Sooner Wrestlers Aim for National Title :: OU ranked as high as second in some national polls. Sooner Wrestlers Aim for National Title




All-American and top-ranked Jared Frayer should contend for an NCAA title this season.

Oct. 30, 2001

NORMAN, Okla. - After posting back-to-back fourth-place finishes at the NCAA Championships, what could Oklahoma possibly do for an encore? According to OU Head Coach Jack Spates, contend for the program's eighth national title.

"There's no question that this is the most talented team that we've had here at OU since I've been here," said Spates. "This team is very competitive and has the talent and work ethic to contend for a national championship."

The Sooners return seven starters from last year's squad and are ranked as high as second in some preseason polls. Among those returnees are All-Americans Witt Durden (133), Jared Frayer (149), Josh Lambrecht (184) and heavyweight Leonce Crump and the other three were NCAA qualifiers. OU also welcomes back two-time NCAA qualifier Tom Grossman, who spent last season on a religious mission. Add into the mix a group of talented newcomers and Oklahoma could have the balance of overall team depth and finalist potential to make a run at the Big 12 and NCAA championships.

"Minnesota demonstrated the importance of depth and a well balanced lineup by winning the NCAA title without a finalist," further explained Spates. "Minnesota won the title on the strength of 10 All-Americans and 10 All-Americans is not outside of the realm of possibility. I think that we'll need eight All-Americans and at least one finalist - which we've done each of the past two seasons - to have a shot to win it all."

Once again this season Oklahoma will be strong at 125 pounds with the return of senior NCAA qualifier Matt Ridings and Kansas prep phenom, junior Bo Maynes. Maynes was ranked as high as third in the country in some polls when a rib injury ended his season, while Ridings won 19 straight matches to end the dual season and rose as high as fourth nationally. According to Spates, both wrestlers contain All-America potential.

"Obviously, 125 is our strongest weight with two certain All-Americans, health permitting, in Bo and Matt. They will be involved in a tremendous competition for the starting slot that will greatly benefit the guy who comes out on top. Bo and Matt are great workers and great kids. We're extremely fortunate to have them both."

At 133 pounds, Durden returns after having a breakout NCAA Championships. Unseeded in the tournament, he posted a 6-1 record with his only loss coming to two-time NCAA titleist Eric Juergens. Included among Durden's victories were upset wins against four ranked wrestlers.

"Witt will never be the same," stated Spates. "He also has tremendous talent and an incredible work ethic. Only confidence and size stood between Witt and success. He's now over that hump and his speed and technique should enable him to contend for a national championship."

The Sooners must replace national champion Michael Lightner at 141 pounds. Lightner started four seasons at 141, claiming Big 12 titles and All-America honors each season.

"I look at our lineup and see only three question marks - 141, 157 and 197 pounds," further explained Spates. "At 141 we must replace Michael, who really was a difference-maker. He could not only be counted on for a win every match, but in most instances bonus points. We lost one of the all-time greats."

The spot at 141 looks to be a four-man scramble with junior transfer Nate Parker, redshirt freshman Matt Grice, high school standout Beau DeArmon and last year's spot starter, senior Melvin Lofton. Parker was a two-year starter at Penn State where he qualified for the NCAA Championships. He also defeated Lofton at the National Duals last season and, according to Sooner coaches, is a talent waiting to emerge. Grice was a four-time state champion who medically redshirted last year due to an elbow injury. After successfully rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, Grice looks to be the most talented wrestler at the weight but must battle inexperience and make the weight. If he cannot make 141 he will back up at 149 pounds. DeArmon, the wrestler of the year in Oklahoma and a high school All-American, will likely redshirt if he does not win the starting position. Lofton started in place of Lightner when he suffered a torn shoulder muscle last season and has spent three years in the Sooner program. Freshman Shane Kidd will also contend.

2001 Schalles Award winner and All-American Frayer will once again anchor the OU lineup at 149 pounds. The durable senior has started every competition of his collegiate career. Sixth in career pins at Oklahoma, Frayer recorded 19 falls last season to bring his total to 34. He needs only six pins to move into seventh place and would tie Dan Chaid's single-season mark of 24 pins to reach Chaid's career record of 58. The nation's top pinner, Frayer has relied on throws to score the past three years, but, according to Spates, he has added a new dimension to his attack for this season.

"Jared epitomizes our commitment to identify and eliminate his weaknesses as a wrestler. He's been one of the greatest throwers in college wrestling and a dominant pinner but Jared has worked faithfully to add leg attacks his arsenal. Jared has emerged as such a great leader, mentor and role model for our younger wrestlers. He's a great kid with a tremendous work ethic."

A weight that has been thin the past several seasons, Frayer will be backed up by redshirt freshman Grice, Danny Rubenstein and Randy Sulaver.

Last season 157 pounds was devastated with injuries. Projected starter David Kjeldgaard suffered a season-ending knee injury in preseason drills. Second-teamer Mark Worthy also suffered a season-ending knee injury during OU's second dual of the season. Brian Burrows and Tony Moore both got starting nods during the second semester and Burrows battled injuries much of the season. After a year of hard work and rehab, Worthy returns for his sophomore season as the favorite at 157.

"Prior to his injury, Mark showed tremendous progress and potential," said Spates. "We're looking for a breakout year from him."

Transfer Doug Cieleski, an NCAA qualifier at 165 pounds at Slippery Rock last season, will also get a long look for the starting slot. Newcomer Raf Maturino, a former Missouri Valley NAIA All-American will likely redshirt. Kjeldgaard has been granted a sixth year of elgibility, but will not likely compete.

One of OU's toughest weights will be 165 pounds where two-time NCAA qualifier Robbie Waller will return for his junior season. Waller was the fourth seed at last year's NCAA Championships and was one takedown away from earning All-America honors. Also contending at 165 will be redshirt freshman Wes Roberts, the nation's top recruit at his weight two years ago.

"We're extremely fortunate to have two top-notch wrestlers at this weight (165)," stated Spates. "Robbie is one of the top wrestlers in the country and had big wins against the likes of Joe Heskett, Ty Wilcox and Matt Lackey. Wes wrestled very well at the University and Espoir Nationals and will provide a strong challenge."

The Sooners return yet another two-time national qualifier at 174 pounds in Michael Barger. A Big 12 runner-up in 1999, Barger replaced 2000 national champion Byron Tucker in last season's lineup and narrowly missed earning All-America honors.

"Michael Barger came excruciatingly close to earning All-America honors last season," lamented Spates, "losing both of his matches to eventual All-Americans by the narrowest of margins. He did win nine matches against ranked wrestlers last season and is at his best when he is under the lights."

The two backups at 174 - Josh Ferguson and Dustin Walker - have dual experience.

What looked like OU's weakest weight at the midpoint of last season - 184 pounds - now is one of its strongest due to the late season emergence of All-American Lambrecht. The junior was under .500 as late as February but should be ranked among the top five this season. Spates says that more of the same should be expected this season.

"Part of Josh's problem last year was caused by injuries and adjusting to a new system. We decided to let him do what he does best, which is wrestle in an unconventional style, and, when he became healthy, he came on very strong at the end of the season. We feel that he will be a year more confident and stronger and should pick up where he left off."

Lambrecht will be challenged by Texas strongman Rowdy Lundegreen whose talent and tenacity have been hidden by injuries. Senior Nick Curcio, along with sophomore Travis Brotton and redshirt freshman Jaime Hernandez, will also contend. Derrick Brown, a three-time Oklahoma prep champion, will likely redshirt but could be the future at this weight.

The only other weight in which Oklahoma does not return a starter from last year's squad is at 197 pounds. What looked to be a major question mark was answered when two-time 184 pound NCAA qualifier Grossman returned from a year-long religious mission.

"We're very excited to have Tommy back after a year away on a religious mission," exclaimed Spates. "Tommy is as hard of a worker as you'll find. Not only does he work hard, but he works smart. With Josh's emergence at 184, we weren't certain where Tommy would factor in but after the year off but we're confident he'll be better and stronger at 197 pounds."

Unproven redshirt freshmen Joel Tapler and Blake Christiensen will provide depth at 197.

Heavyweight Crump produced one of the top freshman seasons in school history and Sooner coaches think that it was only a preview of what is to come.

"Leonce is big time," proclaimed Spates. "He failed to win a state championship in Louisiana his senior year and was pinned twice at high school nationals. Now he's a Big 12 champion and an All-American. Leonce is big, strong and fast and finally has the confidence to beat any wrestler in the country."

Crump won 34 matches last season, claimed a Big 12 title and earned All-America honors. He was OU's first freshman All-American and conference champion since Lightner accomplished the feat in 1998. His fourth-place finish at nationals was the best by an OU freshman since 1980.

Senior Gary Barber will serve as Crump's backup and has seen dual action in all four of his seasons at Oklahoma.