By Christian Potts
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — The hard work, discipline and intensity, it all builds up to what an elite wrestler is able to do over the three days at the end of this week.
That’s when a legacy may be born and a legend made. Those stories will play out at the NCAA Wrestling Championships, taking place Thursday through Saturday just up the road at Oklahoma City’s Chesapeake Energy Arena.
It means a chance for the hometown fans to see an Oklahoma wrestling team that has a chance to make some waves.
“It’s time to get into their minds, that they have to expect to win every time they go out there,” said OU Coach Mark Cody. “And that takes being able to focus, one match at a time and even one minute at a time.”
The Sooners have qualified eight wrestlers for the national tournament, led by two former national champions: Kendric Maple, who won the 141-pound crown a year ago, and Andrew Howe, a 165-pound national champion in 2010 while competing for Wisconsin.
Howe’s road since has been a winding one. He took an Olympic redshirt year and was 30 seconds away from possibly being part of Team USA in the 2012 London Olympics as he was closing out the rubber match of a best-of-3 series against Jordan Burroughs.
“We just got into a scramble, and then I felt my knee pop,” Howe said. “I’d never felt anything like that before. But I knew I was in trouble. It ended up being an ACL.”
Howe finished the match, but lost a 1-0 decision.
Burroughs went on and won the gold medal in the 74-kilogram freestyle division in London.
Howe went on to months of rehabilitation from the injury, and in the meantime he and former Badger teammate Travis Rutt both followed former assistant coach Jared Frayer to OU to finish up their collegiate careers with the Sooners.
Howe brings that rare combination in sport, where the most talented guy matches his talent by being a relentless worker. It’s been infectious throughout the Sooner roster, Cody said.
“Every day, you’re going to see basically the same guy, just a warrior out there,” Cody said. “As soon as the whistle blows, he’s going forward the whole time. He’s been there. His advantage is he’s won a national title and he’s been on the podium every time.”
Howe has one defeat this year — two weekends ago at the Big 12 tournament final, in Norman, when Oklahoma State’s Chris Perry — last year’s 174-pound national champion scored a razor-thin 3-2 victory. Howe gave Perry his only defeat in a 4-2 decision in Norman in December.
Many are penciling in “Howe vs. Perry 3” as inevitable for the 174-pound finale. A Bedlam matchup between two former national champions in downtown Oklahoma City in front of 18,000 fans sounds just about right for their story.
It may well happen, but Howe knows his focus can’t get ahead get ahead of the process it will take to get there.
“Everyone is 0-0 again going into this week,” Howe said. “The coaches have done a great job of getting us ready, and now you’ve got to just go out and take it one match at a time.”
The Sooners will bring five seeded wrestlers into Oklahoma City, and four of those are top-eight seeds. Maple returns looking for another national title, but has moved up to 149 pounds, where he’s seeded fourth.
A rematch with No. 1 Blake Houdashelt of Missouri could be looming in the semifinals. Houdashelt defeated Maple in a close match in Norman in January.
Jarrod Patterson is the No. 6 seed at 125 pounds. But of perhaps all his wrestlers, Cody says the seed may mean the least with Patterson, a senior from Cushing.
“Wherever he is seeded, I’m never too concerned,” Cody said. “In this sport, you have to go beat everyone, and no matter what he is seeded, he is very capable of winning the tournament.”
Rutt, the No. 7 seed at 197, placed seventh at nationals three years ago with the Badgers but since has sat out a transfer year and an Olympic redshirt year. Cody likes Rutt’s experience and the way he’s wrestling at the end of the year.
“He’s in a great place, and it’s an interesting bracket because everyone’s been beaten at this weight,” Cody said. “Nobody comes in undefeated. I think he has a great advantage for the same reason Howe does. He’s been on the podium before and knows what it takes.”
Cody Brewer finished seventh in the nation at 133 last season. This year, Brewer enters seeded No. 13 but with an all-too-familiar face looming in the second round, with his likely opponent being Oklahoma State’s Jon Morrison, who defeated him at the Big 12 tournament, as well as two duals this season. All three matches were competitive.
“It’s tough to beat someone twice in a season, let alone four times,” said the Sooner coach, allowing himself to look ahead slightly to the possible second-round Bedlam rematch. “The more you wrestle someone, particularly when you come out on the losing side, the more you learn. We know Cody’s capable of scoring points against him.”
Senior Nick Lester, junior Justin DeAngelis and redshirt freshman Ross Larson round out the Sooners’ qualifiers. Lester is a former All-American whose best efforts have come in tournament competition, including a third-place finish in Las Vegas and an impressive technical fall against a top-15 wrestler at the Big 12 meet to secure his spot in the national field.
“Technically, he’s as good as anyone in the country,” Cody said. “He has to be in that balance where he’s showing solid technique but also wrestling hard. He is capable of beating anyone.”
For all, it’s a chance to show off their craft not just on the biggest stage in college wrestling, but for one year, a stage close to home.
“It’s really nice to not have to travel much at this time of year,” Cody said. “You get to work out one more day here, sleep in your own bed an extra night, and have a lot of support from the local crowd.”
Maple still a favorite: A year ago at this time, Kendric Maple enjoyed the best wrestling week of his life.
Then a junior, the Oklahoma grappler finished off an undefeated season with a perfect week to claim the national championship at 141 pounds. He was the Sooners’ first individual champion since Teyon Ware, at the same weight, in 2005.
This year, Maple is back on the short list of favorites to top the podium at 149 pounds in his last collegiate wrestling go-round, this time in front of a friendly crowd in Oklahoma City.
“Our fans deserve this. It’s a great chance to get to see us compete in our own backyard,” Maple said.
Maple has come a long way since stepping on campus after a strong prep career at Wichita Heights High School, where he was a two-time Kansas state champion. He’s looking forward to his last days competing as a Sooner.
“I’m just a completely different person now,” he said. “I’ve become someone so much more than I was. You just love every minute here, and it’s all about not just what you do as an athlete, but the whole experience as a student-athlete too. It’s definitely an honor and a blessing.”
Numerous schools will have their entire team of 10 in Oklahoma City this week, maximizing their number of chances to score points toward a team national championship.
The formula for the Sooners to get into that picture is pretty simple.
“We’ve got to get as many through to the semifinals as we possibly can,” Sooner coach Mark Cody said. “You have to have a good plan for everybody, which we do. They’re more prepared now than for any competition they’ve had all year.”
Day two of the tournament, Friday, could be huge, with the championship quarterfinals in the morning, the semifinals in the evening, and numerous “wrestle-back” consolations throughout both sessions providing a chance for teams to add to their point totals.
By seed number, at least, four Sooners – Maple, Andrew Howe, Jarrod Patterson and Travis Rutt – are favored to be quarterfinalists.
Of the eight Sooners wrestling this week, six have been here before — Howe and Rutt during their time as Wisconsin Badgers. The lone newcomers to the big stage are Justin DeAngelis and Ross Larson.
DeAngelis, a redshirt junior from Jenks, pushed himself into the national rankings in the second half of the season but is not seeded this week at 157. Larson received one of four at-large bids into the heavyweight bracket. He spent much of the year in the national rankings as well and has beaten several in the field.
Cody especially likes DeAngelis to surprise some opponents who, at least on paper, are more acclaimed.
“At the NCAAs, you have a lot of guys who get out there and freeze up, and it’s a huge advantage at this tournament if you always go at a high pace, which Justin does,” Cody said.
DeAngelis’ father, Frank, was a national runner-up for the Sooners in the late 1970s. … Penn State enters as the No. 1 team in the country, according to Intermat’s tournament rankings. Oklahoma is No. 6. In the coaches poll, Minnesota’s No. 1 and the Sooners No. 14. … The championships last came to Oklahoma City in 2006, with Oklahoma State winning its fourth straight team title. The Cowboys, ranked No. 4 this year, haven’t won a team title since. … Oklahoma’s last team title was 1974, when Stan Abel’s Sooners edged Michigan by 2.5 team points.
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