Oakley grapples with more success as conference champ for Appalachian State

Wheatmore graduate Ethan Oakley became a Southern Conference champion earlier this month. (Photo courtesy of Appalachian State athletics)


Wheatmore alum heads back to NCAA championships


Ethan Oakley keeps checking off goals as a college wrestler for Appalachian State.

NCAA championships qualifier. Conference champion.

The Wheatmore alum is heading back to the NCAAs for the second year in a row after riveting results to win a Southern Conference championship.

“I wanted to achieve what I did, but I wasn’t sure I would,” Oakley said. “Unreal, I finally did it.”

He captured the 133-pound league title earlier this month.

This has been a process for Oakley, a three-time state champion in high school. He’s in his fourth season in the Appalachian State program, though he’s competing as a redshirt sophomore.

He has been determined to make breakthroughs on college mats.

“I just had to stay the course,” he said. “You get up here and you stick with the course. It helps you get to another level.”

He’ll be one of five Mountaineers in the NCAA championships that run from Thursday through Saturday in Kansas City. Oakley, the No. 21 seed, opens the tournament against 12th-seeded Sam Latona, who’s the Atlantic Coast Conference runner-up from Virginia Tech.

Oakley holds a 26-7 record with five pins, one technical fall and four major decisions. He has the second-most wins on the team.

The last three victories produced the Southern Conference title.

Appalachian State’s Ethan Oakley, top, tangles with Campbell’s Dom Zaccone in the 133-pound championship bout in the Southern Conference Tournament. (Photo courtesy of Appalachian State athletics)

Oakley defeated top-seeded Dom Zaccone of Campbell by using a late takedown in the final second for a 5-4 victory in the title bout. Even after time expired, there were anxious moments because Campbell challenged the rulings from the final seconds.

“That was pretty crazy,” Oakley said. “I was kind of on the edge of my seat.”

Appalachian State coach JohnMark Bentley said Oakley had the right approach.

“You look at it on replay, I think there was 2, 1 seconds left, right at the buzzer,” Bentley said. “Just wrestling through all positions and never giving up until the very end.”

Bentley said that Oakley’s training and ability to follow a plan made a difference.

“We had actually trained that specific scenario,” the coach said. “Being down, 30 seconds on the clock, the guy has got a two-point lead. So you not only have to take him down, but you have to ride him out. We practiced it over and over and over again. I think he felt comfortable in that moment, knowing that he was prepared for it.”

And he should be better prepared for the return to the NCAA championships.

Oakley was an alternate last year for the NCAAs, and ended up with a spot on the bracket. He defeated North Dakota State’s McGwire Midkiff 5-3 before losing 123 to 2021 and 2022 national champion Roman Bravo-Young, the eventual runner-up, of Penn State. Oakley was eliminated by Rutgers’ Joe Heilmann, who posted a 7-4 victory.

“Last year was a whirlwind,” he said. “One of the dreams was to wrestle in that tournament. … Now I feel like I’ve got more experience just being used to the atmosphere. After the tournament was over, you realize that everybody is pretty much the same.”

This season has been different because Oakley, whose career record is 47-24, because he has been a staple in the Mountaineers’ lineup. This followed last summer when he was based in Boone to train.

He said he has benefited from regularly facing starters from opposing teams. He has sensed the improvement.

“Staying in positions that I’m good at,” he said.

In the Southern Conference Tournament, Oakley came from behind to win in the semifinals as well, edging Chattanooga’s Blake Boarman 5-4. That final takedown came in the final minute. In the quarterfinals, Oakley pinned Davidson’s Hale Robinson in 5:48.

The host Mountaineers racked up 114 points to runner-up Campbell’s 97½ points among eight teams March 9 at Holmes Center in Boone.

Oakley has been on top before heading to Appalachian State. He won a high school state championship as a Providence Grove freshman before spending the next three seasons at Wheatmore and winning state titles as a junior and senior.

Oakley, who turns 22 in April, is set to graduate in May with a degree in business administration. He said he’ll apply to graduate school with the intent to use his final two years of eligibility.

“The plan is to stay around and get a master’s degree,” he said. “I feel like I’ve been here so long, but there’s more to come.”

By Bob Sutton