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Although the University of Arkansas Little Rock finished in last place at the Pac-12 tournament, the Trojans began the complicated process of starting a Division I wrestling program with high aspirations. Despite missing on certain expectations in his first year, head coach Neil Erisman felt the conference was a perfect fit for his squad.
“We were really excited to join the Pac-12,” Erisman told FloWrestling. “It was part of what we wanted to be. The standard that we have here is to be the best, too. So, joining the Pac-12 was on par for what we're trying to do.”
Academically, the Trojans competed well with the most prestigious academic conference. The team completed their season with a 3.3 GPA. Erisman loved that his team showed a passion for the books.
“It shows you that we're here to be the total package and compete with universities that are great academically,” Erisman said. “The guys bought into that academics were a priority, and it showed.”
As for wrestling, the Pac-12 was not overly Trojan-friendly. In their three conference duals, they finished with a combined score of 19-118.
What caused the Trojans to struggle?
With 24 guys on the roster and wrestlers battling injuries, the team struggled to put a full roster on the mat. The top-tier Pac-12 teams proved to be their toughest challenge.
Despite the tough road in the Pac-12, Erisman noticed people changed their views about the new squad. The Arizona State dual provided that vision for Erisman and his wrestlers.
“We won three matches, and having that crowd and the atmosphere, it kind of opened people's eyes that we were serious,” Erisman said.
After that dual, Little Rock discovered their identity.
“They're going to wrestle a bunch of guys who are going to fight hard, and you better not let your guard down because we'll beat you,” Erisman said.
Erisman preaches to his hard-working wrestlers about being a trailblazer and setting the tradition, too. At the end of the season, Little Rock found their first game-changer: Joseph Bianchi. He became the first Trojan to reach the Pac-12 finals.
Although Bianchi fell short and the NCAA Championships disappeared, he and his teammates matured tremendously since day one.
“We got some experience and matured a lot,” Erisman said. “Physically, we were kind of boys last year wrestling. Our presence is going to be different this year. It’s going to be something that is going to be a lot more exciting and fun.”
The strong-minded Trojans plan to enter their second season with success.
“We have an expectation that we're here to win,” Erisman said. “Anybody who says otherwise better watch out because we're coming.”
Nick Zeller-Singh is a student at Arizona State studying Sports Journalism. In addition to writing for FloWrestling, he appears on his college radio station, does play-by-play, and covers a variety of sports as a beat writer. Follow him on Twitter.