Hayden Hastings and Cole Verner have more in common than simply being Wyoming natives at the end of their first year in the Wyoming Cowboys’ starting wrestling lineup. They both qualified for their first NCAA Wrestling Championships by receiving at-large bids earlier this week. And they both wish they hadn’t left their selections for the country’s largest collegiate wrestling meet in the hands of a committee.
Having their seeds and opponents announced Wednesday, the two former multi-time Wyoming state champions eagerly enter a week’s wait before the NCAA Championships begin March 22 in Pittsburgh. No practice between now and then will be easy for the duo, who walk into Pittsburgh with chips on their shoulders.
Hastings, a Sheridan native, lost in the semifinals of the Big 12 Championships by a 18-5 major decision. He’s still upset at himself for letting Oklahoma State’s Jacobe Smith, ranked No. 6 in the country at 174 pounds, dictate the pace of that match.
“I just kind of got punched in the mouth rather than come out and set the tone,” Hastings said. “After that it was a downhill slide. I didn’t wrestle as hard as I should have, and I think it cost me.”
The former Bronc, one of the most decorated competitors in the history of Wyoming high school wrestling, earned the No. 25 seed at the NCAA Championships and will square off against Northern Iowa’s Taylor Lujan, No. 8 in the nation, in the first round. After his at-large bid was announced he received text messages from his home of Sheridan, including some from old wrestling coaches and former football coach Don Julian.
Hastings ended his high-school career as a three-time state champion and four-time Ron Thon champion for the Broncs. He credited his stellar high school career with preparing him for his collegiate career.
“High school kind of helped me with the mentality that I can compete with everybody,” he said, “and that I’m best with what I do.”
Hastings also credited his redshirt season with getting him acclimated to the pace of collegiate wrestling. He used last year as a necessary adjustment period to get where he is now: steps away from being an all-American and only slightly further from a national championship.
Those goals and visions, along with the mentality that he could be in a better position, are shared by his 126-pound teammate.
Verner, from Green River, asked teammates Sam Turner and Montorie Bridges, and even coaches, if they thought he’d receive an at-large bid. Much like Hastings, he’d notched quality wins through a grueling schedule. His teammates relayed that information to him but that didn’t relieve the disappointment of losing by pinfall in the conference quarterfinals.
“They all said I had a high chance, but I shouldn’t have left it up to chance,” Verner said. “I should have wrestled harder at conference.”
Verner (22-13) received the No. 23 seed at 125 pounds and will face North Dakota State’s Brent Fleetwood, ranked No. 9 in the country by InterMat, in the first round next weekend. Verner isn’t fazed by the task ahead of him. The two-time state and two-time Ron Thon champion’s history against tough competition extends back to his redshirt season when he consistently sparred in Wyoming’s wrestling room against graduated grappler Drake Foster.
He expects nerves for next weekend’s tournament. They’re nearly constant before matches regardless of opponent and can sometimes get the better of his brain. That culminated with self-sabotaging pressure at the conference tournament as Verner caught himself thinking, “You’re not going to make it if you mess up,” he said.
His ties with Pittsburgh won’t lessen his nerves. His father, Scott, grew up just 30 miles outside Pittsburgh in Worthington, Pennsylvania, before moving to Wyoming at 18. Cole’s uncle, Scott’s brother, lives in Pittsburgh and has hosted Cole and his father for trips that include Steelers games. It’s been years since the Western Wyoming Community College transfer last visited his uncle or Pittsburgh, but he’s excited to return as a participant on college wrestling’s largest stage.
What has helped him ease the nerves are the messages of support he’s received from his hometown. He wants to make his hometown proud. So he’ll try to approach each match at the NCAA Championships just as he did as a standout for the Wolves.
“I think I need to think about it less,” he said. “It’s wrestling. I’ve wrestled my whole life.”