A few months ago, many wondered if the 2021 wrestling season would even take place. Today, we are more than halfway through the various conference championships and less than two weeks away from the 2021 NCAA Division I Championships in St. Louis.
By many metrics, merely making it to this juncture of the season healthy could be seen as an accomplishment due to the myriad of challenges the sport has faced while trying to compete during a global pandemic.
That said, the West Virginia wrestling team despite putting together its best season to date under third-year head coach, Tim Flynn, with both a winning record overall and in the Big 12 play – is still hungry for more.
As WVU puts the finishing touches on its training for the 2021 Big 12 Championships later this week, March 6-7, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Flynn said he believes the key to success in Tulsa for the Old Gold and Blue is not making the conference tournament bigger than it is. At the end of the day, it’s just wrestling.
“I try not to [think about that],” Flynn said regarding the number of national qualifiers he expects to have in St. Louis later this month. “Hopefully, it’s 10. But, if you go by rankings, the first two weight classes are nationally ranked [in Killian Cardinale and Ryan Sullivan], and then obviously, Payton [Hall] and Noah Adams are ranked.
“But really all of our guys have shown some promise,” Flynn continued. “They all have shown signs that they can compete at a high level. And if we can get them to do that this weekend, we’ll have more than that four number.”
Freshman Peyton Hall has most of his college wrestling career ahead of him, but he hopes to be remembered as more than just a great wrestler in the end. #HailWV
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— WVU Wrestling (@WVUWrestling) February 25, 2021
As the mantra has been all season, Flynn and WVU are “tired of losing,” they want to win now. In 2021, the Mountaineers are winning. WVU finished with a 7-3, 3-2 Big 12 overall record this season. Conversely, during Flynn’s first two seasons at the helm in Morgantown, the team went 4-14, 3-6 Big 12 (2018-19) and 4-12, 1-7 Big 12 (2019-20). Additionally, Flynn sent a combined six grapplers to the national tournament over those two seasons.
With five seeded wrestlers and at least four WVU wrestlers expected to earn automatic qualification to the national tournament, it’s clear that the Big 12 program in the Mountain State is steadily improving under Flynn’s leadership. Not only the team is improving, but certain WVU starters, particularly the lightweights, are also seeing advancement and growth over this COVID-19-condensed regular season.
“Kilian [Cardinale] had a slow start,” Flynn said. “He was obviously performing at his best at the very beginning, [but] I think he’s wrestling way better now. His wrestling’s improved, and some of it’s just getting some competition. His body looks good. He looks healthier.
“And then Ryan Sullivan, he wasn’t even down at the weight to start the year, but he’s really got his weight under control and managing that part of it,” Flynn continued. “And he’s really given us a boost for sure. [He is] another really solid guy in the lineup.”
For the program and its student-athletes to continue their climb this postseason, they need to believe that they can win right now, regardless of their age or inexperience at the collegiate level.
“It’s kind of hard because you want to have patience with these young kids,” Flynn said. “But on the other hand, when you’re a patient guy, and you’re like, ‘Oh, we’re going to be good next year, next year comes in, you’re the same guy.’ We need athletes that are thinking about winning right now.
“But on the other hand, these kids have won [matches] their whole lives,” Flynn continued. “Brayden Roberts, he didn’t have the greatest Big 12 record but, the kid has won his whole life at every level. It’s not crazy for him to get to the Big 12 Tournament and have a great showing and qualify for the nationals. It won’t shock us at all.”
Brayden Roberts was a four-time state finalist and three-time state champion, winning the 152-pound weight class as a senior in 2020 for Parkersburg South High School in Parkersburg, West Virginia. The former Parkersburg Patriot was a top-50 recruit as a senior last year in the Class of 2020.
For every Mountaineer starter, Roberts included, treating the conference tournament like every other event will be key to a successful showing for WVU.
“We don’t talk about it [the bigger stage that comes with postseason wrestling] a lot,” Flynn said. “We talk about just day-to-day preparation, what we’re going to do today because I think just sitting and talking too much about ‘Hey, you’re going to the Big 12 Tournament, or, hey, you want to be a national champion, it almost builds that event into more than it is,” Flynn said. “It’s just another wrestling tournament with 12 people in it. We just don’t what to make more of it than it is. These kids have wrestled their whole lives and they’ve been in big-time matches.”
Every Division I wrestler has been big matches, and for these 10 WVU starters, they’ll all find themselves in a few more big-time matches this weekend in Tulsa. There are quite a few loaded brackets within this talented Big 12 field, 197 pounds in particular.
“It [the 197-pound weight class] is really competitive and I have a lot of respect for all those kids,” Flynn said. The kid that is the No. 1 seed [Tanner Sloan of South Dakota State], obviously Noah beat him at the big 12 finals last year. [But] he [Sloan] won a national freestyle championship this past year. So, you know, he’s a really solid guy. We’ve had some wars with [Stephen] Buchanan [of Wyoming] and with [Jake] Woodley [of Oklahoma]. And [AJ] Ferrari [at Oklahoma State] is solid.
“It’s a really deep weight class,” Flynn Continued. “I’m excited. I think Noah has ramped it up a notch. I’m hoping that we have a really good showing, and I think we will.”
Talent aside, the standard is the standard, and wins are expected. As the college wrestling world found out last year, the NCAAs are never promised.
“I think last year showed us, tomorrow is not guaranteed,” Flynn said. “[Last year] we went to the Big 12s and Noah [Adams] won a Big 12 championship, and we didn’t go to the NCAA Tournament. So, if that’s gonna happen this year, then, by God, I want to win 10 [individual] Big 12 championships.”