After Overcoming Adversity, Cowboy Wrestling Eyes NCAA Title
STILLWATER, Okla. – 35 is a big number in the world of college athletics.
Yet 35 is precisely the number that stands in front of the Oklahoma State wrestling program as it hunts its national-best 35th team title next Thursday through Saturday in Philadelphia.
The Cowboys have put themselves in a realistic position to challenge for the title and that in itself is the sign of a team that has overachieved this year.
Take the following points into consideration – Oklahoma State not only won this year’s Big 12 title competing without a returning All-American in injured heavyweight Alan Gelogaev, but it also did so by trotting out a lineup that consisted of five freshmen and a sophomore.
That doesn’t even take into account the fact that 125-pounder Jon Morrison spent part of the week leading up to the Big 12 Championships in the hospital with leg problems.
While overcoming substantial adversity to win perhaps the toughest conference in the country was an important step in the development of this particular group of Cowboys, the Pokes have now moved forward and set their sights on the Championships.
Coach John Smith said the Cowboys’ chief competition at this year’s Championships will likely come from Cornell, Penn State and Iowa and if things go right, Boise State, Minnesota and Oklahoma could also get into that top-tier mix.
“I think we’re going to see a championship tournament that could come down to five or six All-Americans,” Smith said. “Where those All-Americans finish is going to determine the championship. You have got to have some guys on the podium up high because that’s what scores points. On the podium down low doesn’t score very many points.”
As it stands going into the tournament, Oklahoma State has five wrestlers seeded to finish as All-Americans. Top-seeded 133-pounder Jordan Oliver leads the way, followed by second-seeded 197-pounder Clayton Foster. Jamal Parks earned the fifth seed at 149 pounds and Dallas Bailey is seeded sixth at 165 pounds. Chris Perry rounds out the group with the No. 7 seed at 184 pounds.
Also seeded at the tournament, but not as All-Americans, are No. 9 Jon Morrison at 125 pounds and No. 12 Mike Benefiel at 174 pounds. 141-pounder Josh Kindig, 157-pounder Neil Erisman and heavyweight Blake Rosholt will compete without the benefit of a seed.
As Smith noted earlier, it’s one thing to place as an All-American, but another thing to secure the big team points by placing as a high All-American.
“We have to have our best performance of the year to put ourselves in position to win a championship. When you look at where most of our guys are seeded, it’s in that lower range of six-to-15,” Smith said. “That’s not a lot of team points. We’re going to have to overachieve and I very much think that we can do that.”
When asked about the two wrestlers who earned at-large berths into the field – Morrison and Rosholt – Smith said their standards need to be higher than just being happy for making it into the brackets.
“From the standpoint of getting them experience – both of them are young – you love to take them to the Championships, but if that’s all they’re looking at, that’s all they’re going to get,” Smith said. “Both of them are going to have to wrestle above their heads to help the team. If you don’t win a match, you don’t help. It’s about getting excited and respecting the fact that you’re as good as anyone in the country. They need to make sure that when they step on the mat, they’re ready to show it.”
One wrestler who has proven during the course of the season that he is as good as anyone in the country is Oliver, who sports a 24-0 record. Only a sophomore, Oliver owns a 15-0 record all-time against the wrestlers competing in the 133-pound bracket.
“I think that fires them up. If you wrestle a guy two or three times and you have beaten him, he’s not going to come back the next time wanting to lose again,” Oliver said. “He’s going to come out fired up. I have to take it one match at a time. I’ve wrestled a lot of these guys before and I just have to do what I do best and that’s go out and wrestle.”
For Oliver, there is extra significance to this year’s Championships because they will be contested in Philadelphia, which is only one hour south of his hometown of Easton, Pa.
“It’s definitely going to be comfortable for me going home to wrestle for a national title. It’s where I grew up and it’s where a lot of my fans and supporters are,” Oliver said. “Just to be able to go home and wrestle for a national title in front of them is awesome and I’m very excited about it. It’s not just about an individual title though, because we’re also chasing the team title. To be able to do that in front of my hometown crowd is going to be awesome.”
While Oliver has gotten the bulk of the attention during the season thanks largely to his high-scoring style and boatload of bonus-point wins, Foster has also strung together a perfect record in 2010-11 with a 22-0 mark that includes 11 wins over ranked opponents. Similar to Oliver, Foster is 18-0 all-time against the 197-pound field at the Championships.
A senior co-captain of the team, Foster has the benefit of perspective on his side, as he did not qualify for the Championships as a freshman, yet has risen to the top of his weight class as his career has progressed. Foster was part of the team that placed 16th at the 2009 Championships, but has now morphed into one of this year’s title favorites.
“It’s crazy how much we’ve changed from when I was a freshman until now,” Foster said. “It’s hard to explain, but there are tougher guys on the team now than there were in my freshman year. There are more guys that are willing to work hard and put the complaining behind them.”
He said he has seen improvements in his own development as well.
“It’s night and day compared to when I was a freshman. I’m a lot tougher,” Foster said. “I have more technique and I’m more disciplined in my wrestling.”
Smith has often praised Foster for his blue-collar leadership style that doesn’t revolve around words, but rather about strong training habits and hard work.
“Clayton Foster got the No. 2 seed and it’s well-earned by his performance,” Smith said. “I believe he started off No. 9 in the country but has moved up to No. 2. Obviously that is overachieving and he has had performances that made people take notice.
“For Clayton here at the end, he just needs to lead his team the way he’s been doing all year long and that’s on the mat wrestling hard. He’s got a great gas tank and he can wrestle forever. It’s going to be an exciting time watching him perform.”
Though Foster and Oliver both have high seeds, Smith said that seeds won’t win or lose an title for the team. For the Cowboys to win the title, it’s going to come down to one thing – winning matches.
“In the end, you’re going to have to face somebody that’s pretty good,” Smith said. “Whether it’s in your first match or whenever, it doesn’t really matter a lot from the standpoint of being a team that needs to overachieve. We put ourselves in that position, but I believe that we’re getting ready to have our best tournament of the year.”