Even though seasoned veterans dominate much of collegiate wrestling, Maryland turned to a different approach for the 2022-2023 season.
The Terps leaned on a youthful core comprised of redshirt and true freshmen: Braxton Brown, Kal Miller, Ethen Miller and Jaxon Smith. All played vital roles for coach Alex Clemsen and helped the Terps achieve a plethora of firsts during the coach’s fourth season in College Park.
Maryland wrestling won its first Big Ten conference dual win under Clemsen and just the second since it joined the conference in 2016 — a 19-18 win over Purdue that saw Ethen Miller and Jaxon Smith pick up key victories.
“To beat a really well-coached team with a ton of talent on it — they’ve been in wars all year,” Clemsen said following the battle. “They’re in heaters every night, they were in another one tonight with us, and it’s just fortunate that we could get one off on them.”
Prior to the win over the Boilermakers, the Terps saw early success during the first month of the season. Maryland defeated then-No. 16 Pittsburgh 18-16 in its fourth dual meet of the season, the first ranked win for the program since 2013.
A key decision victory from Ethen Miller and a Brown pin gave the Terps vital bonus points to beat the Panthers.
[All five qualified Maryland wrestlers have seasons end on Day Two of NCAA championships]
After the victory, Clemsen’s squad checked in at No. 23 on the NWCA polls, its first appearance in the rankings since 2013.
The Terps also beat local foe Navy, where three freshmen collected wins and won three of four contests at the Virginia Duals before conference play ramped up to end the season.
With the early season and conference successes, Maryland ended the regular season with 10 victories, the first double-digit win season since the 2012-2013 season.
Maryland’s youth continued to excel in the postseason.
No one had a better two-day tournament at the Big Ten championships than Jaxon Smith, who captured third place at 197-pounds on the back of five wins and a single defeat.
The high mark earned him an automatic bid for the NCAA championships where Ethen Miller and Kal Miller, who finished in seventh and ninth respectively, joined him as the Terps’ automatic qualifiers.
“I’ve watched Big Ten tournaments since I was like 6 or 7 years old and came to watch it when I was in high school,” Jaxon Smith said following his podium finish. “It’s kind of a surreal moment.”
Brown also represented the Terps on the national stage after receiving an at-large bid for the NCAA championships along with Jaron Smith. With three automatic qualifiers and two at-large bids, the five Maryland qualifiers were the most the Terps have had since 2014.
[Jaxon, Jaron Smith have a bond built on a love for wrestling and raw egg yolks]
“I think it shows our plan’s working, and the process is in place. It’s a rough time to have a young team, there’s so many sixth-year guys out there,” Clemsen said before the NCAA championships. “That’s a credit to our staff and our kids … you got to fight, you got to fight. We’re fighters.”
But the NCAA championships ended harshly for the Terps. All five qualifiers moved on to day two, but all five saw their seasons end short of a spot on the podium and All-American status.
But even after the disappointing conclusion to the season, a spark of optimism for the Terps remains. Maryland returns the bulk of its young lineup, including junior Dominic Solis and redshirt senior King Sandoval. That talent could mean more firsts are coming Maryland’s way next season.
When the Terps return to the practice room, they’ll see four big words plastered on the wall above their practice mats — the qualities they want to embody. The first three are faith, sacrifice and accountability while the fourth is a constant reminder to keep competing through the ups and downs.
“The last one is perseverance,” Clemsen said. “And under that word it says, ‘Find a way,’ and our kids did a really, really good job at that.”