The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged us all for the last 12 months. American International College senior Jo Jo Gonzalez is no different.
Due to the pandemic and efforts to keep people safe and healthy, the AIC wrestling didn’t have a single meet this season. The Yellowjackets took a 17-day break in January and February from working out to try and contain and minimize the spread of the virus on their Springfield campus. “Everything was shut down,” AIC head coach Rich Hasenfus said.
When it was safe to work out again in mid-February, the Yellowjackets had nine days left to prepare for the NCAA Division II Super Regional tournament with just the tournament champion getting a bid to the NCAA Division II national tournament in St. Louis.
In his first matches of the season, Gonzalez won the Super Regional at 165 pounds on Feb. 28 to secure his berth to the national tournament for the third consecutive season.
A little undersized for 165 pounds, Gonzalez went 3-2 to finish seventh and earn All-American honors on Saturday in St. Louis – the first Connecticut wrestler to earn All-American honors at the NCAA Div. II tournament since 2013 when Nebraska-Kearney’s Brock Coutu finished third at 141 pounds.
“It was exciting to see what he accomplished,” Hasenfus said. “But it was a little disappointing because he should have been in the finals.”
Two days after the meet and Hasenfus was still annoyed with the official that called Gonzalez for stalling twice in the span of 15 seconds that cost him in a 2-1 loss to Gannon (Pa.) University’s Alex Farenchak in the quarterfinals.
Gonzalez beat Farenchak in the regional finals with a pin but both battled in their quarterfinal match. It was 1-1 with 1:15 remaining when Gonzalez was penalized. Farenchak ended up in the finals and finished second.
Gonzalez (6-2) earned All-American status with a dominant 18-7 win over James Penfold of Lake Erie College (Painesville, Ohio) in the consolation round. Gonzalez had six takedowns and a four-point near fall.
But in the consolation semifinal, No. 1 seed Devin Fitzpatrick of St. Cloud State (Minnesota) took advantage of a few mistakes and earned a 21-6 win. No one in his weight class wrestled as few matches before the tournament than Gonzalez. Fitzpatrick was 8-1 before the tournament.
Gonzalez finished seventh with a dominant 11-3 win over Braydon Huber of the University of St. Mary’s in Leavingworth, Kansas. In the first 24 seconds of the match, he had a 6-0 lead thanks to a takedown and a four-point near fall. Thanks to a reversal and another takedown, he led 10-2 after two periods.
“It was one of the most impressive accomplishments I’ve seen since I have been wrestling,” Hasenfus said of Gonzalez’s performance. “We had no (dual meet) schedule. Going into the Super Regional, we were one of two teams with no matches. (Gonzalez) beats the No. 3 kid in the country (Farenchak) to win the regional.”
Gonzalez was also wrestling up a weight class. A year ago, he was 38-6 with the most wins in the country at 157 pounds. He went 7-3 against Division I opponents with five pins in 2020.
Hasenfus considered letting Gonzalez cut weight to get to 157 but with limited practice time before the Super Regional, they decided to keep Gonzalez strong and move up to 165.
Gonzalez is the second AIC wrestler to earn multiple All-American honors. A year ago, he was named All-American by the National Wrestling Coaches Association (NWCA) after the NCAA cancelled the Division II championship meet in early March. Mike Mitchell was a two-time All-American at 174 pounds in 2000 and 2001.
Among the All-Americans in AIC history is Gonzalez’s high school coach at Ellis Tech in Danielson. Rafael Calixto earned All-American honors at 126 pounds in 1997.
Gonzalez will have another chance next year. With the NCAA providing wrestlers with an extra year of eligibility due to COVID, Gonzalez is planning on returning next year, Hasenfus said.
“He can go either weight next year (157 or 165). He will be a threat to win at either weight class,” Hasenfus said.
Gonzalez, who was a two-time State Open and New England champion for Ellis Tech in 2016 and 2017, is majoring in criminal justice.
St. Cloud State beat Nebraska-Kearney by 1½ point to win the tightest D2 team race wince 2008 with a 107 to 105½ victory. St. Cloud won their fifth Division II title in the last six years. AIC was 27th in the field of 30 teams with 9½ points.