Behind the scenes with OSU wrestling
Roger Moore, NCAA.com
The first day of every New Year is a feast of football. From dawn until the early hours of Jan. 2 bowl games are played in almost every time zone. Thousands of fans emigrate from their home state to watch their gridiron heroes, some of them feeling a little woozy after a night of revelry in a downtown near you.
For college wrestling’s tradition-rich Oklahoma State University, breaking in the New Year was a little out-of-the-ordinary. Unless, of course, you are a wrestling fan.
The Cowboys, ranked second in the country, wrestled at No. 24 Arizona State on Sunday night. Twenty-four hours prior Glendale, a suburb of Phoenix, hosted the University of Oklahoma and the Connecticut Huskies for the BCS’s Fiesta Bowl. The hype for the football game was a bit more tabloid friendly.
Ready for a little road trip? No, not the Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda kind. But a weekend in the life of a program that has more titles (34) than the New York Yankees (27), Montreal Canadians (24), Boston Celtics (17) and the Pittsburgh Steelers (6).
Saturday, Jan. 1
6:50 a.m., Gallagher-Iba Arena parking lot
Wrestlers begin to arrive. The temperature is 13 degrees. Eventually, 11 wrestlers, three coaches, a trainer and manager load two vans for the drive to Tulsa and the airport. As you might expect on the morning after New Year’s Eve, one athlete is much later than the rest.
During the wait, assistant coaches Zack Esposito and Tyrone Lewis debate on who will win the Frank Edgar-Gray Maynard UFC fight set for that night in Vegas.
The head coach will wait to fly to Phoenix on Sunday. His son, a wrestler as you might expect, is competing on Saturday.
The contingent loads a packed plane heading to Phoenix. The majority of passengers are decked in crimson and cream, the school colors of Oklahoma State’s in-state rival, the hated Sooners. Everybody behaves themselves. The usually brash Sooner fans know better than to instigate anything with young men who have cauliflower ears.
The jet lands safely in an unusually chilly Phoenix. Not that Arizona was covered in 20-feet of snow, but the temperature was hovering around 40.
After checking into a hotel a stone’s throw from Arizona State University, the group gets in a short workout at ASU’s practice facility. Many an athlete for the Sunkist Kids wrestling club worked out on the same orange and yellow mats. OSU head coach John Smith, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, and Penn State coach Cael Sanderson, a four-time NCAA champ and Olympic gold medalist trained with Sunkist during their mat days.
5:30 to lights out
While watching Wisconsin and TCU play in the Rose Bowl, rookie 125-pounder Jon Morrison, a native of Big Ten country in Illinois, remembers meeting Badger football coach Bret Bielema on a recruiting trip to the Madison campus.
Cowboy starting 141-pounder Luke Silver, a junior from Texas, heads to the local mall with 133-pounder Jordan Oliver and heavyweight Blake Rosholt. Silver says with a slight smile “Those who could eat went to eat.”
Rosholt, a 215-pounder who easily comes in under the required 285 for his weight class, has a Philly cheesesteak sandwich. Some things just seem cruel. With Mill Street – the site of a massive New Year’s Eve party the night before – less than a block away the contingent, for the most part, makes it an early night.
Edgar and Maynard battle to a draw.
Sunday, Jan. 2
The boss arrives and is ready for a quick workout back at the ASU facility. Everybody checks their weight. Some are pleased with others knowing the next few hours will be what many non-wrestlers would call hell on a Sunday afternoon.
The Cowboys arrive at the practice facility. Among those working off some extra Christmas turkey is Sun Devil 157-pounder Bubba Jenkins. There’s the usual awkwardness between athletes set to compete against each other.
Back to the hotel to think about eating. These young men know the feeling of hunger, how to control that knot in their stomachs. It’s a way of life for faces with sunken cheeks and a ghost-like stare that those in and around the sport know. You ask how they are doing and they quietly say ‘good.’
The 5 p.m. weigh-in can’t get here soon enough.
Team manager Pat Burton makes the trek to the grocery store. There will be a small and healthy feast at 5:05 p.m. There are a variety of requests as you might expect.
Arizona State’s women’s basketball team finishes off Oregon, 86-67, in a Pac-10 matchup at Wells Fargo Arena. The arena’s staff quickly gets to work.
The orange and yellow mat is in place and you would never have thought a basketball game finished less than an hour earlier.
The athletes take to the scales.
Word spreads that Arizona State will forfeit two matches –149 and 157. For reasons known only to Jenkins, an NCAA runner-up in 2008 while attending Penn State University, there will be no match for OSU’s Albert White or Neil Erisman.
You’d think it was two Top 10 schools going at it on a Sunday night with all the media in the arena. FoxSportsArizona.com, LiveSportsVideo.com and flowrestling.org are all broadcasting the match.
The dual starts with a hard-fought 5-4 decision for OSU rookie Chris Perry at 184 pounds. Among the victories in a 40-4 rout are Rosholt’s 4-3 win over the 270-pound Levi Cooper; top-ranked Jordan Oliver’s and 141-pounder Luke Silver’s second-period pins and Dallas Bailey’s wild 7-5 win over Te Edwards at 165.
ASU senior Anthony Robles, a two-time All-American, moves to 15-0 with an 11-0 major decision of seventh-ranked Jon Morrison. Many of the Devils appear to be suffering from the Christmas break hangover. Seven minutes doesn’t seem like long – until you are in a wrestling match.
The estimated 900 in attendance make the most noise in honor of five members of Special Olympics Arizona, who show off their power lifting skills during a 20-minute halftime of the dual.
Smith poses for pictures, signs autographs and chats with a number of fans who’ve hung around to pay their respects. The dual victory is Smith’s 300 as coach and it goes with only 44 losses in 19-plus seasons.
Already back at the hotel, team members shower and wind down. Cell phones are off limits prior to a dual meet. Assistant coach Eric Guerrero plays Santa Claus and returns them. Silver receives a text message from back home joking about his bad haircut. As usual, however, Silver and his teammates get the last laugh.
There’s also a good bet that Arizona State won’t be on Oklahoma State’s schedule in the future. A long and expensive trip and only eight of 10 bouts contested? And mat fans wonder why the sport struggles on the West Coast.
On Monday morning the second-ranked mat program headed to the airport for the flight back to Oklahoma. There will be no fans waiting at the airport, no parades for the victors. All that waits is a 10-hour bus ride on Thursday to Cedar Falls, Iowa, and the two-day National Duals. Top-ranked Cornell and many other top Division I programs will be in attendance.
There’s nothing flashy about collegiate wrestling. No ESPN highlights, no mention on talk radio. Just a different kind of student-athlete competing in a sport they love.