Objectively, Oregon State wrestling had one of the most successful seasons in the last three decades of program history. The Beavers finished second in the Pac-12 and 12th at the NCAA tournament, putting four men on the national podium for the first time since 1995. Second-year head coach Chris Pendleton came into the program during the pandemic in 2020 and two years later, has built a team that has put Oregon State back on the map.
But Pendleton doesn’t like to use the word success to talk about the season. He prefers to talk about growth.
“I think if anybody tracked our team throughout the season, the biggest thing is we saw incremental changes,” Pendleton said in an interview with NCAA.com. “We saw our guys getting better from small things like placing multiple guys in Vegas to winning the Reno tournament and some of our dual performances, it seems like every time out we got a little better.”
VEGAS HIGHLIGHTS: Here are the key results and takeaways from the 2022 Cliff Keen Invite
That Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational stands out as a pivotal moment in the season. The team crowned a champion in heavyweight Gary Traub, but a number of starters, including Brandon Kaylor, Devan Turner and Grant Willits, also earn ranked wins and top-five finishes. All three of those athletes, including Grant’s brother, Hunter, would experience even more success just a few months later as the season came to a close in Little Caesars Arena at the 2022 NCAA tournament, but Vegas was the beginning.
As the postseason rolled around, Oregon State peaked. Kaylor, Turner, Grant and Hunter Willits, Cory Crooks, Matthew Olguin, Trey Munoz and Traub all qualified for the NCAA tournament with top three conference finishes. Then, in Detroit, with 17,000+ fans watching, Kaylor, Turner and the Willits brothers fought through the Blood Round and achieved the thing they’ve been chasing for so long: All-American honors. It was a moment, Kaylor said, that represented a culmination of everything he had worked for in his college career and everything he and his teammates had been striving towards together.
“If you can take four guys that have been here for so long but have never had the success that they wanted but within two years of Pendleton they achieve, we all achieved, things we had dreamed of as kids, that sets a level of excitement for the rest of the guys on the team,” Kaylor said.
The excitement that Kaylor describes was palpable across the arena at NCAAs, but this energy began even before the Blood Round matches, back on the first day of the tournament when the nerves were fresh. In the second round of action in the first evening session of the tournament, Oregon State’s Hunter Willits made headlines when he topped defending national champion David Carr in the second round of the tournament, spurring a flurry of media attention and fame for the Beavers. It was that performance, that moment, that shifted the way people viewed Oregon State, Pendleton said.
“I remember walking in, and you see the coaches that get the media attention, and the teams that get the media attention,” he said. “It took us about 15 seconds to get into the tournament and get downstairs but it took us 45 minutes to get out of the tournament. [We were] getting stopped and patted on the back, fans, picture media interviews. It was one of those funny things that, in just a couple of hours, changed the public perspective of the program.”
The wins from Willits and his teammates amplified the Oregon State brand, and their results have changed the recruiting game as well, Pendleton said.
NCAA WRESTLING HISTORY: A complete list of national championship teams
Before we look to the ahead to specific recruits and the future of the Beaver program though, let’s look at the last five seasons of Oregon State wrestling, to help put the 2022 standout performances in context:
|SEASON||DUAL RECORD||PAC-12 FINISH||NCAA FINISH||ALL-AMERICANS|
This chart marks the consistent growth of the program, though Pendleton is quick to note that the last five years don’t capture the full history and tradition of the program. Oregon State crowned its first national champion in 1961 and has eight total NCAA champs. The next champ? Maybe one of Pendleton’s current wrestlers.
Of Oregon State’s four All-Americans from last season, only 125-pound Kaylor returns, and the lightweight already has his eyes set on bringing back that individual national title. Kaylor told NCAA.com that Pendleton, a two-time national champion himself, and his team of assistant coaches have taught him how to balance his stress and wrestle with confidence against the best guys in the country over the last two years.
“I’m notorious for having nerves, puking before matches, sweating, my heart rate spiking before I even step on the mat, and (Assistant Coach Engel) called me in and said 'You’re better than that guy, that’s all that you need to know,'” Kaylor said.
Cue the confidence boost.
The 125-pounder came into the season ranked No. 33 in the preseason rankings, a position that reflected his 9-7 record from the previous year. He then took an early loss to Jaret Lane to start the 2021-2022 year, but wins over Anthony Molton and Baylor Shunk put Kaylor on a winning track. A victory over Ohio State NCAA qualifier and top-ten wrestler Malik Heinselman boosted Kaylor’s morale even more. He followed up this victory with a decision over Michigan’s Jack Medley, and then, one month later, secured a win over Utah Valley All-American Taylor LaMont.
Things were starting to click, but Kaylor was still viewing those wins as upsets. He saw himself as an underdog. At the same time that Pendleton was pushing Kaylor to think of himself as one of the top-ten guys.
His coach knew Kaylor was destined to break into the next tier of talent. He told Kaylor to stay patient and reserve his excitement for the tournament, for moments like his pin in the Blood Round.
That win, a defiant pin over Missouri’s Noah Surtin, solidified Kaylor as a placewinner and helped him shift his mindset. Now, Kaylor isn’t just satisfied with a top-eight finish. He wants gold.
Pendelton has talked to the team about the value of his championship rings, and Kaylor said that's motivated him.
"I want one for myself with my own name on it and my own weight class," he said.
The All-American’s development, psychologically and physically, is representative of the kind of improvement happening across the program for the Beavers. While the team will have to replace their other three All-Americans from 2022, Pendleton isn’t worried. He feels certain his new class of redshirt freshman and a few upcoming stars like Isaiah Crosby and Jason Shaner will help him continue to build on the legacy of 2022.
The bar for success has been set, but, by focusing on growth instead of results, Pendleton would like to continue to clear that bar and add to the history of this program on the rise.