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UALR wrestler's NCAA bid a breakthrough for program

by Eli Lederman | March 17, 2021 at 2:42 a.m.

When University of Arkansas at Little Rock wrestling Coach Neil Erisman halted practice March 9 to call a team huddle, senior Paul Bianchi figured he and his teammates were in trouble.

"I thought [Erisman] was going to yell at all of us for not warming up good enough," Bianchi said. "It's happened before."

Instead, Erisman sported a grin as he announced to his team that Bianchi -- who wrestles in the 133-pound weight class -- had received one of the 64 at-large bids to the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships.

The selection etched Bianchi a place in history as the first UALR wrestler to qualify for the postseason event after the program began in 2019. Seconds after Erisman delivered the news, Bianchi was mobbed by teammates as the emotion washed over him.

"I'd been in this position of waiting on a bid before, and when you don't get the call it's devastating," he said. "It was a relief to get the opportunity this year."

Bianchi will arrive at the championships inside the Enterprise Center in St. Louis on Thursday morning as the No. 29 seed in the 133-pound division. He'll face West Virginia freshman Ryan Sullivan (No. 20 seed) in the first round with a chance to advance to Thursday evening's second round. Coverage of the first round begins at 10 a.m. Central on ESPNU.

Bianchi enters the postseason with a team-high nine wins, including a pair of victories over ranked opponents in Oklahoma junior Anthony Madrigal and Stanford freshman Jason Miranda.

The 5-5 wrestler from Two Rivers, Wis., was ranked No. 26 in the NCAA coaches poll ahead of the PAC-12 Championships on Feb. 28. He bolstered his case for an at-large bid at the event in Corvallis, Ore., with a fourth-place finish.

Bianchi's 22 career wins make him the winningest wrestler in the program's brief history.

"He's been Mr. Consistent," Erisman said. "His attitude and mentality are what got him to this place."

Bianchi qualified for the NCAA championships as a freshman at North Dakota State in 2018, competing at the tournament that year in Cleveland, the same weekend UALR used the event to announce its plans to start a wrestling program. The allure of joining a program in its infancy drew Bianchi to the Trojans after his freshman season.

He led UALR with a record of 13-7 in the program's inaugural campaign in 2019-20 before narrowly missing out on an at-large bid at the end of it. He returned this season with a focus on making the most of each appearance on the mat.

His sharpened edge showed as Bianchi followed two losses to open the season with eight wins in the Trojans' next nine duals.

"We knew there were some things I didn't capitalize on last year that came back to haunt me at the end of the year," Bianchi said. "So every time I wrestled this year, I tried to make every match pretty important and tried to do the best I could."

UALR's second season on the mat has included the program's first Division I win over Fresno State on Jan. 24, and the Trojans' first conference victory, which came against CSU-Bakersfield later that same day.

But Bianchi's milestone ranks as the most significant.

"This represents that it can be done," Erisman said. "One part of the steppingstone to being a national champion or All-American is that you have to be in it to win it. This showed a lot of these young guys that they're capable of doing it."

During his first postseason appearance in 2018, Bianchi said he could "barely breathe" due to nerves, only to realize afterward it was no different than any other match. In St. Louis, he expects a sense of calm when he steps onto the mat.

"I know I'm going to be more ready to go this time around," he said.


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