Two years ago, it was supposed to be Stanford wrestling’s year to finally win the Pac-12 for the first time in program history.
And then last year, it was again supposed to be Stanford wrestling’s year to finally win the Pac-12 for the first time in program history.
This weekend — stop me if you’ve heard this one before — it’s again looking to be Stanford wrestling’s year to finally win the Pac-12 for the first time in program history.
“I truly believe that we can have 10 guys that can go to the NCAA Tournament,” says freshman Joey McKenna. “It’ll all depend on things falling into the right places and everybody wrestling up to their ability, but if we were to compete right now, I think I can confidently say that we would get 10 guys to the NCAA Tournament.”
But again, that was the case in each of the last two seasons as well. What makes the team think that this time things will finally actually be different?
“The thing that’s changed us is mental toughness,” says redshirt junior Jim Wilson. “We’ve always had the talent. We had the talent last year and we had the talent two years ago and we could have won it, but we just didn’t deliver because as a whole, our team wasn’t mentally tough enough.
“I think that mental edge is going to give us the chance to win that title.”
It says a lot when a team is preaching that sort of confidence and raving about its mental toughness on the heel of one of the more lopsided losses in program history, a 41-0 shutout defeat at No. 2 Oklahoma State to close out the season.
It was a bold move for Stanford to schedule such a powerhouse program so late in the season, when a tough loss could derail the team’s momentum before it heads into the ever-important championship meets, but the Cardinal (11-4, 3-2 Pac-12) aren’t letting such a tough loss deter them — in fact, in the face of such a bitter defeat, their motivation is riding higher than ever before.
“You look at it two ways: You could tuck your head and be sad about it, or you’re going to respond and try to make yourself that much better,” says head coach Jason Borrelli. “Our guys are pretty resilient and they’re usually — 99 percent of the time — choosing that path to try to respond and figure out how to get past it and get better and get over the hump.”
Another thing that’s ensuring that the team’s certainly not lacking in motivation is the fact that the Cardinal will get another shot at rival Oregon State, winner of the last four Pac-12 Championships and a team that Stanford thought it was going to beat in the teams’ dual matchup earlier this season before the Beavers pulled away in a 21-13 win.
Although Oregon State, which comes into the meet as the highest-ranked of the six teams of the Pac-12 at No. 22 according to the USA Today/NWCA Coaches’ Poll, should again be treated as the favorite, this year’s Pac-12s should be one of the most tightly-contested in recent memory, with the Beavers having looked unconvincing at times this season and No. 24 Arizona State, Cal State Bakersfield and Stanford all nipping at Oregon State’s heels.
“They obviously beat us in the regular season, as did Bakersfield,” Borrelli said. “But here’s what I know: I’ve been a part of conference tournaments like this so many times that there’s going to be some craziness and things are going to happen. Anything can happen, and we’ll have as equal of a shot as anybody. I feel very good about our chances.”
Coming off of its championship taper week (with no morning practices and shorter, less intense afternoon practices), Stanford’s wrestlers are all set to be in top physical shape as they head into Saturday’s meet hosted by Arizona State, with a few exceptions.
With redshirt freshman Walker Dempsey, the Cardinal’s normal starter at 157, out for the season with an injury suffered a few weeks ago, redshirt junior Peter Russo has had to bulk up in a hurry to move up from his normal spot at 141 to take the place of freshman Nainoa Calvo, who was defeated in falls in both of his recent matches at 157.
Even with Russo scrambling to pack on the weight, Stanford has lots to be confident about throughout its entire lineup, as the Cardinal are returning two Pac-12 champions from last season (Wilson at 165 and Nathan Butler at 285) and a Pac-12 runner-up in redshirt sophomore Connor Schram at 125.
That’s not to mention McKenna, the No. 2 wrestler in the country at 141, who has assembled a sparkling 19-2 record on the season, including a 5-0 mark against Pac-12 wrestlers (with two falls and a major decision, to boot). McKenna, whose only two losses of the season are both to Dean Heil, the No. 1 wrestler in the country, will be a heavy favorite to power through the bracket and win the first conference title of his career.
“I’m definitely looking to go in and dominate my opponents,” McKenna said. “Right now, I’m ranked second in the country, and that’s not good enough for me. To build some momentum going into the NCAA Tournament, it would be huge for me to go out there and dominate the field and prove why I’m No. 2 in the country.”
Although McKenna will be wrestling in the first conference championship meet of his career, he’s been preparing for the event with the mindset of a savvy veteran, seemingly knowing exactly how to prepare and and exactly what to do as he firmly sets his sights on not just a conference title, but even beyond — a national title.
“Although he’s a freshman, it doesn’t quite feel like that with the way he’s performing and also the way he leads,” Borrelli said. “He’s wise beyond his years. You feel like with a guy like Joey, he’s already been there.”
One guy who has already been there is Wilson, who has won the last two Pac-12 titles at 165 and will be looking to become the first three-time conference champion in Stanford history when he takes the mat on Saturday.
Although Wilson, ranked No. 19 in the country at 165, has set the bar high for himself with his stellar showings in his redshirt freshman and redshirt sophomore tournaments, he’s not going into the tournament with the mindset of defending his titles or even putting any added pressure on himself at all — which, according to Borrelli, is exactly the mindset that any coach would want for his wrestler in such a situation.
“We want him to go wrestle as if he’s never won a conference title and he’s trying to prove himself,” Borrelli said. “If you wrestle to prove yourself, that’s usually when you see guys get the most out of themselves. When you wrestle to defend something, often times you’re very guarded and you’re on the defensive.”
“If you put a lot of pressure on yourself and you wrap up a lot of self-worth into winning and losing, that’ll destroy you,” Wilson added.
Butler, the Cardinal’s other defending champion, will have a tough route to a repeat, as he’ll have to go through Oregon State heavyweight Amarveer Dhesi, who comes into the meet ranked No. 10 in the country and bested Butler 8-6 in the pair’s bout during the Stanford-Oregon State dual earlier this season.
The race at 125 should end up being contested between Schram, ranked No. 15, and Oregon State’s Ronnie Bresser, who is ranked No. 7 but was beaten by Schram earlier in the season on a last-second takedown. Meanwhile, the field looks to be wide open at 133, with no ranked wrestlers set to compete, giving sophomore Mason Pengilly an ample chance to snap a four-match losing streak.
Tommy Pawelski should have an uphill battle against No. 13 Matt Kraus of Arizona State and No. 15 Geordan Martinez of Boise State at 149, while Keaton Subjeck, Garet Krohn and Zach Nevills will all have to fight past top-10 nationally ranked opponents at 174, 184 and 197 to claim conference titles for themselves.
Although the field is stacked, Stanford’s squad is battle-tested from top to bottom, and in the context of the tournament format, which has a very different feeling from the dual format that all six teams have been seeing for the second half of their seasons, anything can happen.
To their credit, Stanford’s wrestlers certainly don’t seem daunted by the challenge.
“I feel like I compete better when there’s a big crowd and a lot of pressure,” Wilson said. “It excites me and makes me want to perform even better. We have guys like Joey McKenna, he’s also that way. When he’s out there with all the lights on, he gets even more excited and wrestles harder.”
“I think if everybody does their part, things are going to fall into place,” McKenna added.
The 2016 Pac-12 Wrestling Championships will get underway in Tempe, Arizona, at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday. The second session will begin at 3:30 p.m., and the finals will take place at 5 p.m., with a live broadcast of the finals set to be aired on the Pac-12 Networks.
Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dhpark ‘at’ stanford.edu.