John Smith Talks NCAA Wrestling Championships

On Tuesday at noon the Oklahoma State wrestling team will load up the bus and pull out for St. Louis and the opportunity to win a third straight NCAA championship. Head coach John Smith is delighted to be taking to St. Louis nine wrestlers, including top seeds Steve Mocco at heavyweight and Chris Pendleton at 174 pounds.

The Cowboys have a legitimate chance to win as many as five individual championships and have as many as eight All-Americans. They are the heavy favorite to win the team championship. We spoke with John Smith one-on-one on the eve of the trip to St. Louis.

Go Pokes: It has to excite you the opportunity to take nine wrestlers to the NCAA Championships and with wrestlers like Chris Pendleton, Steve Mocco, Zach Esposito and Jake Rosholt you've got a lot of favorites.
John Smith: I am excited and this has been a nervous time in that we're working out knowing that we're in good condition and just wanting to avoid any injuries. Those guys that are favored are not low maintenance. In fact, those guys are high maintenance, but it's a good situation because they want to get in there and work really hard. We just have to be smart about what we are doing right now. Those guys you mentioned are very highly driven and they do all have the chance to win individual championships, but nobody is going to give us anything. They all realize that they have to go out on the mat and earn it.

GP: Jake finished second at the Big 12 and I know that's not what he wanted. Do you chalk that up to coming off the knee injury.
JS: I would say that is right. Jake was not 100 percent for the Big 12 and he won't be in St. Louis, but he is a lot further along. You have a knee injury like that during the season and you really don't get back to 100 percent. I would say he is 85 or 90 percent, but that should be enough. Jake will have to be smart how he handles the situations that come up for him during the tournament and realize what the best options are for him on the mat. I have a lot of confidence in him and he has the experience of winning a national championship on his side.

GP: You made a genius move at the semester break when you pulled the two freshmen, Coleman Scott at 125 and Nate Morgan at 133, out of redshirt. They sertainly made you look good and now they go into their first NCAA both ranked and both Big 12 champions.
JS: They have certainly done a great job for us and they won't be intimdated in St. Louis. I have every confidence that they will wrestle well. They will both be seeded, but will have some tough opponents that they will have to deal with. I think they both have a good opportunity to finish as All-Americans and maybe better.

GP: You really have to be proud of Kevin Ward at 157. This is a guy from Tennessee you discovered in your camp program and he comes in and wins a Big 12 title.
JS: He put his best performance together that he had all season at the Big 12. I think he has a lot of things going for him right now. He has some confidence that he has needed and that he did earn. He will go in unseeded at the NCAA Championship. I will tell you what I've been telling him all week and that is whoever draws him isn't going to be very happy. Everybody knows what he did in the Big 12 championships. Everybody in that weight class knows. I told him he is a bad draw right now and just to go out and perform at his confidence level right now and you will have success in the tournament.

GP: You had to make a tough decision at 141 going with Daniel Friskhorn and he made you look good with a third-place performance. It was tough leaving off senior Ronnie Delk, but when you made the decision you said that Delk would chip in and work hard to help prepare Daniel and help the team win the NCAA title.
JS: It was real important and it was a weight class where we had to finish in the top three and we knew that going in. He dropped a tough match against the number one wrestler in the country in Gaelic of Iowa State and then had to come back through and defeat a defending finalist from the NCAA Championship last year in the consolation finals to go. He ended up having a solid win with an 8-1 score. You mentioned Ronnie, and Ronnie has done exactly what I said he was going to do and be a part of this team. He's been right there next to Daniel the past three weeks helping him get ready, pushing him, really making a difference. It's been really good for the team to see Ronnie. They see a guy whose hopes and dreams are gone because you've been replaced, but a lot of people on this team look at Ronnie in a whole different way. It's been good for this team.

GP: Johny Hendricks is another guy who had injury problems and came back. Is he looking good going to St. Louis?
JS: Another tough weight. He'll have to have great matches. Johny is not a flashy wrestler like Chris Pendleton or Zach Esposito. He's just a hard-nose tough wrestler, a blue-collar kind of guy. I like those guys because they earn everything that they get. That's what Johny will have to do. He is a tough guy and he'll have to remember that. He's tough in positions and I've seen him raise his level in matches against some of the top guys in the country. He has to remember that and keep that level up every match. This is a guy that can be a national champion for us this year. It's a tall order, but he is capable of doing that. He realizes his scoring potential is not great, but neither is his opponents. He has to be patient and remember that.

GP: Who are the teams that are threats in St. Louis?
JS: I think there are several teams that do not control their destiny. We do control our destiny and if we go in and take the attitude that we have to earn this and nobody is going to give it to us, like we have all year, then we'll be in great shape. We have to have that attitude everytime we go to the mat and that nobody is going to lay down for us. I think there are several teams if things don't go well for us that could be in the mix. Lehigh has some power. The University of Michigan is probably the second best team coming out of the Big 10 then way they did as far as the number of athletes that they have and their rankings. You look at Nebraska, Illinois as they've been ranked second most of the year, and then Minnesota because they are bringing 10 qualifiers. It ought to be interesting. I think the greatest feeling for an athlete or a team is to know that you control your destiny. That's not the case a lot of times. You have to count on other teams or individuals to help you win that title, but that's not the case with us this time. We can go in and control it.

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