March 17, 2008
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Just a couple weeks ago, Purdue freshman wrestler Luke Manuel thought his season was over, having finished the regular season as the Boilermakers' back-up at 165 pounds. A coaching decision and conference tournament later, he finds himself heading to the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, Mo. for the NCAA Division I Championships next weekend.
Heading into the Big Ten Tournament, held last weekend at the University of Minnesota, the Boilermakers were ready to sent 2007 fourth-place conference finisher and NCAA qualifier Justin Fraga into battle. Just before leaving to Minneapolis, Fraga fell victim to an ankle injury and head coach Scott Hinkel was forced to decide between Fraga and his steady back-up, Manuel. Manuel had pieced together an impressive 22-6 record on the year, traveling to various tournaments and occasionally earning an appearance in a dual match to rest Fraga, but he lacked his starter's experience and quality opponents on the season. In the end, Hinkel went with Manuel and couldn't be happier with his eventual decision. Manuel went on to knock off a trio of seeded wrestlers, including a pair of ranked foes, en route to a third-place finish and automatic-qualifying bid to the national tournament.
"Luke is a great wrestler," said Hinkel. "I had no doubts that he would go up there and wrestle well, but finishing third and making the tournament is an outstanding accomplishment and we're incredibly happy for him and the program."
Meanwhile, Manuel is ecstatic about his recent success, and is just trying to live in the moment. "It's really exciting to be heading to the national tournament," he said. "To be wrestling among the nation's elite and have a shot at becoming an All-American is an honor in itself."
The Big Ten Tournament was an exceptional challenge for Manuel as he had to face five opponents he'd never seen before, but he stepped up to the task, compiling a 4-1 record on his way to the bronze medal. The early jitters got to the Boilermaker rookie as he dropped a troubling 14-6 major decision to third-seeded Tyler Safratowich of the host Golden Gophers in his championship opener.
"To be honest, I got a little rattled," said Manuel. "I was down on myself and got out of my head. It took some talking with my coaches and my dad to get me relaxed and refocused. By the time I got out there for my next match I had my head clear and was ready to go."
Manuel stormed back in the consolation bracket, upending seeded foes in three of the four matches and not surrendering a takedown the rest of the way. He started with a solid 6-2 decision over fourth-seeded and 12th-ranked Colt Sponseller of Ohio State, and moved on to the consolation semifinals with a 5-3 win over eventual 2008 NCAA qualifier Jake Donar of Wisconsin. Manuel outlasted 2007 All-American Matt Coughlin of Indiana in the consolation semifinals, battling his way to a 2-1 double-overtime tie-break victory, and closed out the tournament with a matching 2-1 win over Dave Rella of Penn State.
Despite his role as the Boilermaker back-up for most of the season, Manuel is no stranger to tournament-wrestling success. He has placed in every tournament he's visited this season, including championship performances at the Jim Fox Open and the NWCA National Wrestling Open. He also took home second place at the Eastern Michigan Open and placed eighth at the prestigious Midlands Championships, hosted by Northwestern University. While, his overall record is outstanding in itself, his individual statistics are equally impressive. In 33 matches, Manuel has surrendered just 17 takedowns (an average of 0.51 per match) and has only been turned once for a near fall. That combined with his 4-3 season record against the qualifying tournament field vaulted Manuel to the No. 17 spot in the USA Today/InterMat/NWCA Division I Coaches poll at 165 pounds.
"Luke's a guy who keeps himself prepared for any situation," said Hinkel. "He's constantly competing, heading to tournaments and wrestling opens at every opportunity, even when he's the only one going. That's why I knew when we needed to insert him in the lineup for Big Ten's, we'd be okay. I really have a good feeling that he'll bring the same level or preparation and competitiveness to the national tournament."
The Nevada City, Calif. native doesn't limit himself to success on the mat. Manuel is set to earn Academic All-Big Ten honors in his first season of eligibility for the prestige. He surpassed the required 3.0 grade point average as a Spanish major at Purdue and has been a large part of Hinkel's devotion to the team's increased academic success.
"I think it's important to be successful on both the athletic and academic fronts, and that's something that Coach Hinkel pushes on us," said Manuel. "It's simple in the long run; you can't wrestle if you don't have the grades. Coach tells us that, `Academics are what we're really here for,' and I'm taking advantage of that opportunity."
The future looks excessively bright for Manuel and he has shown all the signs of an outstanding and illustrious career at Purdue. However, all he can be sure of is the here and now, which places him on the national stage and his first shot at NCAA All-America honors. No matter what he thought just one week ago, Manuel's season isn't over and every collegiate wrestler's dream of climbing the national podium is within his grasp.