Zach Petroff | Opinions Editor
March 23, 2023
The Duquesne club wrestling program had its only two wrestlers who participated in the National College Wrestling Association (NCWA) Mid-East Conference Championship at Slippery Rock University qualify for nationals on Feb. 25.
Gram Hepner placed third in the 235 weight class, while Drake Gindlesperger placed fourth in the 197 weight class. The top five in each weight class qualify for the national tournament in Puerto Rico.
“Gram and Drake wrestled great at the conference tournament,” said Duquesne Head Coach Alexander Martinez. “They both beat some really quality wrestlers on their way to qualifying for nationals. One thing we did well was press the pace of the matches. Our guys didn’t sit back. They pushed the pace and executed their game plans well.”
Hepner, ranked as the ninth seed, wrestled five matches. He was 5-1 on the day, which included a forfeit by his opponent in the semifinals — Rowan’s Dan Corrigan.
His only loss came in a tightly contested match that ended with a 9-4 decision at the hands of Penn State’s Caleb O’Cain.
Hepner’s first match against Rutgers’ Christian Ortiz lasted 22 seconds before ending in a pin. His final match for third place against Wyatt Hampton of West Chester also ended in a pin in the first period, taking 50 seconds to seal the victory.
Gindlesperger finished fourth with a record of 2-2 on the day. His first match ended with a narrow victory, holding on to a 7-5 decision against Penn State’s Connor Morton.
Morton and Gindlesperger would meet again for their final match of the day. This time, Morton got the win, pinning Gindlesperger in the third period.
It was the third time the two wrestled in 14 days.
“I was able to beat him twice,” Gindlesperger said. “He’s a great guy. I actually talked to him after the match and we became buddies. That’s why I love wrestling — competitors become friends.”
Having the only two wrestlers that participated qualify for a national tournament is impressive. However, overcoming the adversity of being a rather new club may be the more notable accomplishment.
Duquesne has not had a wrestling team since 2010. While there have been a few attempts to bring back the sport in some capacity, it was only with Hepner’s tenacious efforts that the university was able to welcome back the sport.
The most-recent journey to restart the Duquesne club wrestling team began in March 2022.
“It took maybe eight months to get things actually going,” Hepner said. “I got turned down. I had to go through legal, had to go through multiple people and get sponsorships, all that kind of stuff. It was difficult.”
Not one to back down from a challenge, Hepner was able to connect with the NCWA, the largest club wrestling association in the United States, to help facilitate the process.
“It’s made to replace programs that can’t exist otherwise,” Hepner said. “With the regulations and funding structure of college sports, a lot of sports can’t exist. They’re seeking to replace that.”
Hepner fronted the $515 start-up cost that included the liability insurance associated with the sport. The team also started a GoFundMe to help with some of the costs associated with the team, such as equipment.
With just a little more than a month before the conference tournament, the wrestling club was able to secure a practice facility at North Hills High School and secure Martinez — a Duquesne wrestling alumni who was on the 2010 team — as their volunteer head coach.
“When I heard that wrestling was back at Duquesne, I knew I needed to get involved,” Martinez said. “I currently teach social studies at North Hills High School, where I also coach football, wrestling and track, so I have a pretty packed schedule. But the chance to coach college wrestlers at my alma mater was just something I couldn’t pass up.”
Despite wrestling being known as more of an individual sport, Hepner has approached the club with a team-first attitude, looking to share credit and improve the skills of his teammates.
“One of the first people that really influenced me was Max Lamm,” Hepner said. “I watched him wrestle in high school. I was amazed by him, and when I came here and met him through another friend, we’ve gotten pretty close.”
Lamm, who has competed in wrestling for most of his life, pushed Hepner to continue his pursuit of bringing wrestling back to Duquesne.
“He was calling me about it every week and calling other people, trying to figure it out,” Hepner said. “He encouraged me and gave me motivation. Wrestling gives him a lot of value in his life, and watching him wrestle inspires me.”
Lamm, along with approximately 19 other students, currently make up the club wrestling team. The practices are not mandatory, and Hepner does not want the athletes to feel pressured to participate. He commands a self-motivation structure that allows wrestlers to show up to practice on their own terms.
“It’s a great group of guys that actually want to be there,” Lamm said. “We’re not on scholarship to do this, we’re not getting paid to do this. It’s literally just [that] everyone has a common interest, and it makes it so much nicer when the whole squad is actually on board and excited to get on the mat, excited for the competition.”
As for the future of the club, things look bright. While Hepner and Gindlesperger both qualified for nationals that take place in Puerto Rico, they decided to save the funds for next year’s squad.
The team is looking to get a practice area on campus, as well as incorporating a women’s program.
“Sky’s the limit for this team,” Martinez said. “I truly believe that with a consistent practice schedule and an expanded roster, we will be [a] force at the club level next year, and I would not rule out a top 25 finish nationally.
“In terms of the future of the program, I would love for this team to be the driving force for getting a Division 1 squad back at Duquesne. And, with enough success, I don’t think that is out of the realm of possibility.”