2022 NCAA Watch Party: Conference Weekend

Michigan State's Caffey Riding Wave of Momentum Into Big Ten Tourney

Michigan State's Caffey Riding Wave of Momentum Into Big Ten Tourney

Michigan State 197-pounder Cameron Caffey has gone 21-1 in his last 22 matches, beating top-ranked Max Dean along the way

Feb 25, 2022 by Mark Spezia
Michigan State's Caffey Riding Wave of Momentum Into Big Ten Tourney
Max Dean was desperately trying to keep Cameron Caffey close, but Caffey refused to remain in his clutches.

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Max Dean was desperately trying to keep Cameron Caffey close, but Caffey refused to remain in his clutches. 

The 197-pounders' match was easily the most thrilling of last month's Penn State-Michigan State dual as Dean, the Nittany Lions' two-time All-American, and three-time NCAA qualifier Caffey were deadlocked at 2-2 when the final 40 seconds began ticking away. 

Caffey, who had been attempting to break free of Dean since starting the final period in the down position, at last got to his feet and began squirming away from Dean, who still stubbornly held Caffey's right leg.

Finally, he spun forcefully away from Dean, placed both hands on the mat and pulled his leg from Dean's grasp with 34 seconds remaining for a 3-2 advantage which he kept by keeping the Penn State senior under wraps the rest of the way. 

Caffey made certain Dean, whose 22-match winning streak came to end, spent the final 16 seconds of his only loss this season in a headlock. Caffey rolled to his back when the final whistle sounded and remained there for a moment before getting to his knees, shaking his index finger and flashing a smile. 

The then-No. 18 Caffey's upset of Dean, who nonetheless tops the current rankings, came two days after he knocked off current No. 10 Greg Bulsak of Rutgers, a four-time NCAA qualifier. Caffey was named Big Ten Wrestler of the Week on Jan. 26 as a result.

The signature wins are part of a 10-match winning streak Caffey, now ranked No. 5, is riding into next week's Big Ten Tournament. 

"With the (COVID) shortened season last year, it felt like I really didn't completely get going because you usually spend some of that first part of the season getting used to wrestling again and finding yourself," said Caffey, who was 11-6 last season. "This year, I'm peaking at the right time and feeling great going into the home stretch."

Caffey has indeed set himself up for what could be a memorable stretch run. 

After starting the season 4-3 and slipping to No. 23 in the rankings, he has been on a 21-1 tear. Caffey finished unbeaten  (14-0) in duals, something only 12 other Big Ten starters (out of 140) did this season. 

In fact, Caffey is the first Spartan to post a perfect duals mark since Franklin Gomez in 2007-08. His career record is up to 95-26.

Caffey points to being a wily veteran of 150 college matches, including his red-shirt season, as a major reason for his success.

"Really, the main thing for me this year has been having more match awareness in my fifth season here," said Caffey, a first-team NWCA All-American in 2020 when there was no NCAA Tournament. "There is a lot of information I can draw on from all the matches I've wrestled. I've become better at being more aware of things like where I am on the mat and how much riding time I have."

Caffey's success has coincided with Michigan State's most successful regular season as a team in some time. 

Michigan State finished 10-4 in duals, its best winning percentage (.714) since a .778 mark (14-4) in 1995. The Spartans were 4-4 in Big Ten duals, their first .500 or better showing since 2004. 

Michigan State was 15th in the final National Wrestling Coaches Association poll, its highest final ranking since reaching No. 7 in 2003. The Spartans knocked off No. 14 Rutgers, No. 16 Purdue and No. 21 Central Michigan along the way.

"It's certainly the best season since I've here and we have a great team of wrestlers this season," Caffey said. "That's led to more competitive practices and guys are really going out and competing well and not rolling over when they are the underdogs in matches."

He added that the practice room's intensity level has been cranked up a few notches.

"The atmosphere in our room has been tremendous and it seems like everybody wants to be there more than ever," Caffey said. "We are so happy to be around each other and exerting ourselves to get better. Everybody seems more focused on getting to their next level once the drills get going."

That level of team unity has certainly pleased coach Roger Chandler.

"You saw every single one of our duals, even the ones that we lost, even if we had guys losing bouts, they're right up there cheering their brothers on," he said in a story posted on the team's internet site. "That speaks volumes about what this team is about."

Caffey is fourth among Big Ten wrestlers in the rankings behind Dean, Nebraska's Eric Schultz (third) and Iowa's Jacob Warner (fourth). 

He has not faced Schultz or Warner this season, but has been competitive with both in past meetings. Caffey faced Schultz twice last season, losing by a single point both times. He last met Warner in last year's NCAA Championships and lost just 4-1. 

Caffey was fourth in the Big Ten last season and second at 184 pounds in 2020, falling to 2021 NCAA Champion Aaron Brooks (Penn State) in the title match by only a point. He was ninth in 2019.

"I'm certainly ready to compete for a Big Ten title," Caffey said. "I usually begin every tournament with the goal being at the top of the podium. I just need to work on cleaning up a couple of things and I'll be ready."

Following the Big Ten Tournament, Caffey will ready himself for the NCAA Championships where he reached the round of 12 last season after qualifying in 2020 and making the round of 16 in 2019. 

The thought of being an All-American on the mat for the first time thrills Caffey, but he is taking a methodical approach to the NCAA tourney.

"You always want to have your besting showing of the season at that time and I obviously want to be a champion, but I seem to do best when not thinking about the outcome," he said. "I just like to follow a process of focusing on the next match in front of me. In other words, taking each obstacle as it comes."

It goes without saying that Caffey is elated to be going through that process at Detroit's Little Caesars Arena as the NCAA Championships return to Michigan for the first time in 15 years.

"Not having to travel far (87 miles) or switch time zones will be a big boon for us," said Caffey,  a two-time state champion at Carbondale (Illinois) High School. "So many of our Michigan-based guys will have more family and friends there. It would be great to get even more guys to the NCAAs than the eight we did last year because having a big group there makes it better for everybody."

That was the most wrestlers Michigan State has sent to the NCAA Championships since 2000. Currently, six Spartans sit  in the RPI rankings while five are in the NCAA Coaches' Poll.

"The guys have to tighten some things up because this is championship season," Chandler said. "In order to get on the podium and get to the national tournament, you're going to have to tighten things up defensively and offensively to win the big matches."

 Caffey said he is leaning toward returning for one more season in 2022-23, but will make an official decision following the NCAA Championships.