By DAVID FUHRIMAN
As the BYU wrestling team begins its season Saturday at the St. Louis Open, no one seems more anxious to see how the team does than head wrestling coach Mark Schultz.
“This is going to be an interesting year, because our team is extremely young,” Schultz said. “We’ve got 15 freshmen on the team this year, and a lot of the other wrestlers are sophomores.”
Schultz said that being a freshman in college wrestling competition is a real shock to many of the wrestlers. “It’s an experience that you just have to experience — there’s nothing quite like it,” Schultz said with a glimmer in his eye, probably remembering some of his own freshman experiences.
BYU has one of the toughest schedules in the nation, and definitely the toughest schedule in the WAC. “There is no team in this conference that has a harder schedule than we do,” Schultz said. BYU’s schedule includes meets with Fresno State, Cal Poly, Oregon, Arizona State and Iowa State, two of which will be in Provo. Schultz is particularly excited to have the WAC Championships in Provo on March 7.
That schedule begins on Saturday at the St. Louis Open, where BYU wrestlers will be facing some of the best wrestlers in the nation. Top competitors from Iowa, Iowa State and Oklahoma State — three of the top wrestling programs in the nation — will be there competing.
“This tournament will not be that much of a challenge in the team competition,” Schultz said. “A lot of the top schools in the nation will be sending six wrestlers or less to this tournament so it won’t count as an official meet. But those wrestlers that they do send will be their best.”
The St. Louis Open tends to be a good indicator of how the NCAA Championships will turn out next March. Last year, the brothers Rocky and Rangi Smart placed fourth in the competition. However, this year won’t be the year of the Smarts — Rocky, ranked 10th in the nation, is now in Brazil on a church mission, and Rangi, a junior, will be redshirting this season.
But that doesn’t mean that the BYU team is without talent this year. Freshman Tom Meacham, a former Alaska State Champion, has emerged from a talent-rich 134-pound division as the starter for the beginning of the season. Junior Kris West, competing in the 167-pound class looks to be one of the brightest spots of the BYU team. West beat last year’s WAC champion and was named Ricks College’s “Athlete of the Year.”
Two WAC champions also return for the Cougars. Senior John Kelly will be competing in the 126-pound weight class in his final college season, and junior Gary Sanderson won at 142 pounds, but may begin the season at 150 pounds. West, Kelly and Sanderson are the co-captains for the team this season.
Schultz, optimistic though he may be, said that the program still has much to do before it will be able to be competitive with the top teams in the country. “We’ve come a really long way in the last few years, but we still have some needs to fill. We need a good video library and a wrestling club to help fund off-season tournaments, among other things. But we’re going in the right direction,” Schultz said.
Next year’s recruiting class definitely looks to be a big step in the right direction. Schultz signed four top recruits earlier in the week, the four wrestlers Schultz really wanted to sign. Scott Coleman, the younger brother of WAC champion Jared Coleman, placed seventh at the national championships. Matt Bradshaw, a teammate of Coleman’s in high school, was one match from placing at nationals. Aaron Holker is ranked fifth in the country, and David Castle is a two-time state champion.
“These are really high-quality wrestlers, and we’re just really excited to have them coming here next year,” Schultz said. The indications are that BYU won’t have to wait until next year to experience some success on the wrestling mats.