Kevin Ward wrestled collegiately at one of wrestling’s Mecca’s, winning a Big 12 championship for Oklahoma State in 2005. He was part of three NCAA team championships.
Last April, as a 27-year-old, he was given the reigns to a program with no history, Ouachita Baptist, which started a wrestling program from scratch. It is the first university in the state of Arkansas to offer wrestling.
“It’s the opposite end of the spectrum,” said Ward, who was a three-time Academic All-American. “It’s obviously a very different culture. But there is an excitement around here, something new. To try and build that culture, a culture where wrestling is important, that’s the challenge.”
The Division II Tigers participated in the first collegiate wrestling dual in Arkansas state history last March, beating Central Baptist. It was the only home meet of 2010-11. The 2011-12 schedule includes four home meets, including perennial powerhouse Central Oklahoma on Jan. 14. Ward’s troops will compete in Super Region II in Edmond, Okla., in March with the goal of qualifying wrestlers for the Division II Championships in Pueblo, Colo.
“A lot of people have asked me what the hardest part about starting a program is,” Ward said. “It depends on what day it is. How to recruit; how and where to practice; how to win; and how to improve everyday — there are a lot of things that go into it but day-in and day-out it’s that same grind.
“Getting everyone to buy into that commitment, that takes work.”
Greg Hatcher is doing everything he can to help make Ward and Ouachita Baptist successful. In October the 8,200-foot Hatcher Wrestling Complex was officially open for business. Hatcher, president of the Arkansas Wrestling Association, has been instrumental in bringing the sport to Arkansas, purchasing wrestling mats for the initial 50 high school programs in the state.
“It was on his to-do list and he finally got around to it,” Ward said. “He’s worked really hard to make this happen.”
Another Oklahoma State alum, Pat Smith, one of just two four-time NCAA champions in Division I, has also contributed greatly to the development of the sport in the state. A 2006 National Wrestling Hall of Fame & Museum inductee, Smith has been running the Arkansas Wrestling Academy in Little Rock since 2008.
Nine states are represented on a Tiger roster of 26 wrestlers, 25 of them underclassmen and nine of them from Oklahoma.
Ward expects some success from Josh Myers, a product of Cushing, Okla., and Bobby Williams, a native of Tuttle, Okla.
“When you have a program as young as ours, every weight is being challenged,” Ward said. “[Williams] really made a change over the summer and I think he could be coming into his own.
“Our goal right now is to go out and compete every time we step on the mat.”
Early results for 2011-12 have been mixed with Dexter Carter claiming a tournament title at the season-opening Dan Harris Open in Baldwin, Kan., and Josh Myers claiming third at the Maryville/Kaufman-Brand Open in St. Louis on Dec. 4. He was also runner-up at the Newman Open on Dec. 11. Dallas Smith was fourth at 184 pounds at the Central Missouri Open the second week of November and third at Newman. The dual season opened with a 41-6 victory against Central Baptist (Ark.).
A new No. 1?
Newberry moved into the top spot in last week’s Division II poll, unseating preseason No. 1 St. Cloud State. The Wolves beat No. 17 Findlay, Chadron State and Lake Erie on Dec. 10, winning 26 of 30 bouts in the three duals. One of the losses, however, came at 125 pounds where top-ranked John McDonald dropped an overtime decision to Findlay’s eighth-ranked Ben Sergent.
St. Cloud State is 3-0 in duals including a 29-7 victory against Division III No. 2 Wisconsin-La Crosse. Josh Howk (SCSU) already has 10 pins this season, needing just eight more to set a school season record owned by teammate Tad Merritt, who had 17 during the 2008-09 campaign.
Long road to western Kansas
Fort Hays State’s Walker Clarke won three Oklahoma high school state championships and started his career at Oklahoma State, just a few miles from Stillwater High School. After winning a junior college title at 197 pounds for Labette Community College in 2010, Clarke, now a 184-pounder, transferred to FHSU where he is off to a 9-0 start with a victory against fellow Oklahoman Tanner Keck, previously ranked fifth. The win came in FHSU’s upset of then-No. 7 Central Oklahoma on Dec. 1. Clarke has also won tournament titles at the Bob Smith Open and Newman Open, beating Keck again in the Newman final.
On Dec. 6, Clarke, now ranked third, was named the RMAC Wrestler of the Week.
With the big boys
Division II No. 4 Nebraska-Kearney turned in a strong showing at the Las Vegas Invitational earlier this month. The Lopers tied for 15th in the 34-team field led by 157-pound finalist TJ Hepburn. The senior beat Donnie Tasser from Pittsburgh and James Green from Nebraska on his way to the title bout where he lost to two-time NCAA champion Kyle Dake of Cornell 4-0.