The finish of last year’s 2009-2010 wrestling season was one of the most successful in school history for the Wisconsin wrestling team. Junior Andrew Howe went 37-0 on his way to a national championship in the 165-pound weight class, while the Badgers showcased four All-Americans (Howe, Trevor Branvold, Tyler Graff and Kyle Ruschell, the only graduating senior) on their way to placing fourth in the NCAA Championships.
The high level finish in the tournament had only been seen twice before in Badger history, the last time coming in 1978.
“I think they were a talented group, more than just four or five great guys,” head coach Barry Davis said of his fourth-place team. “They came through in big matches and found ways to win. Overall, a full year of training and putting guys in situations in practice always helps. The guys that are there in big tournament matches just found a way to get it done and they did.”
Davis himself was named 2010 NWCA Coach of the Year, coaching seven UW wrestlers to the NCAA Championships. The taste of the top and the sting of defeat from last year’s tournament is a driving force propelling the wrestling program to new heights.
“Once success comes, the confidence comes with,” Branvold said. “When we go out on the mat we are expecting to beat the other guy.”
The confidence of the wrestlers has shown bright this season, as the Badgers look poised for their most successful finish in school history.
The Badgers started off on fire to begin their 2010-2011 campaign, winning seven out of nine dual meets, including five straight. Even while missing Branvold, the Badger wrestlers found extreme success to begin the season. The team finished second at the Cliff Keen Invite and the Midlands Invite, as well as third at the NWCA National Duals, where they lost in the semifinals by one point to Virginia Tech. Branvold says the hot start was no surprise.
“With guys like Tyler (Graff), we knew with his success last year he was going to be good,” Branvold said. “The rest of the guys who are stepping up we knew all had talent and answered the challenge. It’s been great as a senior to have seen these guys grow as wrestlers like they have.”
With the drive and experience gained at last year’s NCAA Championships, this Wisconsin team has the demeanor and expectations to drive them toward postseason success.
“The coaches have done a great job raising our intensity in practice,” Howe said. “I think that’s the one thing that’s been one-upped every year since I’ve been here. The intensity in the room was higher last year and this year it’s been more intense than ever, so I expect the trend and our performance to continue in the right direction.”
The Badgers have seen a large deal of injuries this season, facing absences from Branvold in the beginning of the season and recently Howe.
“We’ve had guys go through adversity this year, but you can’t feel sorry for yourself,” coach Barry Davis said. “Trevor’s been out most of the year, he’s came back, Howe’s out fighting injury right now and he’s fighting his way back. The thing is don’t feel sorry for yourself, get tough and put it behind you and move forward.”
If one needs to look for an example of the Badgers’ toughness as a team, look no further then Branvold. Two years ago in a match, Branvold herniated two discs in his neck, which had no real cure unless he underwent surgery, which would end his wrestling career. The injury has kept him out of many bouts on the mat, but through indomitable effort and heart, Branvold has found his way back into the starting lineup for the Badgers.
“I believe everything happens for a reason, and it would have been easy to roll over and say my career is over,” Branvold said. “The training staff and coaches have been awesome in helping me back, especially after hearing doctors tell me I’d never wrestle again. It’s incredible and it makes me have a different perspective on the mat.”
Howe, who has recently been sidelined by a leg injury, echoed a similar desire to return to the mat.
“It tears you apart to sit on the sidelines, I don’t know how much more I can take,” Howe said.
With Howe out of the lineup, the Badgers have recently hit a rough stretch, dropping their last three duals to Minnesota, Michigan and Purdue, two of which were decided by six points or less.
While many could point to the Badgers being banged up as a reason for the losses, Davis and the wrestlers refuse to make any excuses.
“We’ve had opportunities to win those duals, but in the end it doesn’t matter,” Davis said. “We expect our guys to get it done. It’s how you handle the situation of the setback and our guys have always done that in a positive way. We’ll have another chance Friday against Northwestern and we’ll go from there.”
When asked what were his expectations for this year’s NCAA Championships, Davis revealed that his goal was to have all 10 of his starting wrestlers in the tournament and on the victory stand.
Branvold and the Badgers have lofty goals in mind, and the senior isn’t afraid to make them known.
“Team-wise, I know if we wrestle to our capabilities and stay healthy, we’re going to be national champions, I have no doubt in my mind,” he said. “We have a shot at getting four or five national champions and up to seven All-Americans. This team is poised even against the adversity we’ve all faced, myself personally, what I’ve gone through has kept me hungry and this will pay off.”