The question, much like an opponent's reversal, caught Shane Onufer by surprise: What were your expectations when you committed to wrestle for the University of Wyoming?
A blank expression on his scratched-up face, Onufer searches a few moments for an answer before he finally shrugs his shoulders and says, "Boy, I don't know."
Then, Onufer smiles. "But," he says, "I sure didn't see this coming."
The Cowboys -- spurred by a fiercely determined coaching staff and fronted by a remarkable senior class that includes Onufer, Joe LeBlanc and Michael Martinez -- have emerged on the collegiate wrestling scene for the first time in some 50 years and carry legitimate title hopes into next week's NCAA Championships at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.
Not since the late 1950s and early ‘60s, when Cody's Dick Ballinger, the only NCAA titlist in UW history, and Laramie's Jerry Frude donned the brown and gold, have the Cowboys enjoyed similar success. This year's UW squad ranks among the top 11 teams in all three national polls and figures to be a threat to Penn State, Minnesota, Iowa and Oklahoma State at nationals.
One of the sport's four elite programs has won every team championship since Arizona State claimed the top prize in 1988.
"We have a great opportunity ahead of us," says UW Head Coach Mark Branch, who hopes to lead the Cowboys to a top-10 finish at nationals for just the fourth time in program history. "Anything can happen at this tournament, and that's why I think it's one of the best sporting events in the world. Crazy things happen there, year in and year out.
"If we get a guy or two in the finals, if we get three or four All-Americans and if everybody wrestles up their abilities, we have an opportunity to finish in the top 5 and challenge for a championship," he says. "That's a lot of ‘ifs' and there's a lot of wrestling left, but we have that potential."
Branch has transformed UW's fortunes since coming to Laramie four years ago from his alma mater of Oklahoma State, where he served six seasons as associate head coach following a sensational career in which he was a four-time All-American, a four-time NCAA finalist and a two-time national champion.
The Cowboys have won three consecutive Western Wrestling Conference championships -- their 2009 victory ended the program's 17-year title drought -- and sent 20 wrestlers to nationals, one more than UW had combined to qualify in the five seasons prior to Branch's arrival.
Also, the Cowboys claimed one of the program's marquee dual wins, an 18-17 decision in January over seven-time national champion Oklahoma.
It's all been a pleasant surprise to LeBlanc, who, like Onufer, never saw it coming. When he came to UW, LeBlanc admits that he "wasn't really expecting to have much success as a team," though he hoped to help the Cowboys become more competitive.
"We're building a tradition here now," says LeBlanc, a three-time conference champion and All-American who holds the UW career record with 143 wins. "We're just as capable as the best teams in the country. We've got the facilities, the administration, the fans, the wrestling community, the coaching staff. We've got everything we need to be just as successful as an Iowa or an Oklahoma State."
While the Cowboys believe in themselves, they know it'll take a top-10 finish -- or better -- at nationals to turn the Penn States and Minnesotas of college wrestling into believers.
"We need to place top 10," says Onufer, one of just two wrestlers in Cowboy history to win four career conference championships.
"I think every guy that's going is looking to become an All-American or a national champion. I don't think any of us are satisfied with just going," says LeBlanc, the top-ranked wrestler in his weight class in all three national polls. "We're all looking to be on that podium and help our team to a top-10, top-5 finish. The amazing thing about our sport is that if you have two or three All-Americans and two or three finalists, you can be competing for a national title. We have the guys to make that happen."
UW Cowboy Wrestlers that went to the NCAA Championship
|Michael Martinez (125 pounds, 24-11)||Pat Martinez (174 pounds, 34-10)|
|Zach Zehner (133 pounds, 28-11)||Joe LeBlanc (184 pounds, 30-1)|
|Shane Onufer (165 pounds, 30-1)||Alfonso Hernandez (197 pounds, 36-5)|