Nov. 30, 2011
The Wyoming wrestling program will face its toughest test of the young season this weekend in Las Vegas.
The Pokes will compete in the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational on Friday and Saturday. It will be a tournament-style event, but team points are calculated for final standings. Action begins both days at 9 a.m. Pacific from the Las Vegas Convention Center.
On the big stage
The tournament is considered by some to be the largest and most rigorous regular-season event of the year. It features some of the top-ranked teams in the nation.
"It's really big. Not only as far as the level of competition we'll see, with some highly regarded and traditional programs, but also because we'll see some programs we won't see the rest of the year," Wyoming coach Mark Branch said. "Next time we'll see (most of the field) will be individually at the NCAA Championships. Wrestling teams like Ohio State, Michigan and Cornell, those are teams that aren't on our typical schedule.
"This will be our only opportunity to match up with those schools. It's huge and could have a big impact on our season as a team, individually, and our qualification for the NCAA. It's something we've been looking forward to and preparing for. We hope to have a really great performance because it's something that can really catapult us and give us a lot of momentum here early in the year and set us up for the end, too."
What happened last time
Three Wyoming wrestlers had a breakout performance the last time the Pokes competed in the event.
In 2009, Joe LeBlanc (184 pounds) and Shane Onufer (165 pounds) both took third in their brackets. Michael Martinez (125) placed fourth in his weight class. All three now are seniors on the Cowboy roster and all three had to beat All-Americans during the two-day event to secure their finishes.
As a team, the Cowboys finished in 10th place out of 42 squads. That field included 12 of the top-25 ranked wrestling programs in the country.
Who will step up?
Two years ago, the Cowboys gained some national attention for stellar performances from some individuals in the Las Vegas Invitational. Branch hopes some of his talented - but relatively unknown - wrestlers can do the same this time around.
"It's time. We're looking at the big picture, and some of the kids who have been a staple of this program are in their last year," the coach said. "It's time for other guys to step up and say, `I'm willing to fill their shoes when they're gone.' Our young kids have an opportunity to make a name for themselves but also stake their claim in this program to say `I'm the next generation. I'm going to bring this program to the next level and build on what Joe, Shane and Michael have been able to do.'
"Those guys have been our main producers for the last three years. It's time for other guys to step up, not only to us as a coaching staff, but nationally. To say, `We're guys you haven't heard of, but you're going to be seeing us for a while.'"