The Binghamton University wrestling team will have its fans behind its back this weekend when it hosts the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) Championship Saturday, March 3 at the Events Center.
After solidifying its best regular season in program history, Binghamton is primed to make a big splash at the CAA Championship, which has been scheduled to take place in the Events Center all year.
The Bearcats (15-4), ranked 19th in the nation by the NCAA, will face six other teams in the NCAA-qualifier and are in search of their second CAA Championship in three years, after finishing second to Hofstra University last season.
“Last year’s loss gave us the drive to beat [Hofstra] this year in the dual,” said 149-pound junior Donnie Vinson, referencing BU’s 24-12 win at Hofstra on Feb. 12. “Right now we should win; there’s nothing we can do [now] other than just train and not get hurt.”
At stake in the one-day tournament are a team conference title and 23 NCAA individual berths. In addition to Hofstra, the Events Center will host squads from Boston University, Drexel University, Old Dominion University, Rider University and George Mason University. The tournament is set to begin at 10 a.m. and continue into the evening.
The Bearcats’ success this year has invigorated a strong sense of team confidence and momentum heading into the playoffs.
“Now that we’re the big dog, we expect to dominate every match, not just win,” said 157-pound senior Justin Lister, who is ranked No. 7 in the latest national poll. “We expect to pin kids. If we keep that mentality, that drive and that force, we’re going to be top 10 in no time.”
The shift from underdog to frontrunner comes at an opportune time, as the Bearcats will have the support of a home crowd for the first time in the history of the CAA Championship.
“I think it’s a huge advantage having it here in Binghamton,” Lister said. “Preparing for a home tournament, you know that your friends, your family and even people in the community that you might not know are going to be here watching. I’ve talked to people in random places, like Walmart, who’ve asked me if I’m ready for the conference tournament … it’s just exciting to have this community become more wrestling-friendly.”
Binghamton head coach Pat Popolizio said he believes it’s time for individual members of the team to make their case for national recognition in the biggest of stages now that the regular season is over.
“Our goal is to qualify as many guys as we can to the national tournament,” he said. “In doing that, it will put us in position in winning a championship.”
Vinson, ranked No. 4 in the InterMat poll, is in search of his first CAA title after finishing second in the last two years. He was upset in last year’s tournament by junior Zac Cibula of Rider, falling 5-4 in triple-overtime, but he is hungry to get another shot.
“That’s the only match that I actually really want to wrestle,” he said. “I majored him earlier in the year last year and then he ended up beating me, somehow. [Popilizio] and I have a game plan and we’re set.”
Although Saturday’s tournament is the most critical event of the Bearcats’ season thus far, the team’s focus is set on the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championship, which is scheduled to take place on March 15-17 in St. Louis.
Six Bearcats, including Vinson and Lister, advanced to the NCAA tournament last season, but Binghamton was largely overmatched.
“I’m expecting us to do better,” Vinson said. “We have more experienced guys with the guys that are leading [us], and the younger guys are really coming through, so we should have quite a showing.”
Lister admitted that the vision of winning a national title has played repeatedly in his mind, and he’s ready to turn that dream into a reality.
“I want to run out on that stage — I’ve already pictured it, I’ve dreamt it — it will end in a fall, with both my hands raised above my head,” he said.
Tickets for the CAA Championship are priced at $22 in advance for adults, $25 at the door. Tickets for college students and children younger than 17 are $15.
Action is set to kick off Saturday, March 3, with quarterfinals at 10 a.m., followed by consolation matches at 1 p.m. and semifinals at approximately 3 p.m. Finals are scheduled to start at 7 p.m.