Oklahoma State is the wrestling powerhouse we’re not talking about enough. The undefeated Cowboys enter their final two dual meet weekends with an undefeated record and nine ranked wrestlers, all led by the legendary head coach John Smith. They’ve also taken down eight ranked teams, including No. 9 Minnesota and conference foes No. 12 Wyoming, No. 11 Iowa State and No. 17 Northern Iowa. The Cowboys will be a favorite in the Big 12 tournament on March 9, and they should be in contention for a team trophy at the NCAA tournament. Only a few things stand between Oklahoma State and a top showing on the national stage: Penn State, non-conference depth, team injuries and this weekend’s contest with No. 5 Missouri.
The Nittany Lions hold a tight grip on the top spot in the NWCA rankings, and while Oklahoma State has snuck into the No. 2 spot after Ohio State’s losses to Michigan and Penn State, the jump from No. 2 to No. 1 is miles apart. Adding to this challenge is the fact that Penn State isn’t the only Big Ten school prepared to do some damage in March. The Buckeyes, despite their two losses, still hold the No. 2 spot in the tournament rankings, a different set of standings based on a point system exclusively used at conference and national tournaments. The Cowboys have a roster capable to topping the Buckeyes, but they’ll need all of their athletes healthy and in top condition to make that kind of a move. Smith’s team is deep and exceptionally talented, as shown in their record and performances so far this year, but injuries have plagued the team, causing ranked athletes to move up and down weight classes to meet team need. All of this to say, Oklahoma State has depth and power, but with a unsettled lineup, it’s hard to predict exactly who the Cowboys will send out against Missouri on Saturday for a meeting of two undefeated teams.
Missouri brings seven ranked wrestlers to their home mat against the Cowboys, including 174-pound Daniel Lewis ranked No. 2 at 174 pounds. They’ll face a ranked Oklahoma wrestler in six of the ten weight classes, creating an intense matchup. The last time these two teams met, Missouri topped the Cowboys in Stillwater 21-19 after Jaydin Eierman pinned Dean Heil opponent to add six points to the team total. His fall proved crucial in helping the Tigers come back from a nine-point deficit and earn the win against Oklahoma State. This year, the Cowboys have the edge, but with 15 ranked wrestlers competing, these two teams will put on a show. Here are three weight classes to watch on Saturday:
133: No. 2 Daton Fix vs. No. 10 John Erneste
Oklahoma State redshirt freshman Daton Fix is in a great position to compete for a national title in one of the deepest weight classes at 133 pounds. The young Cowboy holds a 24-1 record with his only loss coming against Micky Phillippi in late January. Since then, Fix racked up four wins, with one of those wins coming against No. 9 Austin Gomez. His expected opponent, No. 10 John Erneste, holds a 14-3 record with two of his three losses coming against top-10 opponents, including one against defending national runner-up Nick Suriano 3-2. Fix beat Suriano this year on a controversial “hands to the face” call after a nearly thirty-minute marathon dual by the same score, so if Erneste can compete against Fix like he did against Suriano, despite not pulling out the win over Suriano, he could put up a fight against the No. 2 ranked guy in the weight class.
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A two-time NCAA qualifier, Erneste brings a greater wealth of experience into the match, while Fix is looking for his first ticket to the tournament. Fix has proven throughout the year that he is one of the top athletes in the weight class, and a win against Erneste would add to his impressive season resume. If Erneste can pull off the upset, however, he’ll not only build confidence heading into championship season and provide his team with valuable team points against Oklahoma State.
In his first season as a starter for the Oklahoma State Cowboys, Gfeller has made a name for himself at 149-pounds, racking up a 24-2 record with his only losses on the season coming against the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked opponents in his weight class. He stepped into the 149-pound spot after an injury took out teammate Boo Lewallen, but he’s taken control of the weight class and put up dominant performances against ranked opponents, including a notable recent ranked win over Northern Iowa’s Max Thomsen in overtime to swing the momentum towards the Cowboys in that dual. He’s also recorded a ranked 3-2 win over Duke’s Mitch Finesilver and Penn State’s Jarod Verkleeren.
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Mauller also comes into the match with an impressive record, 24-1, with just one loss on the season to Jarrett Degen of Iowa State. Gfeller did not wrestle Degen in Oklahoma State’s dual against the Cyclones, as Lewallen served as the 149-pounder starter for that match-up, but Gfeller has stepped in for every match since then. A win for Mauller would move him up in the individual rankings, and as both athletes gear up for conference tournament, this dual will be a chance for them to test their readiness against another top-10 national athlete.
174: No. 6 Joe Smith vs. No. 2 Daniel Lewis
Missouri’s Daniel Lewis enters Saturday’s match fresh off one of the biggest wins of the season, a pin against defending national champion Zahid Valencia last weekend in Missouri’s dual against Arizona State. The win moved Lewis to 19-1 on the season, and he’ll have the chance to face another top-10 opponent in Oklahoma State’s Joe Smith this weekend. Lewis’ only loss of the year came against Michigan’s Myles Amine at the Cliff Keen Invitational, whereas Smith holds an 14-3 record and is 1-3 against ranked opponents this year.
Smith, a redshirt junior, earned All-American honors as a true freshman for the Cowboys at 157 pounds and followed that with another All-American honor as a sophomore. He's bumped up 165 and then 174 as a redshirt sophomore and has been at 174 all season this year. He comes into the match off a two-match losing streak after decision losses to Jordan Kutler of Lehigh and Taylor Lujan of Lehigh. This match will give him a chance to break that streak, but he'll face an uphill battle in his dual against No. 2 Lewis.
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