LARAMIE — Wyoming’s wrestling team is streaking into the postseason.
The Cowboys have won four straight dual matches and 12 of their last 13. Wyoming finished the regular season with 16 wins in duals, helping them to a No. 12 national ranking heading into this weekend’s Big 12 Championships.
But those aren’t the numbers that matter at this point.
Sure, winning the Big 12’s team championship would be an accomplishment. It’s something the Cowboys have never done during head coach Mark Branch’s 11-year tenure, though they came the closest they have since joining the league in 2015 with a fourth-place finish last season.
But Wyoming’s primary objective is to send as many wrestlers as possible from Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the Big 12 tournament will be held Saturday and Sunday, to Pittsburgh for the NCAA Championships later this month.
“We’re going in as a group of 10, and our goal is to come out as a group of 10 and continue this training cycle of 10,” Branch said. “It’s not necessarily about how you place. It’s not about how you finish in the Big 12 team race. It’s about getting to the NCAA Tournament. That’s what everybody in the whole country is thinking about right now.”
Wyoming sent six wrestlers to the NCAAs last season. Wyoming has never had more than eight wrestlers qualify for nationals, but if the Big 12’s pre-tournament seedings are any indication, this year’s team could give the 1959 and 1975 teams a run for the record for most qualifiers in program history.
Nine wrestlers in the Cowboys’ 10-man starting lineup earned top-8 seeds in their respective weight classes. Senior Branson Ashworth, who’s racked up 30 wins for the third time in his career, leads the way as the top overall seed at 165 pounds. Sophomore Montorie Bridges (27-7) is No. 3 at 133, freshman Tate Samuelson (21-4) is No. 4 at 184, freshman Hayden Hastings (23-10) is No. 5 at 174 and sophomore Brian Andrews (29-8) is No. 5 in the heavyweight division.
Junior Cole Verner (125), sophomore Sam Turner (141) and junior Dewey Krueger (157) are all 6 seeds in their respective weight classes, and freshman Cale Davidson (22-13) is No. 8 at 197. Junior Jaron Jensen (17-17) will compete for the Cowboys in the 149-pound class.
Those seeds are important considering the higher a wrestler finishes in his respective weight class, the better his chances of qualifying for the NCAAs. The Big 12 has been allocated 53 qualifiers with that number being divvied up as follows, according to the NCAA: five in the 125-pound weight class, five in 133, six in 141, seven in 149, one in 157, six in 165, five in 174, five in 184, seven in 197 and six heavyweights.
At-large selections will also be made from any weight class in any conference to fill out the NCAA field. Individual conference champions automatically qualify for the NCAAs, which will be held March 21-23.
“Pretty much every guy has shown amazing things throughout the year, but it’s been somewhat inconsistent from an individual perspective,” Branch said, referring to his team. “We’ll have a guy knock off a top-15 guy and then the next night they go out and lose to an unranked guy. Well, this is that week where you need to go knock off three top-20 guys in a row, maybe three top-15 or two top-10.”
It’s been nearly a month since the Cowboys wrapped up the regular season with a 26-19 dual win at Northern Colorado on Feb. 17. Wyoming may have to shake off some rust given the lengthy time off between competitions, but Branch said his team needed it to heal up.
Specifically, Verner has been nursing a partially torn knee ligament throughout the season that’s benefited from the extra down time. Branch said his team enters the most important part of its season as healthy as it’s been at any point.
The Cowboys will take as many advantages as they can get in their bid for history this weekend.
“We have eight guys that qualified on allocation for the conference,” Branch said. “Those eight guys have put themselves in pretty good position to get to the NCAA Tournament, and my expectations are for them to get to the NCAA Tournament. Then I’ve got two other guys that have got to go do work. What I mean is they’ve got to go take a spot from somebody. They’re capable of doing it.”