By Clay Horning
The Norman Transcript
This year is different.
It’s not wishful thinking, a slogan, an expectation, nor even a conclusion based upon investigation. For the 2013-14 Oklahoma wrestling season, it’s a fact.
It doesn’t assure success, yet it could well shorten the odds of attaining more of it.
A lot more of it.
“If they wrestle the way they’re capable and they really believe in themselves, we can have four or five guys in the finals,” third-year Sooner wrestling coach Mark Cody said, before quickly re-evaluating.
“We could have six. There are six guys in that room right now that I know are good enough to make the NCAA finals, let alone the guys that we’re still developing.”
It’s different because the Sooners really do have six All-Americans ready to take the mat this season. It’s also different because of who they are. It’s also different because the program understands it’s been pointing to this season.
It has loaded up.
There’s Kendric Maple, the reigning 141-pound national champion, the Sooners’ first since Teyon Ware, at the same weight, in 2005, who’s making the move to 149 this season.
There’s Cody Brewer at 133 pounds, who went 25-8 a year ago, who finished second at the Big 12 tournament and 4-2 at the NCAA meet and earned All-American status by securing a major decision over Penn State’s Jordan Conoway.
There’s Nick Lester, who’s moved up to 141 pounds, who earned All-American status with a 3-3 run during his sophomore year at the 2012 NCAA meet.
There’s Jarrod Patterson, who’s been to three NCAA meets and who, in 2011, placed seventh to earn All-America honors. He’s back after redshirting last season.
That’s a pretty good starting point. A solid foundation. Yet it’s only a starting point, because the Sooners claim a couple other guys with All-American resumes, too.
Andrew Howe and Travis Rutt both began their collegiate wrestling careers in the fall of 2008 at Wisconsin.
They spent three years in Madison before taking a year off to pursue their Olympic dreams, a move allowed by the NCAA. Then, after taking their “Olympic redshirt” they chose to transfer in tandem to Norman, where they then took the typical redshirt collegiate athletes may utilize once. Now, after two years away from the competitive collegiate mat, they’re back.
Howe is the headliner.
He already has three Big 10 championships under his belt, the 2010 national title at 165 pounds and, on each side of that, a runner-up and third-place finish at the NCAA meet. At 174 pounds, he’ll enter the season ranked No. 1 by InterMat.
Rutt placed seventh at the 2011 NCAA meet at 184 pounds, and could be poised to go a bit further two years later at 197.
“With an Olympic year and a redshirt year under his belt, he’s gained knowledge, better technical skills and maturity,” Cody said or Rutt. “He is as hungry to win an NCAA championship as anyone I’ve ever been around.”
For years and years and years OU has been one of the nation’s premiere wrestling programs. Also, it has perpetually been the second best program in the state to Bedlam rival Oklahoma State and, after winning five national championships between 1951 and 1963, is still looking for its first national title since Stan Abel’s Sooners did the deed in 1974.
Five of the six All-Americans will be finished at season’s end.
This is the year.
The Sooners feel it.
“There’s definitely a different vibe,” Maple said. “With six All-Americans coming back, we have the talent to do it. We just need to perform and all show up. We’re ready for it.”
The addition of Howe may not only push the Sooners over the top this season, but his influence could leave a mark well after he’s gone.
“He’s the hardest-working individual I’ve ever been around … We need that spark in our wrestling program. That can be contagious and I think it really has become that way in our room,” Cody said. “They say, ‘OK, we work hard an everybody in our sport works hard, but (Howe’s example) is a whole different level.”
For his part, Howe may be as soft spoken as he is a hard worker.
“I just try to lead by example,” he said.
Maple believes he’s seen a difference in the Sooners’ wrestling room.
“We’re trying to hold each other accountable,” he said. “I can think of multiple times that leaders have called other guys out for not working hard and it’s just brought everybody up to speed.”
It’s a fast speed, designed to take the Sooners a very long way in one short season. Afterward, OU can worry about parlaying it into future fantastic seasons.
“It’s exciting. We can’t wait to get started. It’s going to be a process,” Cody said. “We’re not really keeping our eyes on the prize as much as we are trying to get better every day.”
Do that and OU will take its chances and like its odds when the big trophies begin being handed out.
Follow me @clayhorning