American wrestlers aiming for first NCAA title


American University is not a school with a rich athletic history.

Walk into Bender Arena, and take a look at the rafters. You'll find a bunch of Patriot League and Colonial Athletic Association championship banners. There are a few flags celebrating past berths in the NIT, and there's one for the 1985 men's soccer squad that made the NCAA championship game. Former NBA player Kermit Washington's number is retired, but that's about it as athletic history goes.

American certainly doesn't boast any national championships.

But take a detour through the Bender locker room, into the wrestling room, and you might just meet AU's first NCAA championship banner in the making.

"[A national title] would mean a lot to me," said Muzaffar Abdurakhmanov, visibly taken aback by the very idea of it. "I don't know how to explain it. It would be something special. National champion."

The Uzbekistani-born Abdurakhmanov, a perfect 18-0 this year and ranked No. 4 by the NWCA/InterMat rankings in the 165-pound weight class, is one of three top 10-ranked AU wrestlers, a first for the school. They all were recruited to American by head coach Mark Cody, who in just four years has invigorated a long-lifeless program.

Cody, a three-time All-American at Delhi College and Missouri, was a head assistant at powerhouse Oklahoma State and was regarded as one of the top upper-weights coaches in the nation when he was first contacted by American prior to the 2002-03 season.

Cody wasn't too fascinated at first with AU, where rumors circulated that the wrestling program would be cut. "After my first interview, I wasn't even really that interested in pursuing it," he said.

But promises of administration support convinced Cody to take a chance on forging his own program away from the comforts of the Big 12, where Cody had coached since 1987 (at Oklahoma State and Nebraska). And thus far, Cody said, the administration has kept its promise.

Arriving at a school with no discernible wrestling history, Cody set out to make an immediate impact with top recruits.

Enter Josh Glenn, a high school senior from Cody's hometown of Johnson City, N.Y. During Cody's first year at American, Glenn was recruited to be the foundation of AU's renaissance.

"What I was really looking for was a coach I could have a good relationship with," Glenn said of his recruiting process. "I knew Cody was a good coach, and I'd be able to trust and relate to him."

Many colleagues told Cody to start by recruiting a full roster of wrestlers and begin working from there. But Cody wanted to make a bigger splash with prized recruits like Glenn.

"If I fill up the wrestling room, that's great -- we have a full lineup and maybe we can win a couple of dual meets," he said. "But I wanted to do something on the national level, so I figured I'd go out and try to get some big-time recruits. We were able to do that, fortunately."

After a redshirt year and a season that landed him Freshman of the Year in the EIWA conference, Glenn now stands at the center of AU's squad, ranking No. 1 nationally in the 184-pound weight class with a 27-1 record and 16 pins.

A year after inking Glenn, Cody recruited two-time juco national champion 165-pounder Abdurakhmanov and heavily recruited high school heavyweight Adam LoPiccolo, who is currently ranked No. 9 (in the 285-pound weight class) by NWCA/InterMat. Together, the three wrestlers make up the best trio AU has ever boasted, and the best chance the school has to win a national championship.

Cody is hopeful for a strong showing this year to put AU on the map -- literally. "Last year at the NCAAs, we won a good amount of matches, and there were a lot of people asking 'Where is American University?'" he said. "Even when I would call recruits, they would ask me, 'Are you guys Division 1?'"

Making American a big name in wrestling circles was one of the reasons LoPiccolo chose the school.

"I could have gone to a big-time school like Minnesota or Arizona State and [become] part of [an existing] dynasty," LoPiccolo said. "I wanted to be a part of a program where when people look back, they'll say, 'They went from the worst team to one of the best.' I wanted to be one of those guys who helped forge the path."

Mark Cody's effect on the American wrestling program goes deeper than his recruits, though. Matt Pelligrino, who graduated in 2004, was one of the wrestlers recruited by the previous coaching staff who stayed on to wrestle under Cody.

"With coach Cody arriving that summer of 2004, everything changed," Pelligrino said. "He brought success, confidence and, most of all, leadership."

While some holdovers -- who, according to Pelligrino, "liked partying more than committing to wrestling" -- left the program, those who stayed blossomed under Cody's leadership, even though AU lost most dual meets because it did not have a full squad of wrestlers.

"He has instilled that confidence in everyone who has wrestled for him because they know that if they listen to everything he says, they are going to achieve their goals," Pelligrino said.

Cody's squad heads into the EIWA tournament this weekend with six wrestlers ranked in the top six of their weight class in the 13-school conference. Top finishers from the conference tournaments will move on to the NCAA championships, starting March 16 in Oklahoma City and near Cody's old stomping grounds of Stillwater.

Last year, Abdurakhmanov became American's first EIWA champion in its three-year tenure in the conference, and since-graduated Daniel Waters became the school's first All-American at the NCAAs, placing eighth. This year, Cody and the program are hopeful to take the next step into the winner's circle with a national championship.

"It seems like big strides," Cody said, "but if you're sitting in this chair, it feels like baby steps for all the time we've put into this."

Elliot Smilowitz is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C., area.