Gaige Willis described being a redshirt freshman on the Edinboro wrestling team as being “unattached.”
“It’s like I’m part of the team, but I’m not,” the 2018 Pymatuning Valley graduate said. “I’m not even allowed to wear anything that associates with the team.”
Willis, who won Division III state championships his junior and senior years for the Lakers, is getting his first taste of the college wrestling experience with the Fighting Scots program.
In spite of the “unattached” feeling, Willis said the transition to his new life on campus, as well as to the Division I wrestling experience, is going smoothly.
“I’ve adjusted quick to it to be honest with you,” he said. “It feels a lot like home. I mean the practices. They’re way tougher than what I’ve had before, other than that it’s just another day in the office. I just have to get ready for the next tournament.”
While college redshirts don’t contribute directly to their programs, they are permitted to participate in selected tournaments and exhibition events.
Willis opened his college career strong, winning four of five bouts in the freshman-sophomore heavyweight bracket of the Michigan State University Open to grab third-place the weekend of Nov. 3 and 4.
“That entire tournament I was nervous as all heck,” he said. “It was my first tournament as a college wrestler. I didn’t know what to expect. I kind of expected what the competition was going to be like, but it was still something that had me pretty nervous”
Willis overcame the newcomer nerves, though, and won his first two matches, before falling in the semifinal round. He came back to win the next two to place third.
Though the 4-1 finish didn’t count in the team standings, Willis said getting his first college mat experience out of the way was a big plus.
“It boosted my confidence up a lot after that tournament,” he said. “It didn’t feel like I was putting enough into it. I felt like I could do more, so it boosted my confidence a lot and I’m looking forward to the rest of the season as well.”
Aside from his confidence, Willis will also look to boost his weight. He checked into the season opener at about 224 pounds, which he said made him “like the lightest guy there.”
“They wanted me at 230,” he said referring to a goal for his coaching staff. “But it didn’t happen, the goal for this year is to get me up to around 245-250 by the end of the year.”
Likewide, Edinboro coach Matt Hill said Willis seems to be adjusting to the college level very well.
“For anyone it’s a big jump from high school to college, the wrestling at this level is way more intense, wrestlers are way more aggressive,” Hill said. “Our goal for him right now is to get about 30 matches in. That will give him a good taste of what college wrestling’s all about. And it will give him time to get bigger and stronger.”
But does Willis have a problem with being unattached for a year?
“Not at all,” he said. “In fact I’m pretty happy about redshirting. It gives me a year to develop, to get stronger, faster, smarter.”
On Sunday, Willis went 1-2 in the Ohio Intercollegiate Open Wrestling Tournament at Case Western Reserve.