PHILADELPHIA, Pa. – Gardner-Webb begins its 2016-2017 season with a tall task Saturday, taking on Shippensburg, Sacred Heart and Drexel in a busy day of action at the Dragon Duals.
The Runnin' Bulldogs will hit the mats at noon against Shippensburg and will quickly turn their attention to Sacred Heart (1:30 pm) and host Drexel (3:00 pm).
Head coach Daniel Elliott welcomes back an experienced and talented core from last season's Southern Conference regular season co-champions, with four wrestlers ranked in the preseason top-25 by at least one outlet.
Gardner-Webb was picked third in the 2016-2017 preseason Southern Conference poll, trailing Appalachian State and Chattanooga. The trio of teams tied for the league's regular season title last season and were separated by only four points in the preseason voting. Appalachian State and Chattanooga tied for first in the tabulation.
Five current Runnin' Bulldogs have qualified for the NCAA Tournament at least once, with four of those men headed into their final season of competition with Gardner-Webb.
Fifth-year seniors Boyce Cornwell (285), Hunter Gamble (184), Austin Trott (174) and Ryan Mosley (157) return to the starting lineup along with fourth-year junior Chris Vassar (149) as previous qualifiers for the NCAA Championships.
Cornwell, Trott and Vassar each qualified for the event in Madison Square Garden last March and Mosley qualified at 149 pounds as a sophomore in 2015. Trott earned an NCAA spot as well in 2014 and Gamble qualified at 174 pounds in 2013.
Cornwell, who burst onto the scene as a heavyweight last season, is coming off a 22-9 season individually that included one win and two close defeats at the NCAA Division I Championships. He recorded 26 takedowns and three near falls on the season and scored bonus points in seven matches.
The Conyers, Ga., native is ranked 24th nationally by WrestleStat heading into the 2016-2017 season.
Gamble enters his senior season ranked 19th nationally by both Intermat and The Open Mat at 184 pounds. The McDonough, Ga., standout posted a team-high 24 wins last season (24-9), which included an 11-4 mark in duals.
Gamble ranked second on the team with 29 takedowns andled the squad with seven major decisions. He also ranked among the team leaders in pins (3) and tech falls (4). He has posted 61 career victories in three seasons and will look to break through his single-season best of 24 wins – set in 2013 and 2016.
Mosley fell just short of back-to-back appearances at the NCAA Division I Championships, but was one of Gardner-Webb's most versatile wrestlers last season. He started the campaign at 149 pounds, but bumped up to 157 to strengthen the overall lineup midway through the season.
The Stone Mountain, Ga., senior went 23-10 last season combined. He was crisp in dual matches, going 11-3 with a pair of major decisions. During his previous three seasons on the mat, Mosley has been victorious 68 times. That includes a 30-win season in 2014-2015, when he qualified for the 2015 NCAA Championships in St. Louis.
Trott is another fifth-year senior with preseason accolades, earning a national ranking in two different weight classes. The former Camden County (Ga.) High standout is ranked 19th at 165 pounds by The Open Mat and 19th at 174 pounds by Intermat.
Trott will wrestle at 174 pounds for the first time in his career at Gardner-Webb, after qualifying for NCAA Championships at 165 pounds in both 2014 and 2016. He has won 71 career matches at 165 pounds, but is also expected to be a threat at his new weight.
Trott entered the lineup midway through the 2015-2016 season for GWU and proceeded to finish with a 17-5 overall mark. He was 8-2 in dual matches and rolled to the 2016 SoCon Championship at 165 pounds in Asheville, N.C.
Trott led the team with six wins via tech fall and had 14 near falls. He scored bonus points in nine matches.
Vassar, a redshirt junior, enters his third season of competition with the Runnin' Bulldogs outside the national preseason rankings at 149 pounds – but is more than capable of making a move into that number in 2016-2017.
The New Cumberland, Pa., native went 18-7 last season and earned the program's first at-large bid to an NCAA Division I Championship event, advancing to Madison Square Garden along with Cornwell and Trott.
Vassar posted bonus points in 10 different matches, winning three via fall, three more via tech fall and four by major decision. He had nine near falls and 17 takedowns on the season. Vassar scored bonus points for the 'Dogs in half of his dual matches last season.
One of the most anticipated individual seasons on tap for 2016-2017 will center around redshirt sophomore Tyler Marinelli. The Jefferson, Ga., standout will wrestle at 165 pounds and is ranked No. 15 nationally entering the season by FloWrestling and No. 23 by WrestleStat.
Marinelli went 18-6 last season unattached, wrestling well throughout the season. He made waves at the 2016 Southern Scuffle, knocking off three-time Pac 12 Champion and NCAA All-American Jim Wilson (Stanford) with a 7-3 decision.
Gardner-Webb will look to replace valuable starters Cortez Starkes (125) and Tyler Ziegler (133) from last season's team in the lower weights. The duo combined for 42 wins last season and provided great experience.
Landon LoAlbo (125) and Philip Anderson (133) are expected to step into those roles, with redshirt freshman Garrett Hancock (133) also a capable performer. LoAlbo went 13-7 unattached last season and Anderson was 14-9 in that same role. Hancock went 14-4 as a redshirt at 133 pounds.
Ryan Hull (141) returns to his starting role in the lineup as well, with the sturdy group of Vassar, Mosley, Marinelli, Trott and Gamble following.
The graduation of Gray Jones leaves an opening in the lineup at 197 pounds, with Payton Mills and T.J. Henderson in line to fill that spot. Mills won 11 matches unattached last season.
Gardner-Webb, ranked as high as No. 34 nationally by WrestleStat heading into the season, will have a very difficult slate of opponents throughout the season.
After Saturday's tough opening day, GWU will head to Raleigh, N.C., for the annual Wolfpack Open. A home date with ACC contender Virginia on December 2 opens action in Paul Porter Arena and is followed by the SoCon opener at home vs. VMI on December 9.
That will be the last time on the home mats for Gardner-Webb until February.
Five of Gardner-Webb's seven SoCon matches will be on the road this season, with preseason co-favorite Chattanooga (Feb. 3) the only other home date against a league foe outside of VMI. The Runnin' Bulldogs will also host Duke (Feb. 1), North Carolina (Feb. 10) and Ohio (Feb. 12) as part of a strong non-conference home schedule.
The 2017 SoCon Championships are set for Charleston, S.C., on March 4. The NCAA Championships will be held from March 16-18 in St. Louis, Mo., this season.