Cowboys Aim for West Regional Repeat

March 3, 2011

Laramie, Wyo.

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On the Slate
The Wyoming wrestling team sets its sight on a second consecutive team title when the Cowboys travel to Colorado Springs, Colo., on Sunday for the NCAA West Regional tournament hosted by Air Force. With all seven Western Wrestling Conference members represented, the event will also serve as the conference championship.

The last two regional tournaments have been decided between UW and Northern Iowa by a total of two points and this years could be that close again. The Cowboys snapped the Panther's 24-year win streak at the event last season, but UNI handed UW its first WWC dual loss under head coach Mark Branch on Feb. 20. A total of 15 wrestlers from the tournament will automatically qualify for the NCAA Championships later this month in Philadelphia, Pa. Brackets for the regional will be released on Saturday night following the seeding meeting.

Fans can follow the action with live stats through, while free live video for the finals round (first/second and third/fourth) will be available on Tickets can be purchased by calling the Air Force Athletics Ticket Office at (719) 472-1895 or at the door.

History at the West Regional
Sunday will be the 11th year the Cowboys have competed at the West Regional and fifth year it has been combined with the WWC. In 2009, Wyoming won the dual season title with a perfect 5-0 WWC record, but finished second to UNI at the regional by one and half points. Last year UW posted a 6-0 dual record and edged the Panthers by half a point to claim the regional team title.

UW has earned 20 individual championships at the West Regional tournament, including four in 2009 and three last season. Joe LeBlanc, Shane Onufer and Michael Martinez will shoot for three-straight individual titles at this year's tournament. LeBlanc was also named last year's WWC Wrestler of the Year.

Last year UW Wins West Regional, Breaks UNI 24-Year Streak
In unusual and exciting fashion, the Wyoming Wrestling team qualified three individuals for the 2010 NCAA Championships and won the NCAA West Regional title on March 6, 2010, in Brookings, S.D., on the campus of South Dakota State.

A trio of UW sophomores won their brackets and earned automatic bids to the national tournament. Michael Martinez was the victor at 125 pounds, Shane Onufer at 165 and Joe LeBlanc at 184. The Cowboys also got a second-place finish from Cory VomBaur (133) and three third-place winners: Jimmy Belleville (157), Alfonso Hernandez (197) and L.J. Helbig (Hwt.).

As a team, the `Pokes came from behind and won the West Regional team title by a half point over the 24-time defending champion Northern Iowa Panthers. It is Wyoming's first-ever West Regional team title and UW's first tournament conference championship team since 1992. The Cowboys concluded the event with 75 points, Northern Iowa had 74.5, and North Dakota State was third with 44.5.

Entering the final matches in the heavyweight division, the `Pokes trailed the Panthers by a half point. UNI's Christian Brantley won his match, but so did UW's Helbig, only Helbig pinned his opponent which gave Wyoming the necessary bonus points to jump in front of Northern Iowa to end the night.

Qualifying for the NCAA Championships
The NCAA announced on Feb. 23 the West Regional has earned 15 automatic bids, as the new qualifying system for the national tournament is in its third season. The conference's 15 spots are one more than last season and two more than the 2008-09 campaign. Wrestlers earn bids for each weight class of each conference tournament based on several factors, including ranking in the coaches' poll, record and strength of schedule. Below is a breakdown of the allocation of bids to each weight class.

  • 125 pounds: 2
  • 133 pounds: 1
  • 141 pounds: 2
  • 149 pounds: 2
  • 157 pounds: 2
  • 165 pounds: 1
  • 174 pounds: 1
  • 184 pounds: 2
  • 197 pounds: 1
  • Heavyweight: 1

Wrestlers who do not claim one of automatic bids will still have a chance to make the NCAA Championships, when the final 48 at-large bids are announced on March 9. Those qualifiers are selected by the NCAA wrestling committee and make each weight class at the national tournament consist of 33 wrestlers.

Scouting the Opponents
The West Regional team race should come down to the Cowboys and Panthers again. UNI had earned 24 straight titles before UW's half-point victory last year.

The Panthers are forecasted to finish 37th in the NCAA tournament by InterMat with three wrestlers ranked in the top 20. UNI is paced by redshirt freshman Ryan Loder, who is ranked eighth at 184 pounds. Junior Christian Brantley is 15th at heavyweight and sophomore David Bonin is 19th at 157.

Utah Valley and North Dakota State each have two wrestlers in the top 20. Wolverine senior Ben Kjar is ranked 15th at 125 and fellow senior Flint Ryan is 13th one weight class up. Bison sophomore Trent Sprenkle has climbed to 14th at 125 and senior Vince Salminen is 18th at 157. Northern Colorado senior Justin Gaethje and Air Force sophomore Cole VonOhlen round out the WWC wrestlers in the rankings at 18th at 125 and 10th at 141, respectively.

Last Time Out: UW Drops Dual At Northern Iowa
The Wyoming Cowboy wrestling program suffered its first conference setback of the season Sunday, falling to Northern Iowa on the road, 19-13, on Feb. 20. Wyoming, 11-7 overall and 5-1 in Western Wrestling Conference action, was seeking its third-straight regular-season title. The Panthers and Cowboys, both unbeaten in conference prior to Sunday, battled for the regular season WWC title, a crown the teams shared during the 2009 season. In the previous four seasons of WWC action, either UNI, Wyoming or both have won the regular-season title. It was Wyoming coach Mark Branch's first conference dual loss in his three-year tenure. The Cowboys' last loss in WWC action was in 2008.

No. 15 Michael Martinez fell to Caleb Flores in the 125-pound match in a 5-3 decision. After that, UNI took a 3-0 team lead. But Tyler Cox tied things up with a 5-4 decision in the 133-pound match, beating Northern Iowa's Ryan Jauch. Chase Smith lost at 141 pounds, dropping a 5-3 decision to Joey Lazor. No. 17 Cole Dallaserra then dropped a 6-3 decision to Brett Robbins, and Jimmy Belleville lost a tough 8-7 decision to No. 19 David Bonin at 157 pounds. After those matches, Northern Iowa took a 12-3 lead in the dual.

The Pokes came storming back though, as No. 11 Shane Onufer picked up a 10-2 major decision at 165 pounds over Trevor Kittleson, and Patrick Martinez won a 10-6 decision over Brice Wolf at 174 pounds to make it 12-10 UNI. No. 5 Joe LeBlanc then defeated No. 7 Ryan Loder at 184 pounds with an escape with 17 seconds remaining in the match for a 6-5 decision. LeBlanc's win gave Wyoming a 13-12 lead with two matches to go.

L.J. Helbig dropped a 10-2 major decision to Andy O'Loughlin at 197 to give UNI a 16-13 lead heading into the final match of the day, the heavyweight battle. Matthew McLaughlin battled 13th-ranked Christian Brantley to a 1-1 tie, but Brantley scored a point for riding time to take a 2-1 decision.

The Century Club
One Wyoming wrestler has joined the century club with over 100 career wins, while another is very close. Junior Joe LeBlanc reached the mark on Feb. 3 against Air Force and now sports a 106-15 career record. He is four wins short of tying Reese Andy (1992-96) for seventh on UW's all-time list. Junior Shane Onufer is just two wins shy of the century club with a 98-20 career record. Both are quickly approaching UW's all-time falls list as well. Onufer has 29 and LeBlanc has 25 to trail eighth-place Wes Gasner (1982-84) with 33.

Versus the Western
En route to earning a 5-1 dual mark in the Western Wrestling Conference, UW's 10 projected starters have compiled a 68-24 record versus MWC foes. The mark includes a perfect 9-0 record from junior Shane Onufer and 6-0 from fellow junior Joe LeBlanc.

Checking the Rankings
With the conclusion of the dual season, most of the team polls have switched and now rank programs based on their projected finish at the NCAA Championships later this month. In the three major polls, InterMat ranks Wyoming No. 30, while WIN magazine has the Cowboys at No. 24 and Amateur Wrestling News has UW 20th. Individually, four Cowboys rank in InterMat's top 20 of their respective weight class. Joe LeBlanc is fifth and Shane Onufer is 11th, while Michael Martinez is 17th and Cole Dallaserra is 19th.

Up Next
The Cowboys will travel to Philadelphia, Pa., for the 2011 NCAA Championships. This year's event will be hosted by Rider University in the Wells Fargo Center on March 17-19. Four UW wrestlers qualified for nationals last year.