Mark Branch sounded like a coach coming off a dispiriting defeat. The University of Wyoming wrestling head coach’s choice of words and tone gave off the impression that his No. 13 Cowboys had let one slip away last week against No. 15 North Carolina.
“To be honest, I don’t think we deserved to win,” Branch said.
But UW did win — scoring a 20-15 come-from-behind victory — and it was in that postgame interview where Branch perhaps gave unintentional praise to this year’s team.
In most any competition across multiple sports, the better team is the one that comes out on top. When a team doesn’t compete at its best and still maneuvers its way into the win column, that’s where greatness is revealed.
UW is currently flirting with greatness this season. And there’s still plenty of time to improve and fine tune. There is also reason to believe the Pokes will make significant strides in the last couple months of the season.
This team is young, very young. Four of Wyoming’s wrestlers that recorded wins against the Tar Heels — this list includes former Sheridan Bronc Hayden Hastings — are either freshmen or sophomores. And two more brown and gold grapplers that competed against UNC were of that same designation.
Many of Wyoming’s wrestlers are still tackling a steep learning curve from the high school mat to the collegiate mat, meaning they haven’t even come close to hitting their ceiling. This team — which moved up to No. 12 in the country in the latest NWCA poll — is set up to be really good in a year or two, but it seems they have arrived early.
In the most recent wrestling rankings that were released Monday, Wyoming has eight wrestlers that are ranked somewhere in one of the major polls. This list of distinguished wrestlers is led by 165-pounder Branson Ashworth who checks in at No. 7.
Ashworth walks a lonely road this season. He’s the only senior starter in a sea of youth and inexperience. He’s stood as a ranked wrestler in Laramie for years, but with the graduation of three-time All-American Bryce Meredith, Ashworth, has ascended to “the guy” status. It just appears he has more help than Wyoming teams of the past. Where the last couple of years featured a few ranked grapplers headlined by Meredith, who seemingly staked a spot in the top three of the 141-pound weight class most every week, the Pokes have ranked wrestlers at every turn.
There are no layups in this lineup. There is no stretch within the lineup where opponents can catch a breath. Wyoming doesn’t have any chinks in its armor.
And it’s almost as if each wrestler feeds off the other. In the dual against UNC, the Tar Heels took a 15-8 lead into the match’s final four weight classes.
Wyoming needed one heck of rally, and it began in the heavyweight bout and carried over into the lightweights. Brian Andrews scored an upset over the No. 13 wrestler in the country. Cole Verner and Montorie Bridges — Wyoming’s lone returning All-American — held serve with close wins, and Sam Turner capped the dual with an upset of the No. 12 wrestler in the nation.
Wyoming claimed four straight decisions, victories it couldn’t do without, and 12 straight points to win the dual. A dual it perhaps didn’t deserve to win but still did.
It is with that knowledge that Wyoming showed it is a team to be reckoned with, not just this season but for years to come.
• University of Wyoming football player Keegan Cryder was named an FWAA Freshman All-American, marking the third Wyoming freshman in the last four years to earn such honor.
• Mclean-Leonard was named Mountain West Conference Swimmer of the Week after recording five first-place finishes in two different tri meets involving Cal Baptist, Incarnate Word, UC San Diego and Grand Canyon.
• Ryan Russi was named Western Athletic Conference Diver of the Week after winning both diving events in a dual win over Cal Baptist.