Improved Wrestlers Facing Brutal Slate
Craig Turnbull’s West Virginia University wrestling program has the best of both worlds these days competing in the Big 12.
No. 1, the Mountaineers get the bump in recruiting that comes with wrestling three perennial top 15 programs in Oklahoma State (No. 4 this week), Oklahoma (No. 5) and Iowa State (No. 12) annually. And No. 2, having those three schools on the schedule makes it a lot easier for Turnbull to build a great dual meet schedule around them.
“What it’s done is reduce the stress on my spring scheduling because if the Big Ten wrestles everybody (in their conference) and you’re only allowed 16 dates and two or three tournaments, they only have a slot for one or two teams outside their league,” Turnbull explained. “You’ve got to work really hard to get on there to make sure - not only in the preparation of the guys on our team in seeing the upper-level people - but also in recruiting to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got Penn State, we’ve got Illinois, we’ve got Ohio State, Lehigh and so on.’”
There is no question Turnbull takes a masochistic approach to scheduling. This year’s slate features nine teams in this week’s Intermat rankings, including four top 30 teams in a row right here at the Coliseum from Jan. 10-Feb. 6 when NC State (No. 28), Oklahoma State (No. 4), Pitt (No. 19) and Oklahoma (No. 5) will all be in town.
Therefore, if you want to see some of the very best collegiate wrestlers in the country then Morgantown is where you need to be this coming January and February.
“It’s probably not smart for a legacy of wins and losses, but I’ve never really tried to play with a schedule to make sure we’ve got our sure wins and it reads well to the public,” admitted Turnbull. “If we’re showing 10-3 they might say ‘boy, what a great job’ but if eight of those schools are ones we should win no matter what …
“I’ve just not been concerned about it,” he continued. “Maybe I should, because some people pay attention to it, but whether I think we’re going to be good, OK or building, we stay with a similar schedule.”
According to Turnbull, West Virginia’s slate last year was considered the most difficult in the country by one computer analysis of team schedules, which undoubtedly contributed to a 2-13 dual-meet record that was one of the worst in Turnbull’s 35 years at WVU.
A combination of some outstanding teams and some debilitating injuries totally wrecked the season. Turnbull said he’s had two other years like that in his career when most of his top wrestlers were on the shelf and he had a difficult time putting a lineup out on the mat. In a sport where elbows, ankles, shoulders and knees are being bent and twisted in unnatural ways, injuries will always be a part of the equation - a big part, actually.
Every program has to deal with them and that’s why wrestling coaches never get too far ahead of themselves.
“We’re all the same,” Turnbull admitted. “You’re only allowed 9.9 scholarships, not even rounded to 10, and you have 10 non-interchangeable weights so it can happen to anyone. Some teams have a little more advantage of putting a little more depth together by getting some quality walk-ons in the state they are in.”
Walk-ons have always played big role in college wrestling and the very best programs typically have a walk-on or two good enough to make a run in the national tournament. Turnbull once had one of those at WVU in 158-pound All-American Sam Kline.
“I tell the Sam Kline story forever,” he said. “Sam was from Elkins, got transplanted to Massachusetts and came in here as a walk-on and he was terrible. He transferred from Rutgers and I called them and asked about Sam and they said he’s a great kid, but he’ll never help your program.”
But Kline wanted to be an outstanding college wrestler in the worst way.
“He would track (assistant coach) Nate Carr down like a dog all summer (to drill),” said Turnbull. “Nate would say ‘I’m painting, I don’t have time.’ Sam would say, ‘Just give me an hour. I will come over and pick you up.’ He’d go pick up Nate and get his butt whipped for an hour and then take Nate back home. He did this all summer and went from someone who was not very good to his senior year being in the NCAA semis with a call that could have gone either way that went to the other guy who wound up winning a national championship.
“And he worked his way back through and took third,” added Turnbull. “If you asked me if that was possible when he first came through I’d say on my house those things will never happen. When you get five or six or 10 (walk-ons) and a Sam Kline comes along, that’s really helpful to your program.”
In order to have a top 10-caliber team you must have two or three elite wrestlers like a Greg Jones or Mike Mason who can go deep into the national tournament and then have some solid guys around them who can also qualify for NCAAs.
West Virginia, now 8-2 following a victory at No. 23 Indiana on Dec. 8, is clearly much better this year, but Turnbull is not yet sure if he’s got that elite-level wrestler like a Jones, Dean Morrison or Scott Collins who is capable of stringing together enough winner’s-bracket victories to get deep into the national tournament.
“We have people that have possibilities of getting to the podium,” he said. “You take (133-pounder Nathan) Pennesi, who has been all around it for three years and he is around it this year, but there’s no guarantee that he will get there. Our goal is that he will be.
“(141-pounder) Colin Johnston is very much the same. (149-pounder) Mike Morales was a redshirt last year, but the year before in the last dual meet of the year he beat (Mitchell) Port from Edinboro and beat him again in the EWL finals,” Turnbull noted. “Well, Port was second in the NCAA last year. Mike is capable of that.”
“(Virginia Tech transfer) Bubba Scheffel is off to a really good start. He broke the pin record already and we’re just getting the season started and he has a possibility, but all of them are in that next level (of tournament seeds). When I used to be on the seeding it was real easy to seed one to about eight. Then it got difficult. You’ve got about 15-20 stacks of people in front of you and you could just interchange them and we’re kind of in that eight-to-20 area where, with a good tournament or the right matchups, we could do that.”
One thing is obvious, based on what’s ahead the Mountaineers will get plenty of opportunities to compete against some of the very best teams and wrestlers in the country when the calendar flips to 2014.
“We’re still a young team and we could struggle a little bit,” Turnbull cautioned. “On the rest of our (dual-meet) schedule there are no gimmies. There are just matches where they are even up or we are clearly the underdog, but it’s still a great opportunity for us and we just can’t evaluate whether a win is good or a loss is bad. There is a lot of qualitative evaluation that has to go into it as well.”
Qualitative and quantitative, when you consider the number of outstanding teams Turnbull is wrestling this winter.
Craig Turnbull, WVU wrestling, NCAA wrestlinbg, Big 12 Conference
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