Junior heavyweight Zach Hammond still remembers what it feels like to be on the outside looking in. After finishing in fifth place at last year’s EIWA tournament, the Galloway, N.J., native found himself a one-point loss away from making his first-ever national tournament appearance.
What a difference a year makes.
[img_assist|nid=21975|title=Lay you down|desc=Red Junior heavyweigth Zach Hammond (top) downs a Penn wrestler. Hammond is 27-8 on the year and will be making his first NCAA appearance in 7 days.|link=none|align=left|width=100|height=78]
After finishing second at last weekend’s EIWA tournament in East Stroudsburg, N.J., the No. 19 ranked Hammond not only punched his ticket to Detroit, but he’s assured himself the opportunity to make a name for himself on wrestling’s biggest stage in a weight class, that excluding undefeated Minnesota senior Cole Konrad, is wide open. After a sterling 27-8 record this season, which has seen the urban planning major sweep his way through Ivy League action, Hammond is poised to leave everything on the mat inside the Palace at Auburn Hills, Mich., where nationals is set to commence in eight days.
“He’s matured and he doesn’t question himself,” said assistant coach Tyler Baier. “He used to question his conditioning, but now you can see that he’s really figured out how to win. The way he’s been wrestling, the goal is finishing as an All-American.”
If there is any doubt surrounding Hammond’s first appearance at nationals, it’s that the junior captain will be wrestling despite suffering a torn medial collateral ligament in the third period of the EIWA championship bout against Navy’s No. 6 ranked Ed Prendergast last Saturday.
“They’ve told him it isn’t going to get any worse,” said assistant coach Damion Hahn. “If he does injure it again, it’s going to be because of something he did rather than something the other guy did.”
Although it may seem as if a healthy knee might seem crucial to a wrestler’s success, Hammond and the coaching staff are staying positive. As to whether or not the injury will affect Hammond at nationals, head coach Rob Koll reiterated that there are no excuses come March.
“That’s what tape is for,” Koll said. “At this point in the season, there are no such things as injuries anymore. Sure, it would help for him to be 100 percent, but nobody is 100 percent this late in the season. With his injury history and considering he still has a majority of the ligaments still working in his knee, we know he’ll be okay and we expect him to perform well at nationals.”
Ironically, what has allowed Hammond to turn the corner this season has been his ability to avoid the knee injury. After blowing out his knee during a freshman season that left him in a wheelchair for a considerable amount of time, Hammond came back his sophomore campaign only to struggle through a year that eventually required him to have surgery on his opposite knee. This season, Hammond has had the benefit of wrestling his way into shape and with a small taste of success, has notably elevated his game to the next level.
“Fatigue makes cowards of us all and it’s so true in wrestling,” Koll said. “He’s finally at that point where he doesn’t fatigue late in matches and it’s easy to be tough when you don’t get tired. It’s funny because I recall a day in practice earlier in the season when we literally got in a fight while brawling. When I say ‘fight’ I mean there’s an intensity and there might be punches, but it’s the idea that things get heated when you’re in that kind of competition. When the match is over you’re obviously friends, but I remember walking away with a possible concussion and a smile on my face because I realized at that moment that Zach was going to have a breakout season. It might sound barbaric, but that’s the kind of training we put these kids through. When it comes down to it, Zach didn’t cower and stray away from that kind of attack.”
Since that day in practice last semester, Hammond has exceeded all expectations. All hard work and progress can be traced back to a loss earlier in the season to Lehigh’s Paul Weibel on January 19. In that match, Hammond was pinned in 1:51. A month and a half later at the EIWA tournament this past weekend, Hammond controlled the pace of the rematch, winning a 3-1 decision over a rival that he finally beat for the first time in his career.
“Looking at it in comparison to the start of last semester, he’s been a completely different wrestler,” Hahn said. “After you beat a guy that you’ve never beat before, it’s like reaching the top of a mountain. Once you get over that hump it’s a huge relief because you can see what’s on the other side. Zach knows it’s a wide open race at heavyweight and we know he’s ready for it. It’s all downhill from here.”