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Anderson, Gardner-Webb’s first Scuffle champ, hopes to make bigger news at the NCAAs

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Updated: January 19, 2024

Photo: Gardner-Webb’s Jha’Quan Anderson (left) not only became his school’s first Southern Scuffle finalist, but also beat Clarion’s Cameron Pine for the 197-pound title. (Sam Janicki photo)

By Tristan Warner

Jha’Quan Anderson did not believe he was good enough to wrestle Division I.

A native of Conyers, Ga., the two-time state runner-up was in search of a Division II program to call home when Gardner-Webb head coach Daniel Elliott came knocking.

“Coach Elliott had a lot of faith in me as a high school athlete,” Anderson recollected. “Personally, I didn’t have as much faith in myself as the coaches did. I took a risk and thought maybe I could come do something for myself here on the DI level because they believed in me so much.”

Fast forward five seasons and Anderson has done that and more.

Already a two-time NCAA qualifier for the Runnin’ Bulldogs, the fifth-year senior grad student flipped the calendar to 2024 with authority by capturing the prestigious Southern Scuffle crown at 184 pounds in Chattanooga’s McKenzie Arena on January 2.

Entering the tournament as a No. 4 seed, Anderson exhibited maturity, discipline, and experience by coming out on top in three consecutive nail-biters to claim the championship.

Anderson defeated top-seeded Giuseppe Hoose of Oklahoma, 4-2, in the semis before a takedown in the waning seconds of regulation lifted the Bulldog over Clarion’s Cameron Pine, 4-2, in the finals.

“It feels amazing, but I am trying to look past it because it is only January,” he said. “We still have the rest of the season to go, so I don’t want this to be the pinnacle of my season. It feels great when I bask in the moment, but we are still competing. There is not as much time as you would think to just sit back and enjoy it. I still want to be an All-American.”

This story appeared in the January issue of WIN Magazine. Click on the cover or call 888-305-0606 to subscribe.

Anderson also pointed out how, even in triumph, the Southern Scuffle exposed some of his past hindrances that he plans to focus on improving in preparation for attacking his postseason goals.

“I have a tendency to wait to score until the end of matches,” Anderson reflected. “The skills are there. But, I just need to let it fly. I need to fire off attacks in the first, second and third periods. I believe I can score on anyone in the country if I get in on the leg. Coach Elliott always talks about output; I need more output from start to finish.”

Anderson has his sights set on qualifying for his third NCAA Championships this March, but he plans to do it on his own this time without the oversight of the NCAA committee.

Ironically, his berths and birthdays overlapped in 2021 and 2023, as both his appearances at the NCAA Championships came via an at-large bid and the timing of the announcements made the news even more special.

“In 2021 and 2023, I found out I was getting an at-large bid on my birthday both times,” Anderson proudly recalled. “There is no feeling like finding out you made it, and even though that was special, this year I want to win the SoCon title and qualify on my own.”

He believes his first two trips to Nationals provided him with invaluable experience and bolstered the confidence he has in himself and also the Gardner-Webb program as a whole.

“Being at the NCAA tournament is amazing because you’re around the best coaches and wrestlers in the nation, and you realize you are among them. Once you make it, it is not far-fetched anymore. Even though we are a small school, we are on this level, and we belong here. We are the underdogs, but we belong there with everyone else.”

Further, while much talk is made in the world of collegiate athletics about resources, NIL, conferences, etc., and despite having already defeated numerous Power-5 opponents over his career, Anderson does not concern himself with those things.

“I don’t even think about other schools,” he laughed. “When it comes to resources, we have everything we need to accomplish what we want to accomplish. I don’t believe I am disadvantaged in any way compared to my opponents.”

Having secured his undergraduate degree in exercise science and poised to receive a master’s degree in strength and conditioning upon the completion of an internship this summer, Anderson plans to work as a strength coach and even aspires to launch a professional wrestling career.

But until then, Elliott’s prized upper weight, who has more or less become the face of the Runnin’ Bulldogs program the last few seasons, wants to savor the final months of his collegiate career while leaving the underclassmen with a precedent to surpass someday.

“We are building a culture here. The past four years, you can see our trend increase. It is about leadership and culture. Any prospect out there should want to be a part of a program that is building like we are. We have a lot of young hitters coming up, and I am excited to watch them even after my career ends.”