When Jason Morris takes his United States Olympic judo team to China this summer, he may be bringing some of his Jason Morris Judo Center students with him.
Fourteen JMJC members are ranked nationally in the top eight of their weight classes, which earns them automatic berths into next month’s U.S. team trials in Las Vegas. Two of them Jeremy Liggett (Glenville) and Hannah Martin (Schenectady) are Capital District natives, while the rest hail from across the country.
Morris said he’s happy to be bringing a large contingent from his Glenville center to the U.S. team trials.
`There won’t be a group message,` said Morris. `There will be a lot of individual messages because everybody is young, and they’re at different parts of their careers.`
How young? Six of the 14 JMJC students currently in contention for the trials have not reached their 20th birthdays yet. Two of them ` Angela Creutzberger and Kyle Vashkulat ` are 17 years old.
`From the time I started, I always wanted to (go to the Olympics), but it didn’t seem possible,` said Creutzberger, who joined JMJC last year after moving from New Jersey to Morris’ Glenville home. `Now that I’m here, I want it so bad.`
`I’m still young, and I know I have a lot ahead of me,` added Vashkulat, who moved to the United States from Ukraine seven years ago. `Of course it would be great to make the team, but I’m going for the experience.`
Creutzberger (48 kilograms), Vashkulat (100kg) and much of the rest of the JMJC members currently ranked in the top eight will have no room for error at the team trials. Unless they’re ranked No. 1 in their weight classes, a loss will knock them out of contention. The top-ranked athletes in each weight class can lose once without being eliminated.
`It’s a comfortable position,` said JMJC member Travis Stevens, who is ranked No. 1 nationally in the 81kg weight class. `I feel pretty confident and comfortable going on the mat and competing with anybody, especially with Jason as my coach.`
`I’m very excited to be No. 1,` added Katie Mocco, the top-ranked woman in the 78kg division. `You’re protected in a way. You can make a mistake and lose, and you can still come back and win.`
Liggett could have had that safety net had he stayed in the men’s 60kg division, where he was ranked No. 1 nationally. But the 2007 Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School graduate moved up to the 66kg division this season, where he is currently ranked No. 4.
`It was getting hard (to stay at 60kg), and I figured I’m only 18 and 66kg is where I’d wind up anyway,` said Liggett. `So, why not make the change now?`
While being ranked No. 1 adds a safety net, it doesn’t take the pressure off the athletes. Still, Stevens and Mocco feel confident going into the Olympic team trials.
`I’ve faced every one (of the top eight) before at least once and some of them as much as five times before,` said Stevens, a Washington state native. `As long as they haven’t picked up anything new in terms of moves, I should know everything about them.`
`I don’t expect there to be any huge surprises,` said Mocco, a New Jersey native. `I definitely have my work cut out for me, but I know what I have to do.`
The others have their work cut out for them if their rankings don’t change, but those JMJC athletes on the cusp of the top spot ` including Nick Kossor (No. 2, 60kg), Carrie Chandler (No. 2, 57kg) and Justin Flores (No. 2, 66kg) ` know all it takes is a good series of performances to earn them a berth on the Olympic team.
`I’m pretty confident that if I listen to my coaches, I can do well,` said Kossor, a Philadelphia native who has been with the JMJC team since 2002. `I’m not worried about the competition.`
Indeed, some of the toughest competition may come from within JMJC. Flores and Liggett are both contenders in the men’s 66kg division, while Chandler and Martin could face off against each other in the women’s 57kg weight class.
`It’s going to be hard when that comes around,` said Martin, who is currently ranked third in the women’s 57kg division.
Morris is doing what he can to prevent a Martin-Chandler battle. `I’m trying to move Hannah (Martin) into the next division because Hannah and Carrie are two of the top women overall in the nation,` he said.
No matter what happens with his JMJC athletes at the Olympic team trials, Morris said he’s confident that the team he brings to China will be one of the best the U.S. has sent to the quadrennial sporting event. He cautioned that might still not mean a big medal haul, though.
`Our level of talent is higher than it’s ever been. Unfortunately for the U.S. but fortunately for the sport, (the talent level has) also improved worldwide,` said Morris, a four-time Olympian himself.
And given that many of the 14 JMJC athletes currently in line to make the team trials are 24 or younger, this won’t be the last time they will have a shot at the Olympics.
`2008 feels like it’s the beginning because I’m so young,` said the 19-year-old Martin. `I know I have 2012 and hopefully 2016, if I last that long.“