents today at the trade center. The clinic begins at 6:30 p.m. and will feature two coaches conducting clinics in four 30-minute intervals.
Also, college teams will participate in the NCWA’s “6:12 Project,” a second-year program in which the wrestlers give back to the community by participating in service projects. This year, teams will contribute to the City of Refuge-Dalton food pantry and send volunteers to serve meals at the charity’s shelter today.
A new addition to this year’s event is the inaugural high school division, with teams from Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee expected to compete in duals that will run throughout the second day of the tournament. Among those committed to the event are Cleveland (Tenn.) and Chattanooga’s Notre Dame.