Six Baldwin Wallace wrestlers had their ticket punched to the NCAA Division III National Championship scheduled for March 13-14 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Among those six consisted of two freshmen, 125-pounder Jack Stanley and 184-pounder Doug Byrne; two juniors, #3 ranked 149 pounder Stanley Bleich who looked for redemption after qualifying for nationals as a freshman and missing out on the trip his sophomore year, and 157-pounder Dalton Leightner, making his first nationals appearance; and two seniors, 133-pounder Charlie Nash and #3 ranked 197-pounder, Zeck Lehman, both returning All-Americans looking at one last shot for glory. Though all six wrestlers appeared in different weight divisions, they shared one common goal: win a national title.
On March 12, with 16 hours until the NCAA Division III Wrestling Championship would begin, the team took the mat at the U.S. Cellar Center for their final practice of the season, dressed in yellow hoodies and grey sweatpants to sweat out their last couple of pounds. Six wrestling mats, which many wrestlers claim as the softest mats they have ever felt, filled the arena floor: three blue and three black with the white NCAA logo across the center. Stadium seating of matching colors looked down at the mats for family, friends, teammates and spectators to watch the competitors battle like gladiators for the following two days for the crown of a national champion. Just as the young men finished lacing up their shoes, an NCAA representative grabbed the microphone to make an announcement.
“When he reached for the microphone, I feel like everyone in the room just stared at him,” said Nash, who began the season as the #1 ranked 133-pounder in the country. “My stomach just kind of dropped.”
On March 11, with 51 hours until the tournament would begin, the team departed from the Lou Higgins Rec Center parking lot to make the eight-hour drive to Cedar Rapids, Iowa in two separate school-issued vans. The vans were filled with the six wrestlers as well as three coaches, one athletic trainer, bags filled with workout clothes and wrestling gear, boxes of yellow Baldwin Wallace Wrestling towels for family, friends, fans and the 26 other teammates making the trip the following day to whip in the air to show their support, and one stationary bike, awkwardly jammed in the back-seat of a van like a Tetris piece dropped in the wrong spot. Five other coaches planned to meet the team in Cedar Rapids.
During the trip, information regarding the COVID-19 pandemic constantly played over the radio. The entire Ivy League canceled their fall sports, and soon many conferences across the nation would follow. The Ohio State Wrestling Tournament, where Zeck Lehman’s younger brother Zayne of Revere would be competing, announced only limited spectators could enter the tournament. Head Coach Jamie Gibbs and Assistant Coach Jason Zastrow received word that one college team, UW-La Crosse, was pulled from the tournament by the university’s administration due to fear their athletes would come into contact with the virus. However, the university eventually lifted the travel ban.
After the drive to Cedar Rapids, the team got settled in their hotel rooms and then got ready for practice at the U.S. Cellar Center. Practice lasted an hour and a half. The team showered then went back to the hotel for the remainder of the evening, where they would later learn that night that NBA player Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, and the NBA would suspend the season.
“It seemed like that was the first domino,” said Nash. “It seemed like the one everyone was waiting for to start canceling.”
The next day, the day before the tournament would begin, the NCAA limited spectators to six people per family. The 26 other Yellow Jacket wrestlers that planned on going to watch the six BW competitors received information that they could not go support their teammates.
Before their final practice of the year, a mandatory coaches meeting took place for the head and assistant coaches of all teams where they found out that despite the cancellations of professional sports as well as the Ohio State Wrestling Tournament scheduled for the same weekend and the Division I Wrestling Championship scheduled for March 19-21, the Division III tournament would still proceed as scheduled.
“The coaches had just gotten out of a coach’s meeting, so I wasn’t really too worried because they told us we’re all good to go,” said Lehman.
Shortly after the meeting, the team traveled to the U.S. Cellar Center for their last practice.
“Zeck,” said Georgia Lehman, Lehman’s mother. With the phone to his ear, Lehman tried to find the words to tell her mother the news that not only he, but the other teams in the facility just received.
“Zeck. What’s going on?” Still, Zeck felt like he could not speak. “Did they cancel it?” she asked.
Finally, Lehman muttered, “Yeah.”
Like all of the wrestlers that just found out the NCAA Tournament got canceled, Lehman felt disbelief that he could no longer compete for his dream of wrestling for a national championship.
“It felt like someone just sucker punched me in my gut. I definitely did not see that coming at all,” said Lehman. “Just because we were so close, around 16 hours out, I had no thought in my head that they were going to cancel it.”
Nash said though his and Lehman’s careers came to an abrupt end, he does not want that to take away from the success they had during their time as Yellow Jacket wrestlers.
“We’re going to put the season the rest, and we’re not going to let it define our careers,” said Nash. “We’re not the guys that had our tournament canceled.”
Nash ended his career as a 2019 All-American placing fourth. He is #5 in all-time wins at BW with 112. Lehman finished as a 2019 All-American placing seventh and finishes at #4 in all-time wins with 120 wins. They combine for 232 wins and 73 losses. They finish with a 23-2 dual meet record in the OAC with three conference championships and two regional titles.