Heading to St. Louis in a class by all themselves

John Smith knows all about what it takes to be a champion. Personally, Smith repeatedly put in the hard work during his wrestling career to become the most decorated wrestler in United States history. Smith now applies that same personal discipline and drive toward keeping his alma mater's tradition rich program at the top. Whether it's recruiting, in the wrestling room or matside during competition, Smith is always pushing harder.

He is most at home in "the room." Smith calls the wrestling room in Gallagher-Iba Arena. That is where national championships are built.

The Cowboys were the nation's No. 1-ranked team heading into the final weeks of the season. With the Big 12 Championships and NCAA Tournament approaching fast they have two defending individual champions in 133-pounder Johnny Thompson and 184-pounder Jake Rosholt. Four other Cowboys are ranked in the top 10 at their weights, including top-ranked Chris Pendleton at 174. That's a strong lineup that Smith believes if kept intact, and all going strong all the way to St. Louis, should be enough to give the Cowboys the program's 32nd national title.

"I think the opportunity we have over the next several weeks is to distance ourselves," Smith said of the path he wants his team to take through Ames, Iowa, and the Big 12 Tournament (March 6), on to St. Louis and the NCAA (March 18-20). "That's not going to be easy. That is going to have to come from the team. It's not going to come from me but from the individuals on this squad that get excited about what is ahead for us. It may not happen, and we may wrestle well. It's probably a little tighter than what people assume, but if we wrestle relaxed and wrestle with confidence then I think we'll find ourselves in the position that we want to be in."

Smith will tell you it's a numbers game. The more wrestlers you have contending deep into the tournament the better chance your team has to win the title. Often times it comes down to wrestlers in consolations, bonus points collected by wrestlers. It's a survival contest, and the more wrestlers surviving deep into the tournament the easier it becomes to celebrate a 32nd national championship for the Cowboy program. Smith has a formula for the heavily favored Cowboys, a magic number that will keep teams from threatening Oklahoma State's lofty status. "I think all the Big 12 schools have individuals," Smith said. "In the national tournament it comes down to how many guys you have – do you have six wrestlers? If you have six guys who are wrestling well then we will have a great opportunity to win it. If it's down to five or four then you can put the whole Big 12 in (as national title contenders), you can put Michigan in, put Iowa in. Iowa is currently ranked eighth or ninth, but in tournament points would be third or fourth in the country. The University of Illinois has had a solid year, and you don't leave out Minnesota because they have a history of wrestling well in the tournament. Lehigh showed us that they have a number of wrestlers who can compete.

"Our job the next couple of weeks is to separate ourselves from the rest. We can't overlook the Big 12 (tournament) because we need to take as many as we can."

Tyrone Lewis sets himself up nicely at 165 pounds. He came out in a late season dual against Lehigh and ran his unbeaten record to 28-0 by knocking off top-ranked Troy Letters, who had been perfect prior to that at 25-0. Lewis scored an early takedown with his aggressive approach, added a second-period reversal and topped it off with riding time for an 8-5 decision. That moved Lewis up to No. 1 at the weight.

In the same dual at 174 pounds, Chris Pendleton solidified his top ranking – and stayed unbeaten – with a 28-0 record by knocking off second-ranked Brad Dillon of the Mountain Hawks. Like Lewis, Pendleton was aggressive early with a first period takedown, but had to battle into the third period and used a late escape and riding time advantage for a 7-5 decision. The consistency and success of Lewis and Pendleton make them the Cowboys' strongest bets to rack up points and win individual titles at the NCAA Tournament.

Smith is looking for six wrestlers to rise up and battle through their bracket in St. Louis. It is natural to expect that returning defending national champions Johnny Thompson (133 pounds) and Jake Rosholt (184 pounds) be in that group. Both wrestlers have discovered that repeating – a third time for Thompson and a second time for Rosholt – isn't going to be easy (see story, page 17). Both wrestlers have had their ups and downs through the dual season, but both realize March is the time to crank it up.

The other wrestlers who will be counted upon to help lead O-State back to the top podium in St. Louis are 149-pound sophomore Zack Esposito and redshirt freshman 157-pounder Johny Hendricks. Esposito, having lost just once, has been near the top of the individual ranking all season. Hendricks emerged at the National Duals, earning Big 12 Wrestler of the Week honors for his 3-0 performance that included an upset of Michigan's top-ranked Ryan Bertin.

Last season Rosholt came out of nowhere to surprise everybody in Kansas City on his way to winning the national title. This could happen again as 125-pound Cody Stites, 141-pounder Ronnie Delk, 197-pounder Rusty Blackmon and ever improving heavyweight Willie Gruenwald have the ability to make a run in March.

John Smith is looking for six wrestlers who will step up and take charge to make sure the Cowboys deliver on their promise to defend Oklahoma State's spot on the throne of collegiate wrestling.

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