LARAMIE – Mark Branch hasn’t been shy about saying his ultimate goal is getting 10 University of Wyoming wrestlers to the NCAA Championships.
Although extremely difficult, it’s been Branch’s dream since taking over the wrestling program in 2008.
It appears that dream is getting closer to reality.
The Cowboys enter this weekend’s Big 12 Championships in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with eight of their 10 wrestlers seeded sixth or higher.
Last season, UW sent six wrestlers to nationals, with seven being the most under Branch in 2013. The program has sent eight wrestlers to nationals twice, the last time coming in 1975.
“With eight guys getting allocations for the conference, they’re in good position,” Branch said. “But you don’t want to leave it up to a committee, you want to go stamp your place.
“This is a fresh opportunity, and some guys are in great position with how they’ve wrestled all year, and some guys need to go there and wrestle the best they have all season.”
Senior Branson Ashworth enters the tournament as the No. 1 seed at 165 pounds, with redshirt sophomore Montorie Bridges No. 3 at 133 and freshman Tate Samuelson No. 4 at 184.
Ashworth has dominated his weight class with a 30-3 record, including a 4-0 mark against Big 12 wrestlers in the field. The Spanish Fork, Utah, product has won 16 consecutive matches overall and is ranked No. 8 nationally.
“It shows I had a really good regular season, and I deserve that seed,” Ashworth said. “But everyone’s 0-0 coming into the weekend, and we’re all trying to get the same thing. I’m just going to wrestle whoever they put in front of me and give it my best effort.”
Bridges, who finished eighth at the NCAA meet last season to earn All-American status, is ranked ninth nationally with a 27-7 record and a 7-1 mark against Big 12 wrestlers.
Other nationally ranked Cowboys coming into the weekend are: junior 125-pounder Cole Verner (No. 15); redshirt sophomore 141-pounder Sam Turner (No. 11); redshirt freshman Hayden Hastings (No. 17 at 174); and freshman Tate Samuelson (No. 19 at 184).
UW had two Big 12 champions last season in Bryce Meredith and Archie Colgan as the Cowboys placed fourth with 82.5 points. Oklahoma State won the title with 137.
Branch believes his team is primed for an even better performance this weekend.
“I can’t think of a postseason training period where I’ve seen a team as a whole have such a positive attitude,” Branch said. “This is when we throw the kitchen sink at them, especially with more of a time span between our last competition. We’ve been ganging up on them, rotating fresh guys on them, making them take 90 percent of the reps in the drills.
“They’ve been conditioned as a 10-man unit, and I can’t think of a team that I’ve had that’s accepted the challenge with such a positive attitude.”
The tournament starts at 10 a.m. today at the BOK Center in Tulsa with two sessions.
Sunday’s action begins at 11 a.m., with the championship matches scheduled for 6 p.m.
“Watching Bryce and Archie get that Big 12 championship last year was cool,” Ashworth said. “I want to get my name on that wall next to theirs.”