When Mark Cody resigned as head coach at Oklahoma on August 11th, it looked like Sooner wrestling might have a difficult time returning to its former glory anytime soon. Shortly after that announcement, reports surfaced that their only returning All-American, Ryan Millhof (Jr, 125), planned to transfer. With four-time All-American and 2015 national champion Cody Brewer out of eligibility, no head coach, Millhof on the way out and the season fast approaching, the Sooners looked to be in deep trouble.
Instead, the Oklahoma program has experienced a string of good news stories since that time and, quietly, seems to be a program with a lot of momentum all of a sudden. First, on August 30th, Oklahoma hired long-time Ohio State assistant Lou Rosselli to take over as head coach. Rosselli is widely respected within the wrestling community and should make Oklahoma an attractive destination for wrestlers with world and Olympic aspirations due to his work at the Ohio Regional Training Center (RTC).
The good news kept flowing for the Sooners as Rosselli retained well-liked assistant Michael Lightner and added NCAA Champion and former world team member Keith Gavin, who spent the last two years as an assistant at Virginia. Gavin trained under Rosselli at the Ohio RTC so the two have a prior relationship to build upon. With the coaching staff squared away, Oklahoma can now go about preparing for the 2016-17 season.
That season may include Ryan Millhof in the line-up at 125 after all. Though he still could transfer, and has a redshirt to burn, Millhof is practicing with the team and the school included him in the projected line-up they provided TOM. This would be a significant boon to a line-up that features a lot of good wrestlers, but none that can match Millhof’s resume.
Four of those good wrestlers lost in either the round of 16 or the round of 12 at NCAAs a year ago. Three of those, Clark Glass (165), Matt Reed (174) and Ross Larson (285), have been mainstays in the line-up in recent years and will be looking for a grand finish to their senior seasons. The other one, Davion Jeffries (149), had a good true freshman campaign a year ago before going 3-2 at the NCAA tournament, bowing out to Geo Martinez who transferred from Boise State to rival Oklahoma State in the off-season.
Transfers could have a big impact on the Sooner line-up this season as well. Two-time national qualifier Michael Longo (Jr, 141) has found his way to Norman after beginning his career at Appalachian State. In addition, Oklahoma native Cody Karstetter (So, 133) has returned to his home state after a year at North Carolina. Longo should be the man at 141, but Karstetter will have to battle junior Trae Blackwell, who spent the past two seasons at 141 and was the Sooner representative for the post-season both years.
Two more transfers, and the two men who have combined to win the last three NJCAA 157-pound national championships, will battle for that spot in the Sooner line-up this year. Yoanse Mejias (Jr) was the champion in 2014 and 2015, at North Iowa Area Community College, before redshirting last year. DaWaylon Barnes (Jr), who wrestled at Muskogee High School in Oklahoma and for Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, was the 2016 champion. Barnes did not compete in the 2015 tournament won by Mejias.
At 184 pounds, Andrew Dixon (Jr) dropped down to the weight a year ago, after wrestling 197 in 2014-15, but struggled to find any success. He will be hoping for better this year, but may be pushed for the spot by yet another transfer, graduate student John Shrader, who comes in from Chattanooga. Either way, this is unlikely to be a strong spot in the Oklahoma line-up. The 197-pound spot will once again be filled by senior Brad Johnson.
This is still a time of transition for the Sooners as the mostly new staff takes over. With four senior starters, the transition period could continue for the next few years. Still, if Millhof sticks around and Coach Rosselli does well in recruiting, he has already picked up a commitment from Kyle Lawson who will be going for his fourth Ohio state championship this year, this team could be back in the national conversation much quicker than anyone expected when Cody stepped down. This year may not be one for the history books, but it could be the first step on Oklahoma’s journey back to the top.
The 2016-17 Oklahoma Sooner wrestling schedule features the traditional two Bedlam duals against Oklahoma State (Dec 2nd and Feb 12th) as well as duals against Michigan (Nov 18th), Cornell (Dec 18th), Missouri (Jan 8th) and Oregon State (Feb 17th). They will also attend the Northeast Duals (Nov 13th), the Midlands (Dec 29th and 30th), and the Virginia Duals (Jan 13th and 14th). The Big 12 tournament is in Tulsa, Oklahoma March 4th and 5th while the NCAA tournament returns to St. Louis, Missouri March 16th through 18th.
Photo courtesy of SoonerSports.com