John Smith sat on a cowhide leather chair and rubbed his hand across his chin.
His fast-paced cadence halts. Time to carefully word his next few statements. Trying to solve how his program — the winningest NCAA wrestling team — slipped to this.
The aftermath of a 14th place finish at the 2022 NCAA Championships, the program’s second to worst finish. A winning season quickly derailed with injuries and a car crash that involved AJ Ferrari, OSU’s national champion. He since left the program.
Now, a week from another season, the once perennial favorite isn’t in the championship conversation. The national polls put OSU at No. 10.
“Things don’t change unless everyone changes,” Smith, OSU’s wrestling coach, said. “That includes my staff. Just from the standpoint that we gotta do better."
With a schedule that Smith intentionally made “hard,” he said he doesn’t want to worry about the record.
He’s more concerned about the improvement within the struggles.
"It’s gonna be a tough year," Smith said. "I think this is gonna be as challenging of a year to me as I’ve had.”
Too many times last year, his wrestlers couldn’t escape from bottom. Inconsistency flashed. A young team struggled in adversity.
One that Smith said didn’t respond from the struggles. Now, Smith said he wants to find a guy that will surprise everyone. A mystery man to be determined.
“We gotta develop some guys that like at the end of the year, we’re gonna go, ‘That guy developed,'” he said. “’Wow. That was fun to watch.’ Let’s find out. I’d like to have three or four of them that we’re saying that about.”
He claps his hands as he speaks. Excited about the potential with his group.
“They got so much better from when we watched them in November,” he said. “That’s what we want. Wow. These guys developed. Mentally, physically and technically.”
A difference from last year’s squad.
High expectations will always exist for a program with the prestige of OSU's, but the work must be done.
“You’re gonna have injuries every year,” he said. “You’re gonna have disappointing situations every year. Somebody needs to pick up the slack. It’s an opportunity for someone that may never get this opportunity. I just didn’t feel like anything materialized after injuries.”
That’s the message Smith wants to send to his wrestlers. OSU isn’t the favorite. It hasn't been for years. Some of OSU’s underclassmen were toddlers the last time the Cowboys won a national championship (2006). Several guys are determined to put the Cowboys back into title contention.
Luke Surber, last year's heavyweight, dropped to 197.
Enter a few new starters. Victor Voinovich, a redshirt freshman, at 149 pounds. Kaden Gfeller's OSU's returning 149-pounder won't be ready to go until at least mid-December, Smith said. In September, Gfeller returned for his COVID-year and needs to re-acclimate his conditioning.
Konner Doucet will start at heavyweight. The battle at 165 is open with guys such as Jalin Harper and Blake Skidgel competing for a spot.
Seven starters return. Two, Daton Fix and Dustin Plott, are returning All-Americans.
The others are former All-Americans or mutli-time NCAA qualifiers who haven’t broken through.
That’s the development Smith needs.
“You’re at Oklahoma State; anything besides a national title, you’re kinda shooting yourself low,” Surber said. “I know Penn State is returning four national champs, so we got our hands full with that. I think we keep continuing to build success, there’s no reason."
Smith still chases another national championship. Even in his 32nd year as head coach. He’s not going anywhere.
“I don’t think our wrestling program is where I want it when I hand it off,” he said. “I wish it was in a little better shape than what it’s in right now. I’m determined to try to create that.”
Cowboy wrestling roster breakdown
125 pounds: Trevor Mastrogiovanni, junior
- A two-time NCAA qualifier who hasn’t advanced to the third round.
133 pounds: Daton Fix, redshirt senior
- A three-time NCAA runner-up who hasn’t lost a Big 12 match
141 pounds: Carter Young, sophomore
- An NCAA qualifier who went 0-2.
149 pounds: Victor Voinovich, redshirt freshman
- Lost once (16-1) as a redshirt in open tournaments
157 pounds: Wyatt Sheets, graduate seventh year
- A three-time NCAA qualifier who became the lowest seeded All-American in 2021.
165 pounds: Jalin Harper, redshirt senior, OR Blake Skidgel, redshirt freshman
- Harper is the only one with dual experience.
174 pounds: Dustin Plott, junior
- A returning All-American who placed sixth.
184 pounds: Travis Wittlake, redshirt senior
- A two-time All-American at 165 pounds. New to 184.
197 pounds: Luke Surber, junior
- A 2022 NCAA qualifier at heavyweight who was originally recruited at 197.
Heavyweight: Konner Doucet, redshirt sophomore
- New to the starting lineup, he’s 14-5 in open tournaments and extra matches.