As we prepare for the 2018 WCWA National Championships which take place in Oklahoma City on February 9th and 10th, we’re sitting down with some of the key figures in the sport. Check back all week long for more interviews and a full weight-by-weight preview before the action gets underway. TOM will also be on hand to cover the tournament itself live.
The Campbellsville University Lady Tigers are in the final preparation stages for the 2018 WCWA National Championships that are less than a week away. It’s been an exciting season for head coach Lee Miracle and his second-ranked Campbellsville squad as they have taken on all challengers with great success. They finished their regular season a perfect 15-0 in duals, won the inaugural Mid-South Conference title, captured another NAIA Invitational title, and claimed the program’s first-ever title at the NWCA Multi-Divisional National Duals. In addition to that, three Lady Tiger wrestlers competed at the 2017 NWCA All-Star Classic alongside their male counterparts in what was a historic event for women’s college wrestling. Their success has allowed them to continue to close the gap on top-ranked Simon Fraser in the WCWA rankings, finding themselves only a single point behind the Canadian powerhouse program in the most recent polls. Campbellsville’s lineup is littered with depth and star power from top to bottom. Coach Miracle will be hoping to leverage that to claim the program’s first-ever WCWA team national championship. Senior team leader and three-time national champion, Kayla Miracle is also looking to become just the fourth four-time national champion in the history of the WCWA. Coach Miracle, however, has had to deal with his share of adversity this season. The team has been without 2017 national champion, Andribeth Rivera, who unfortunately will not compete this year. The team has also had to deal with injuries to key individuals, such as sixth-ranked Kaitlyn Pizzo, who has missed a lot of time but is still expected to compete at the national tournament. I recently had the opportunity to sit down and ask Coach Miracle some questions about this year’s season and the squad he leads as he prepares them to make a run at the program’s first WCWA national championship in what could end up being a special season for the Lady Tigers.
TOM: With all the success that Campbellsville has had this season, how do you continue to keep the team focused and motivated each week?
Coach Miracle: Really, we just talk a lot about how competitive the WCWA is and how on any given day there are a few teams out there that could beat us if we are not wrestling up to our potential. We just concentrate on making sure our fundamentals keep improving and that we keep improving knowing that there are people out there working hard and there are a lot of different teams that can compete with us.
TOM: Campbellsville is currently the second-ranked team in the country, just barely behind Simon Fraser. Can you comment on the program’s growth since you started it and the importance of capturing its first national championship?
Coach Miracle: Well, you know when we started this whole thing I had goals that I put in place. I don’t mind sharing them now. I probably wouldn’t have minded sharing them when we started. My whole goal was, by the third year I wanted to be in the top-five. The fourth year I wanted to be in the top-three and then by our fifth year I wanted to win it. Now those were my personal goals for the program and I thought that those were very much realistic. Then something crazy happened and we had just a really magical tournament at the end of our second year and placed second. That kind of confused me if you want to know the truth. I thought wow, we really got there quick and that was with a group of freshman and sophomores but realistically we just had a magical tournament. After that, however, I started to reassess my goals because once you place second you really can’t back off that. Our goal then became to win the national championship and honestly had just a couple of things not have gone wrong for us, I feel we win the national championship two years ago and we win it last year. There were just a couple of things that went wrong for us. So what that taught me as a frustrated coach at the time is that I need to build my program so strong that if a couple of things go bad for us, it really doesn’t affect us which is what I set out to do. I knew that whatever I thought we needed to win a national championship we would need to have two or three more All-Americans and this year as it would happen. We have to overcome missing some key individuals.
TOM: You have a team that is loaded with depth with 12 wrestlers currently ranked in the most recent rankings. There are a few weight classes that include two or even three wrestlers ranked at the same weight. How do you maintain team chemistry in the practice room when eventually they will be competing against each other at the national tournament?
Coach Miracle: Well, I really feel that we have the toughest room in the world in the middleweights and I’m not exaggerating when I say that. You look at Grace Bullen who was world rank number four or five when I picked her up and Kayla Miracle who has been ranked in the top-20 in the world. We also have a ton of All-Americans and talent in there including Senior National Team member Koral Sugiyama and three-time All-American Shelby Hall. We also can’t forget high school national champion, Steffanie Hampton. Hampton is going to surprise some people this year; she is going to do well. Not to mention when we have Andribeth Rivera in the room. I mean, we are loaded in the middle and if you wrestle in the middleweights in our room you’re going to have some bad practices. We’ve had many blue-chip recruits come in and check out our program and they don’t score a point. Koral Sugiyama is a Senior National Team member and she will go a whole practice without scoring a point and it’s frustrating. You put anybody in a group with those types of athletes and that’s a bad day. But to answer your question, we spread them out and try to use them for the benefit of the team when we are looking at duals. Now, of course, we are going into the individual tournament but we’re also worried winning the team championship and we have to figure out where these girls fit from 123-pounds to 143-pounds. We also have to look at what do these other teams have that will be knocking on our door to compete, what do they have and where can we stop them, where can we take points away. Coach Woody and I have had continuous meetings with the middleweights to determine this. We’ve conducted multiple mathematical analyses to help us prepare. At the end of the day, I have to take all that data and all that input and make a decision. We feel confident that we’ve solidified our lineup but it can get complicated and any roster decisions that are made you always have to look at risk versus reward. Even with all that talent surrounded by each other they still continue to motivate and support each other in a positive way. They understand that by having such a tough room, we’re just getting better and doing so at a pace that no other girls in the country can because they don’t have the room we have.
TOM: Women’s college wrestling is so unique compared to men’s in that they wrestle freestyle and mixed into the women’s schedule are many senior national and world level events. How do you balance your wrestler’s aspirations to make world teams at both the age group and senior level, with also trying to win a WCWA title and team accomplishments?
Coach Miracle: That’s a good question and it’s really not that difficult to us because we actually want our athletes to be on those world teams and we are pushing for that. Those are goals of our program. However, at the same time, it really reflects the type of student-athlete I’m trying to recruit. If a recruit doesn’t have the grade point average or study habits then they are probably not going to be able to handle being gone a lot while also keeping their grades up. When you have a bunch of girls who maintain 4.0-grade point averages and only miss class when they are gone for wrestling then the teachers work with us and we just work to find a balance but sometimes it does get tough. I know firsthand that Kayla had a little bit of a hard time this year and she has close to a 4.0-grade point average, but it was tough for her when she was gone for a month and a half. That’s a long time to be away from a college campus but she got through it. To answer your question, it all boils down to recruiting the right kind of athletes and that’s what we try to do here. We look at grade point average, we’re all about work ethic and we’re all about heart and desire. If a young lady wants to be the best that she can ever be in wrestling, then this is a good place for her.
TOM: How important is Kayla Miracle to this team, not just as a competitor but also as a leader?
Coach Miracle: Well, obviously when she started school here the second season we existed she was automatically put in a leadership role, not because she was placed in a leadership role but because she was voted into a leadership role and because her demeanor and her example demand that you look at her as a leader. She just does the right things on and off the mat and she does them consistently. This was something that we started together. When I took the job here, I wasn’t going to take it unless Kayla was going to come here. She came to visit the campus and loved it and told me that she really like it here and for me to take the job. She’s been just as instrumental in helping build this program, not only through leadership and not only because she’s probably the most valuable wrestler you can have on a team. I could wrestle Kayla anywhere from 123-pounds to 155-pounds and I can expect her to not only win but also get bonus points. She can do that and it’s crazy. I’ve never seen another athlete that is just so unselfish that she would go and do it for the team. She’s done that time and time again for us and you can imagine how valuable it is as a coach to have that kind of weapon in your arsenal. She’s very special and she pours herself into this and the team feeds off of her. We’ve really done this as a father/daughter endeavor.
TOM: The Open Mat recently announced that we would be awarding the inaugural Miranda Medal at the conclusion of this season. The goal is that this award will provide the women the equivalent of the men’s Hodge Trophy. What are your thoughts on this and its impact on women’s college wrestling?
Coach Miracle: Well my first thought, when I heard about this, was that we have a number of outstanding candidates for it. I think it’s great that we are going to have an award that would be the equivalent to the men’s Hodge. That’s just cool. It’s really going to give us, the WCWA, and the wrestlers one more thing that makes us better as a sport and as an organization.
TOM: What will it take for Campbellsville to end the season as national champions?
Coach Miracle: If you look at the rankings right now, you see that we have 12 girls ranked. We are going to need to have 11 All-Americans. If we can get 11 All-Americans and we can get at least two national champs we are going to be in the running. Now to win it, to win it is going to be dependent on what the other teams do, you know what I mean? We have some head to head matches that are going to become very important to us and a key to our success this year will be winning some of the head to head matchups. But if you have 11 All-Americans, you have a real good chance of winning the national championship even though Simon Fraser has a chance to have four or five national champions. I look at that mathematically and think how in the world do you beat somebody like that? It’s okay though, we have a plan and we know what we need to do. The team race is going to be very close and we are ready for that.