Last season wasn’t a fun one for the University of Wyoming wrestling program.
“Losing sucks and we didn’t have fun last year,” 10th-year Cowboys coach Mark Branch said. “We had guys wrestling one, two weight classes out of where they should have been just to get through the duals. You go out and lose and you definitely walk away sick to your stomach.
“Experience like that last year was brutal on the attitude and the energy.”
Wyoming hopes to return the fun and energy to the mat this season.
The Cowboys start the 2017-18 season by hosting the Cowboy Open on Saturday at War Memorial Fieldhouse.
UW was 7-8 overall and 4-4 in Big 12 duals last season with a lineup that was thin in the upper weights.
The Cowboys advanced five wrestlers to the NCAA tournament with three — seniors Bryce Meredith and Archie Colgan and junior Branson Ashworth — returning.
Meredith won’t wrestle in the Cowboy Open. Instead he’ll take part in the National Wrestling Coaches Association All-Star Classic on Sunday in Princeton, New Jersey. Meredith starts the season ranked third at 141 pounds behind Oklahoma State’s Dean Heil and North Carolina State’s Kevin Jack.
Meredith will face Jack on Sunday. Jack beat Meredith by a late pin for third place at nationals last season.
Meredith returns as a two-time All-American for UW, having finished second in 2016 and fourth last season. The former Cheyenne Central standout — who transferred to UW after one season at North Carolina State — was 32-8 last season and led the team with 12 pins.
Meredith’s goal this season is simple: win a national title.
“It’s special that I’ve had the last two years to put myself in this position to achieve that dream and make it attainable. It’s nice going into my senior year knowing I can get it done,” Meredith said. “I know I have the ability.”
As a team, the Cowboys placed 21st at nationals with 20 points.
Colgan went 36-10 at 157 pounds and missed placing at nationals by two points.
Ashworth moved up from 149 pounds to 165 and had a breakout season with a 36-9 record before going 1-2 at the national meet.
Both Colgan and Ashworth start the season ranked 16th at their weights by Intermat.com.
“I wanted to be on the (NCAA) podium last year and fell just short of that,” Colgan said. “I’ve made some improvements and it’s carried over through the summer and the preseason.
“I’ve made some important strides mentally and physically.”
Ashworth spent the offseason going from an undersized 165 pounder to having the look of a dominant wrestler at that weight.
“It’s my natural weight,” he said. “I don’t have to cut weight and I can focus on getting better every day.
“I just want to get technically better every day. I’m excited and that has a lot to do with my confidence level.”
Ashworth looks like a changed man said Branch.
“He is physically a different person,” he said. “He wrestles differently; he is doing different things than he’s ever done. I’m anxious to see how he does. If he feels that much bigger and stronger, he’ll be a much better wrestler.”
Senior Kyle Pope was 22-16 a season ago wrestling between 165 and 184 pounds while senior Luke Paine went 10-16 at 184 and 197.
UW also needs to replace graduated NCAA participants Drew Templeman at 125 and Cole Mendenhall at 149.
“We have to have things develop throughout the year, a lot of young kids that haven’t had a lot of experience,” Branch said. “It’s key to keep their heads up when they stub their toe. I really feel like this group can do some great things this season.”
Branch said a key to this season’s success could hinge on sophomore 197-pounder Cody Vigoren.
Vigoren has battled neck injuries since arriving in Laramie, but posted an 8-6 record last season before having surgery on his neck.
“We have to have him in the lineup so we’re not as stretched as we were last year,” Branch said. “We need him healthy and he is a key to us pulling those upper weights together.”
Redshirt freshman Montorie Bridges went 14-2 last season as an individual and will wrestle at 125 this season. Sophomore Ronnie Stevens was 9-12 for UW at 125 and 133 and starts the season at 133.
Other weights up for grabs include 165, 174, 184 and 285.
Sheridan freshman Hayden Hastings is in the mix at 165 while Laramie freshman Carless Looney has a chance to wrestle at 184.
Junior Sam Eagan (8-4) and sophomore Danny Gordon (10-7) wrestled at 285 for the Pokes.
“We’ve got kids who you can tell have a little more heart, a little more pride in what they do,” Meredith said.
“You can sense that in the practice room. Now we just have see them go out there and do it on the mat.
“If they can take everything that they’ve learned to the mat, good things can happen for us.”