Though his sterling record remained intact, Boris Novachkov suffered a couple of losses over the summer between his junior and senior seasons.
The Cal Poly wrestler’s brother and lifelong training partner, Filip, graduated and moved on to the professional world, and the coaching staff that had guided Boris all the way to the NCAA Championship finals left town, too.
One was expected; the other wasn’t. But Novachkov now has a coach and training partner wrapped in one that can help take him back to the championship and beyond.
Former Olympic silver medalist Jamill Kelly joined first-year Mustangs head coach Brendan Buckley’s staff after Jon Azevedo retired and co-head coach Mark Perry left San Luis Obispo to become an assistant at Illinois before taking over there as the head coach.
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Kelly, an Oklahoma State graduate who captured second in the 145.5-pound weight class in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, turned out to be an ideal partner for the 141-pound Novachkov.
“I was really excited when I found out just because I wasn’t really sure what kind of coaches we were going to get,” Novachkov said. “So, it’s good news. And I knew that he had a lot of experience.”
Kelly often trains 1-on-1 with Novachkov, imparting the nuances he learned as a former U.S. National and Olympic Trials champion along the way, and the Atwater native believes Boris has a wrestling future beyond college.
“The sky’s the limit,” Kelly said. “I think his style is kind of like a European style that most of the world competes in anyway. It’s not going to be a difficult transition for him at all, and I think he’ll have immediate success in that field.”
“He’s got a real high wrestling I.Q. He’s got a real good sense of where he is, and it allows him to just have a better kind of natural success and to be a little creative in the things he does to look to score.”
Though Novachkov is 7-0 and ranked No. 2 in the nation by every major poll so far this season, the first true test of his new training will come with this weekend’s Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational, one of a handful of annual tournaments that pundits can use as a gauge for the national championships.
The event will also be big for ranked Cal Poly returners such as Ryan DesRoches, Ryan Smith and Atticus Disney and all the way down the lineup off grapplers such as walk-on freshman Elijah Jackson of Atascadero High.
DesRoches (6-0) is a two-time NCAA qualifier ranked No. 7 by InterMat. The senior 165-pounder is aiming to be an All-American this season. Smith (4-1), a senior 197-pounder ranked as high as 15th, is hoping to do the same by returning to the NCAA Championships for the second straight season.
Disney (1-0) is a junior heavyweight ranked as high as 25th, and at 1-0, Jackson is the least experienced Mustangs grappler heading to Las Vegas.
“He’s really talented,” Buckley said of the former Greyhound. “He’s very athletic. He’s explosive and strong. He’s aggressive, which is really important. Sometimes guys come out and they’re really tentative when they’re younger. I think it’s going to be a good opportunity to test himself at this level.
“This weekend will be very revealing for us as a coaching staff. It will show how we compete at the national level against really strong competition because that has not really taken place yet.”
Still, of the Cal Poly wrestlers, the most eyes will be on Novachkov, who placed second at the Keen Invitational last season, falling 3-2 in the finals to Kellen Russell of Michigan.
Novachkov’s only other loss also came 3-2 to Russell in the NCAA Championship final.
Michigan is also scheduled to be in Las Vegas, but Russell, a fifth-year senior atop the national rankings, might not compete.
Russell bowed out of an exhibition event that would have pitted him against Novachkov in mid-November. Novachkov dispatched No. 4 Zack Kemmerer of Penn, 4-0, instead. The Wolverines’ grappler could miss this weekend with an injury, but whether he sees Russell on the mat or not, Novachkov is determined not to lose at all this season.
Some tutelage from Kelly could be the small difference between two near-identical one-point losses that denied Novachkov the chance to be a defending national champion.
“I feel like at the highest level, little things help,” Novachkov said. “He’s taught me little techniques in different positions, not really new moves or anything but small changes he’s been showing me that have been working.”