Tahlequah Daily Press

Sports

March 21, 2013

Maple leads Sooners into NCAA tournament

Wrestling is a strange sport.

Only on the mat could a team like Oklahoma, 7-11 in dual matches this season, still be ranked No. 9 by InterMat.

Also, maybe, only on the mat could OU skipper Mark Cody think so highly of his team’s chances at the NCAA meet after it lost 6 of 7 duals leading up to the national meet.

“Top four,” he said he could envision his squad finishing. “That means everybody wrestles to their potential at the tournament and wrestling to their potential is doable.”

The Sooners are sending five grapplers to the national meet, which begins today inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Des Moines, Iowa. And that’s enough to do some serious damage, especially if unbeaten and No. 2-seed, Kendric Maple, at 141 pounds, wins the national title everybody in the OU wrestling room believes he will.

“I know he’s going to win this year,” said Bubby Graham, the Sooners’ 165-pounder. “He’s got the mental toughness, he’s got the physical ability. Just as long as he stays calm and knows that he can win, he’s going to dominate his way through.”

Then there’s Graham himself, the only senior among the Sooner five, a No. 6-seed, but a guy Cody believes “can definitely win an NCAA title … and the reason is he wrestles hard enough every time he’s out there to put himself in a position to win.”

Cody Brewer, OU’s entrant at 133 pounds, will bring a 21-6 mark into the brackets and the No. 8-seed. And, almost casually, here’s how Cody described Brewer’s chances:

“Brewer wouldn’t surprise me to see him place,” he said, “to see him get to the finals of the tournament.”

Unseeded, yet in the brackets, are the Lesters, Nick (149 pounds) and Matt (157). If they can put it together, who knows? Maybe a seemingly long season on the mat can still come up roses for the Sooners.

“We took some big lumps this year and it was hard going out and watching some of the performances,” Maple said. “But it will make it all worth it if we have our five guys proving that we’re strong and building.”

That’s a part of OU’s story, too.

The Sooners are building.

Cody has redshirted three grapplers this season: 125-pounder Jarrod Patterson, a 2011 All-American at OU; Andrew Howe, a former 174-pound national champion at Wisconsin; and Travis Rutt, who will compete at 184 or 197 for the Sooners next season, but who was an All-American at Wisconsin before transferring.

With Jones the only senior, today the Sooners can actually begin their march toward a possible 2014 team championship when the national meet moves to Oklahoma City and when OU should be as talent-rich as it’s been in a long, long time.

Cody’s all right with thinking about the national meet in the grandest terms. If the Sooners don’t perform well, he made clear, blame him.

“The national tournament will find your weaknesses, but it will also find your strengths,” Cody said. “So, if we’ve done things right with these guys, then it will definitely show.

“These are the types of guys that have put the time in and they’ve worked hard. So, if they come up short, you don’t have to look very far. (If that happens), maybe we didn’t do a great enough job getting them prepared.”

Not often does a coach invite second-guessing in advance, but maybe that’s an indicator of Cody’s confidence in his methods and grapplers.

Maple believes he can make it happen, and he’ll do it the way he always does, taking the offensive at every turn.

“I enjoy the sport and find it more enjoyable to actually go out there and try to impose your will,” he said, “rather than laying back and waiting for something to happen.”

Graham is the same way.

“I want to put on a show,” he said. “I want to use all of the abilities that I’ve been blessed with.”

If the Sooners can use all of their abilities, a trying season may still look very good in the end.

“This will be a good indicator,” Cody said.

Probably the best.

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