Willing oneself to victory in the midst of a mere seven-minute contest will do a wrestler no good when faced with a potentially more talented and likely better prepared opponent.
Especially while competing against a multitude of teams in the country’s most elite wrestling conference, Wisconsin wrestling head coach Barry Davis takes every opportunity to better his team on and off the mat.
“I’ve been using the term ‘buying in,’ to understanding the sport of wrestling, coming to work every day,” Davis said. “[We’re] buying in to doing the small things right to win. Anybody can work hard; it’s not about working hard, it’s about working smart, understanding your style of wrestling.”
Davis has led the Badgers to a 3-2 start in Big Ten play after ending the season without a league win just a year ago. Wisconsin has taken down three ranked teams this season including conference foes No. 11 Michigan and No. 9 Nebraska on the road.
With only two ranked wrestlers to its name at the start of the year, Wisconsin wasn’t predicted to make a dent in the iron shields of the dominant Big Ten teams. However, the Badgers find themselves tied for fourth place in a league with nine ranked teams and four of the top five teams in the country.
“Whether you like it or not, you’re going to get elite competition,” Davis said. “It makes you focus more, hone in on what you really need to do to be successful and challenge you where you’re at as an athlete. That’s what the Big Ten’s all about.”
Davis explained the team has found success against talented teams by taking care of off-the-mat matters which include taking care of conditioning, nutrition and academics. He said his top priority for his team is to achieve success in the classroom followed by success in wrestling.
“With [academics and athletics] you only have a certain amount of time to care of business,” Davis said.
After UW won its first three conference duals by seven points or less, the team was easily handled by No. 1 Penn State and No. 6 Ohio State last weekend.
Even though doing the little things couldn’t put the Badgers past two national powerhouses, redshirt freshman heavyweight Connor Medbery said the team was encouraged by the slim margins of some of the matches.
“We had a tough weekend last weekend,” Medbery said. “We went in there and battled them, we had a lot of close matches … we’re right there and we’re improving a lot.”
Medbery earned wins against ranked opponents in each of the matches by way of decision to retain his undefeated 8-0 record in dual matches. He has defeated five of the top 25 heavyweight wrestlers in the country in those eight contests.
Medbery said at this point in the season, with only three Big Ten contests remaining on the schedule, including Big Ten leader and fourth-ranked Minnesota, every wrestler is not at full strength. He said the team has to grind it out until the end of the regular season before the team gets a couple of weeks to prepare for the Big Ten Championship and the NCAA tournament.
“It’s going to be a battle during those last couple of weeks of the season, so this is definitely getting you ready mentally and physically,” Medbery said.
One player who has made a critical physical change during the brutal conference season is redshirt junior Tyler Graff. The No. 3 wrestler of the 141 lb. weight class has wrestled at the 133 lb. weight class in the last three matches, posting a 2-1 record since the move.
After going 11-2 during his stint weighing 141 lb., Graff decided to transition back to his more natural weight after being unable to maintain a high enough weight to compete at 141 lb.
“The body frames are different,” Graff said. “I’m giving myself the best opportunity to be a national champion. I’m not giving anybody an upper-hand, because my weight’s pretty light for the 141 class.”
With Wisconsin squarely in the midst of a Big Ten title race, the team is aware of the work that needs to be done. Both Davis and Graff said every day is a building process and small daily adjustments can make a difference in the Big Ten.
And with about two weeks left in the regular season, there’s no question that the NCAA tournament is what the team is preparing for.
“We’re just focused on March,” Medbery said. “I mean, these duals are important, but we’re all set toward March.”