Pictured: Air Force wrestling heavyweight Wyatt Hendrickson (right) poses for a photo after being named Outstand Wrestler at the Big 12 Wrestling Championships Sunday night in Tulsa. Photo by Brett Rojo / The Big 12 Conference.
TULSA—There were technically three defending championship teams competing at the Big 12 Wrestling Championships at BOK Center this weekend (Mizzou, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State). And one team left Tulsa as reigning champion on Sunday night.
In its first season back in the conference since 2012, Missouri won the Big 12 wrestling team championship with 131.5 points, ending Oklahoma State’s 9-year run of Big 12 titles. Mizzou had also won the title in its last season in the Big 12 before joining the MAC, where the Tigers won 11 straight conference crowns, including last year. That left Mizzou as defending conference champions for two different conferences.
“That’s why we came back to the Big 12,” Mizzou coach Brian Smith said. “We wanted to be in this tough atmosphere. When you think of 11 years of winning a conference, that’s a long time. It’s a great accomplishment by many people: staff members, an institution that’s bought into building a great wrestling program and supporting it.
“We’ll celebrate tonight and then get ready to do it again in 10 days in Detroit.”
After the tournament concluded Sunday night, Brian Smith was announced as Big 12 Coach of the Year.
The Tigers had only one individual champion in 165-pounder Keegan O’Toole.
Oklahoma finished second with 113 points, Iowa State in third with 110, Oklahoma State in fourth with 108.5, and Northern Iowa rounded out the top five with 100 points. It was the first time in Big 12 history that five teams surpassed 100 points in the tournament.
The fact there was a new champion, plus OSU finishing outside the top three, and five teams reaching 100 points, a parity has developed as a new Big 12 group has formed. That’s precisely what OSU coach John Smith had predicted and hoped for in 2015 when the first set of new teams were added, and the Big Ten was starting to leave the Big 12 in the dust as far as competitiveness.
In 2022, ,Big 12 has six teams included in the latest NCAA rankings It’s a familiar spot for OSU and ISU, and even OU at times, but with the addition of Mizzou (again) and the rise of programs like Northern Iowa and South Dakota State, Big 12 competition is escalating.
With that, here are some of the things that caught my attention while in Tulsa.
OSU’s 9-year Title Run Ends
The BOK Center has been blanketed in orange for the last five years because OSU Cowboy fans were usually the last to leave on Sunday night after watching their favorite team hoist yet another Big 12 championship trophy. But on this Sunday night, OSU fans immediately exited after the heavyweight match, because, for the first time in nine years, the Cowboys didn’t end the Big 12 Championships with a celebration.
Missouri’s reentrance into the conference and winning the Big 12 title halted OSU’s nine-year streak of Big 12 titles. The John Smith-led Cowboys won four of those championships in Tulsa.
“My thought is there’s more wrestling left,” John Smith said. “We strive for All-Americans and national champions. I’d love to win the 10th one, but we didn’t. It just didn’t materialize, didn’t happen. We needed a little bit more, needed a little bit of a break. But I thought we had a good tournament overall.”
Personally, I’ve seen Smith visibly frustrated after plenty of victories, so the fact he said more than once Sunday night that he was pleased with his team’s performance this weekend showed that even Smith’s high expectations can’t overlook all the Cowboys would have had to overcome to accomplish another conference crown.
This season’s biggest storyline for OSU came off the mat when defending 197-pound national champion AJ Ferrari was in a car accident and ultimately missed the rest of the season. With Gavin Stika filling in, OSU didn’t add any team points at 197 points in the tournament.
The Cowboys also had zero team points at 157 and 197 pounds, with both Wyatt Sheets and Travis Wittlake, both wrestling injured. Smith said afterward it’s hard to recover from missing points in three weights, even with three individual champions.
“In a -team tournament, it’s hard to win a tournament when three of your weights struggle to score,” Smith said. “That’s the difference, really. But, that’s something I thought could happen from a standpoint of where Wittlake was, and the weight, and the size and competition at 197 for Gavin. You gotta score in 10 weights in a (12)-team tournament.”
After winless tournaments, the Cowboys will have to wait and see if Sheets and Wittlake get at-large bids to the NCAA Championships.
Hendrickson is The Man for Air Force
There’s no “I” in team, but there is an “I” in Air Force, and it’s heavyweight Wyatt Hendrickson.
Hendrickson became Air Force’s first-ever Big 12 champ as its lone finalist Sunday night. He beat OSU’s seventh-seeded Luke Surber 16-6 in the night’s last match.
“I’m proud of the growth; it really shows you can come to the U.S. Air Force Academy and pursue excellence in all the things you do, and Wyatt Hendrickson really is testament to that,” Air Force coach Sam Barber said.
“He puts in the work on and off the mat, and that’s the kind of guys we want here at The Academy.”
Hendrickson was named Big 12 Most Outstanding Wrestler after the tournament. He notched two falls( pigtails and semifinals), and beat OU’s Josh Heindselman 11-5 in the quarterfinals.
Unfortunately for Hendrickson, he has one of the best wrestlers of our generation, Gable Stevenson, at his weight at the NCAA Championships. Otherwise, he could very well be a contender to win a national title after a 24-0 season, with 16 falls. Still, 2022 All-American honors could be well within his reach.
Gfeller Wins Untraditional Second Title; Becoming Father Next Month
Two-time Big 12 champions usually win their titles like a Drake song: Back To Back. But OSU 149-pounder Kaden Gfeller had two years between his conference crowns.
Gfeller won a Bedlam finals matchup against OU’s Willie McDougald 2-1 to win his second Big 12 title as a redshirt senior. Gfeller’s first came in 2019, his redshirt-freshman season.
“It’s incredible, man,” Gfeller said. “It’s surreal. I can’t even really put it into words how far I’ve come. A lot has changed since that first time I won it and now. I’m very excited and pleased with the person I’ve become. It means a lot to me.”
The biggest change for Gfeller was learning that he’d soon become a father. Gfeller said his daughter, Charlie, is due next month.
“I can’t even put into words what it’s done to me,” Gfeller said. “It’s a whole ‘nother person that you have to become. I’m so excited. I feel like I’m gonna try to be the best dad possible. I’m really excited.”