Cowboys Hope To Qualify 10 At Big 12

STILLWATER - The Oklahoma State wrestlers will head to Ames, Iowa for Saturday's Big 12 Wrestling Championships as the hunted. The winners of three straight Big 12 and NCAA national championships, every team in the Big 12 would like to impersonate Minnesota this weekend. The top-ranked Golden Gophers are the only team the Cowboys have lost to this season, and they lost to Minnesota twice.

Oklahoma State hasn't lost to a Big 12 opponent in a dual since Missouri last season. However, there is a big difference from duals and tournament wrestling. The Cowboys, with six top-five ranked individual wrestlers in their line up, are considered tournment strong. While they will be hunted, OSU head coach John Smith says his team will be hunting for something itself.

"For us it is about qualifying all 10 and putting us in position (for the NCAA)," said Smith. "We can't win a national championship unless we have a good Big 12 Tournament, and we can't look past this tournament. Obviously, we have some people in position to do very well.

"Normally, it's the people that you are concerned about that can make the difference at the NCAA Championships, people like Ethan Kye at 141 pounds, Kevin Ward at 157, and Rusty Blackmon at 184. Those are people that stand out that we need a good tournament from, and possibly Brandon Mason at 174."

Every Cowboy on the trip to Ames is nationally ranked except Kyle and Blackmon. Kyle was a midseason replacement for the injured Daniel Frishkorn. A former backup at 133 pounds, Kyle has struggled and is 0-3 against a trio of ranked wrestlers in the Big 12 at 141 pounds. Oklahoma's Teyon Ware and Iowa State's Nate Gallick each scored a technical fall against Kyle and Missouri's Chris McCormick handed him a 7-4 decision.

"Ethan, there isn't much change in him," explained Smith. "He always comes into the room and works hard whether his job was trying to make a starter better or his job now as a starter. I haven't seen much difference. He is more focused and excited about this opportunity. It is an uphill battle for him and it's a steep mountain to climb. Things happen in wrestling and if you work hard then you can make it happen. It would really help us if he were to qualify for the NCAA."

For Smith, 184 pounds has been a season-long observation and Smith feels that Blackmon, 15-13 on the season, has been the best. The senior from Cleveland, Tenn., will have to surprise because the other four wrestlers in the Big 12 at 184 are all nationally ranked. Blackmon does have wins over 11th-ranked Vince Jones of Nebraska and 15th-ranked Justin Dyer of Oklahoma.

"Rusty Blackmon, at 184, has a chance to have his best tournament and that is all I am going to say about it," Smith stated.

Overall, Coleman Scott will be seeded second at 125 pounds behind the Sooners Sam Hazewinkel, who Coleman defeated last season in the Big 12 Tournament. Kevin Ward is ranked 15th in the nation at 157 pounds and will be seeded second behind Travis Paulson of Iowa State. Redshirt freshman Brandon Mason will be the third seed at 174 pounds. Mason is ranked 10th behind Nebraska's fourth-ranked Jacob Klein and the nation's top-ranked 174 pounder Ben Askren of Missouri. Mason most recently scored a 4-0 decision over Klein.

The other Cowboys are all seeded first at their weights - Nathan Morgan (ranked third nationally) at 133 pounds, Zack Esposito (ranked third) at 149 pounds, Johny Hendricks (ranked first) at 165, Jake Rosholt (ranked third) at 197 pounds, and Steve Mocco (ranked second) at 285.

"I like our attitude tha past two weeks," said Smith. "It's been the best attitude that we've had. I haven't heard a lot of complaining as we've focused on doing a little more. I am really excited about where we are. I know our guys are very excited about wrestling Saturday and I am confident that we are going to have a really good tournament. We have put in a lot of good work since our last dual with Oklahoma."

Whether an underdog or favorite, Smith says pushing the limit has to be the rule for the Cowboys. If Oklahoma State is to win four straight at the Big 12 and at the NCAA Championships (scheduled March 16-18 at the Ford Center in Oklahoma City) and prove they are a tournament superior team then they have to be aggressive.

"I think you always have to have, this time of year, the attitude of beating people that you are not supposed to beat," theorized the all-time winningest coach in OSU wrestling history. "That's how you win the Big 12 and how you win nationals. Even the guys that are top ranked going after a major decision on a guy you decisioned during the season, or going after a pin on a guy that you beat on a major decision - stretching it out further and going for it because there isn't anytime left."

The most pressing question for the Cowboys in their hunt could be can they get a wild card if needed. The top three wrestlers at each weight get automtic bids to the NCAA Championships. After that there are eight wild card spots available that will be decided on by the Big 12 coaches in a meeting following the event on Saturday in Ames. That is two more spots than in the past few years - the extra two being awarded to the league by the NCAA after last season.

"The Big 12, by far, has been the best performing conference over the last four years and we have not gotten any extra qualifiers and that is just flat out wrong," said Oklahoma head coach Jack Spates. "We're leaving home kids that are ranked and could be All-Americans. We wanted three and we ended up getting two more (qualifiers)."

"That will make it a little easier on his coaches in the wild card meeting," said Nebraska coach Mark Manning.

All the coaches freely admit they would much rather be spectators at the meeting with all their wrestlers earning their NCAA trip by winning on the mat.

"It's never easy, but I hope that I'm not in a position to count on a wild card," said Smith. "Over the last couple of years it hasn't gone to well for us in that meeting. You can control your destiny right now as an individual and as a team. For the most part we've gone into the Big 12 and done that. We have a few people right now that may be on the bubble as far as if they do not place in the top three."

"You place in the top three and it's a done deal, you're going," said Manning. "I tell my kids to try and take it out of the hands of the coaches."

Those meetings are held behind closed doors and have been rumored to be, at times, very heated. Various members of the media have volunteered to witness the affair but have never been granted the opportunity. Nebraska coach Mark Manning said sarcastically that they aren't that exciting.

"Oh my God, you would probably take a nap," said Manning, tongue firmly in cheek. "There are not many personalities in the Big 12 as wrestling coaches. It's pretty laid back and you'd probably be bored to death. The last couple of years trying to pick six wild cards with everyone firing on all competitive cylinders (is tough), and I happen to be the school that got left out the last two years. That's life and I try to use it as a positive to my kids."

"It's nothing you enjoy. Normally it takes about six months for you to visit with that coach (you argue with) again," said Smith. "You just hope that people will do what is right. As a conference we've always believed in putting those teams that have a chance in the best position we can. The last few years I've left that meeting without that feeling. It's a tough environment because of the self-centered attitude that you have in that meeting."

"They are no fun, I'll tell you that," said Spates. "I think everybody goes in truly trying to do right, but it's tough when you have such good kids that you are leaving home. It gets tough, I mean really tough."

Smith is hoping his wrestlers, especially Ethan Kyle and Rusty Blackmon, will be tough enough that he can take a nap at that wildcard meeting on Saturday night.

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