Nov. 9, 2010
LARAMIE, Wyo. -
Often, after a successful year, college teams must reload to make up for the loss of key contributors who have left by way of graduation.
In 2010-11, the Wyoming Cowboy Wrestling team has not only replaced their missing components from last year's squad, but they have increased their inventory at nearly every weight class and expectations continue to rise even higher for the resurgent program.
The `Pokes return 10 letterwinners this season, two-time All-American Joe LeBlanc, NCAA qualifiers Michael Martinez and Shane Onufer, and they show a deep roster which includes 11 true freshmen, five redshirt freshmen and multiple transfers.
Several of the newcomers have the ability to come in and make an immediate impact for the UW team. Youngsters such as Jimmy Belleville, Tyler Cox, L.J. Helbig and Patrick Martinez could step onto the national stage this year.
Mark Branch is in his third year as head coach of a Wyoming team that concluded last season by winning its first-ever NCAA West Regional Team Championship, defending its regular-season dual title in the Western Wrestling Conference and earning a No. 25 national ranking in the National Wrestling Coaches Association/USA Today poll. Wyoming had an overall season record of 12-3, 6-0 in the WWC.
"We have a lot of unknown variables on our team this year, but I feel really good about our potential," observed Branch. "We've got to take those unknowns that we have and continue to surprise people.
"When we started this thing two years ago our priorities were to get the program set in the right direction and establish the way that the program would be run. We wanted to create fan interest, not only within the Wyoming community, but around the national wrestling community as well.
"Those are all things that we have accomplished. We have earned respect from coaches and sports writers around the country who are noticing us, but from the very beginning we have talked about moving to a different level.
"We want to challenge to bring home trophies from the national tournament, so when you are talking about that kind of success it is not going to happen overnight. There is no doubt that we have raised the bar and stepped up to another level, but last year is last year and we can celebrate it, but we want more."
A fair amount of success and national recognition during the past few years have resulted in 2010-11 preseason team rankings for the Cowboy Wrestling program.
Four national, wrestling-specific media organizations have recently released their preseason lists of the top-25 teams at the NCAA DI level, and the `Pokes were included in each of those rankings.
InterMat has the `Pokes in a tie for 17th, Amateur Wrestling News ranked Wyoming at No. 22, WIN Magazine placed the Cowboys in a three-way tie for 21st, while The Open Mat web site has UW at No. 22.
"That is about where I thought we would be to begin this year," shared Branch. "Rankings are for the fans at this point, so from a fan standpoint it's good to see Wyoming in the Top 25.
"We have had to work long and hard to get noticed the last couple years, and it's nice to be on the radar from the beginning. I think that will help us out.
"The fact that we've earned some respect is good, but now we need to go out and earn a different kind of respect at a higher level. We are not just wanting to be in the rankings, we want to be right up there with the big boys."
Despite the fact that UW returns the majority of its' contributors from last season, the Cowboys' lineup will have a new look this season due to some prominent weight changes and the infusion of several newcomers.
LeBlanc will anchor the `Pokes at 184 pounds where his quest for a national championship will continue in earnest. He is picked in the preseason polls as the No. 2 wrestler in the nation at that weight, an unacceptable spot for the driven UW junior.
Both Michael Martinez and Onufer, each two-time West Regional champions and two-time NCAA qualifiers, will be making weight class changes this season.
Martinez will start the year by moving up a weight class from 125 to 133 pounds, while Onufer will go in the opposite direction and will move down from 165 to 157 pounds. Martinez wrestled his first two seasons at 125, while Onufer has dropped down from 174 as a freshman and 165 as a sophomore.
Looking at the rest of the lineup: redshirt freshman Cox should entertain UW fans at 125, several guys will factor in at 141, sophomore Belleville or senior Cole Dallaserra are solid options at 149, Patrick Martinez could turn heads at 165 as a redshirt freshman, junior Dallas Hintz or sophomore Michael Poulos should fill in nicely at 174, Helbig is poised to have a breakout sophomore year at 197 and senior Bubba McLaughlin will be a threat at heavyweight.
As is customary with Branch's coaching philosophy, the UW head man hopes not to have to rely on any true freshmen at any of the ten weight classes, giving them the benefit of a redshirt year. However several first-year `Pokes, such as Mike Hamel (141), Brandon Richardson (149/157) and Zach Zehner (133) will push the older incumbents at their slots.
When looking at UW's 2010-11 schedule, a variety of wrestling styles and competitive surroundings will face the Cowboy Wrestling program this coming season.
Keeping with the approach that a high-level of competition will best prepare the `Pokes for the 2011 postseason, Branch has slated a good mix of tournaments and duals which will challenge his team.
Wyoming will host four duals in Laramie, one of which will be the Cornhuskers from Nebraska on Dec. 4, as well as a neutral site match-up against Oregon State in Casper on Dec. 16.
UW will also put on their annual home tournament, the Cowboy Open on Nov. 13, and is scheduled to dual both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State on the road in mid-February.
Rounding out their body of work, the Cowboys will participate in the prestigious Virginia Duals, Jan. 7-8, as well as nationally renowned open tournaments in both Omaha and Reno, Nov. 20 and Dec. 19, respectively.
"We try to change our schedule up every year so we can expose our athletes to as many competitive environments as possible," stated Branch. "By attending the Virginia Duals this year we will hit some teams from the East, and between our home events and the dual with Oregon State in Casper, our local fans will get to see some top-notch wrestling.
"Then, wrestling two Top-10 teams on the road in February will present the type of atmosphere that we need to prepare for conference and NCAAs."
The Cowboys will have a chance to qualify for the NCAA National Tournament by earning automatic bids at the West Regional Tournament and WWC Championship, March 6, 2010 in Colorado Springs, Colo.
This year's NCAA Wrestling Championships will be held March 17-19 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pa.
"With our schedule this season, we have the opportunity to go head-to-head with some of the best schools in the country," Branch said. "That will show us where we stand and we'll see if some of the new faces in our lineup are up to the challenge."
UW's head man concluded by saying, "We've got to go out and earn our place this season, and we certainly don't want it to be around 20th. That is not what we are shooting for. We are aiming higher.
"We want to get into the Top 10 instead of the Top 25, and even better. To do that we have stressed the fact that we can't go to the NCAA Tournament and pat ourselves on the back, like that's a goal that we've set for ourselves and that we are happy with that.
"Probably the biggest disappointment from last season is that we did not go to that next level, by sending more guys to the NCAA Tournament and performing better at that event. We brought back one All-American and I thought we had the potential to do better than that.
"This year we've tried to drive home the idea that becoming an NCAA qualifier should be a given, just a part of the season, not the highlight of the season. If we can sell that frame of mind, you'll see us make the next jump real quick."
Weight Class Breakdown
125 - The `Pokes will look to redshirt freshman Tyler Cox at this weight to begin the season, with two-time NCAA qualifier and NCAA West Regional champion, junior Michael Martinez making a jump up to 133. Cox wrestles an exciting style and if he can keep his weight up he could provide the front end of a valuable 1-2 punch for the Wyoming lineup. The option remains for Martinez to return to this weight if need be.
133 - UW lost Cory Vom Baur, a four-time NCAA qualifier at this weight to graduation, but the addition of Martinez in this slot could translate into more team points. Martinez will be the back end of two strong weight classes for the Cowboys and his health should benefit from the move to a more natural body weight.
Wyoming has much depth at this weight, as sophomore Kasey Garnhart is a valuable option and redshirt freshman Jake Eitzen shows promise. Freshman Zach Zehner will likely redshirt, but his talent will be tough to keep off of the mat in the future. Senior transfer Shane Doughman will look to help the Cowboys out in any way he can in the practice room.
141 - There are a lot of options for the UW coaching staff here, beginning with junior Chase Smith, who has two years of starting experience. Smith will be pushed by transfers McCade Ford and Conrad Snell, as well as redshirt freshman Kyle Komata, who has improved vastly. Ford is leaning toward taking his redshirt season.
The wild card at this weight could be true freshman Mike Hamel. As with most true freshmen, the first choice for Hamel might be a redshirt season, however his desire to contribute immediately might earn him some mat time if it is in the best interest of all involved.
149 - Senior Cole Dallaserra and sophomore Jimmy Belleville give the `Pokes two very strong options at this weight. Dallaserra has three years of starting experience, ranging from 141 to 157, while Belleville is coming down a weight class after providing UW with some excitement last year as a true freshman starter at 157. The competition should be fierce for the starting role, as both Cowboys have good upsides.
Freshman Brandon Richardson will likely use his redshirt season and Smith could always wrestle up at this weight if necessary.
157 - Two-time NCAA qualifier and NCAA West Regional champion, junior Shane Onufer will make the move down to 157 this year. Onufer spent his first two years at 174 and 165, respectively, but has certified at this weight class and feels that he can make a deep NCAA Tournament run here.
Behind Onufer are four true freshmen who are on track to use their redshirt seasons: Dakota Friesth, Andy McCulley, Trevor Sterling and Robert Stroh. All have bright futures, but McCulley has immediately impressed and could push for mat time. Richardson could also factor in at this weight.
165 - Talented redshirt freshman Patrick Martinez will be first in line to fill Onufer's shoes at this weight and he is looking like a capable contributor. Martinez is anxious to show off the fruits of his redshirt season and UW's coaching staff is confident that he can get the job done.
Behind Martinez is true freshman Joe Raygor, who will look to use his redshirt year, and there is the possibility that Onufer could move back up into this weight class.
174 - Junior Dallas Hintz and sophomore Michael Poulos will be the two headliners competing for the starting job at this weight class. Hintz has seen limited action in each of the last two years, while Poulos missed all of last season while rehabbing a foot injury. Both are eager to prove how they can contribute to the team if given an opportunity. Martinez could factor into the equation here as well.
184 - Two-time All-American Joe LeBlanc is back to win a national title during his junior year and he solidifies the upper weights. Anything less than an NCAA title will not satisfy LeBlanc and he will lead the `Pokes with his example. Junior Joe O'Farrell, as well as freshmen Tommy Thoman and Shane Woods are all possibilities here. Both Thoman and Woods should redshirt.
197 - Wyoming's two-year starter at this weight, junior Alfonso Hernandez, had off-season back surgery and will miss most of the season. That leaves an opening that sophomore L.J. Helbig is poised to slide into. Helbig helped the team at 197 and heavyweight last season, but should benefit from going at this more natural weight consistently. O'Farrell and true freshman Leland Pfeifer are also listed at 197. Pfeifer will likely redshirt.
Hwt. - UW's team drastically improves if senior Bubba McLaughlin is in the lineup at heavyweight. He is a physical force to be reckoned with and possesses all the tools of a true heavyweight. However, McLaughlin has yet to be a consistent presence in this spot, as last year he missed time due to academic issues. His ability to fill the big man spot in the lineup could be a key to Wyoming's team success this year. If McLaughlin needs a break, any one of the Cowboy 197-pounders could wrestle up against smaller opponent heavyweights.