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Mystery middleweights: Inconsistency results in ongoing battle for starting spots

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John Smith isn’t sure what to make of Kaden Gfeller, Oklahoma State wrestling’s 149-pound starter.

He was literally perfect in high school at Heritage Hall in Oklahoma City. 133-0 record. Four Oklahoma state titles.

In college, Gfeller was the 2019 Big 12 149-pound champion after taking over in January for Boo Lewallen, who sustained a season ending left shoulder dislocation.

But between those periods of excellence, Smith has witnessed uncharacteristic struggles.

“It was like, ‘Who are you?’ You know, almost like he was Houdini,” Smith said. "How’d you do this? How’d you look so good and then look so bad? It was just kind of odd. Really caught me off guard like you know, ‘What happened?’”

After a 15-6 thrashing from No. 8 Jaden Abas of Stanford, Gfeller and No. 6 OSU battle No. 11 Minnesota Saturday night in Minneapolis.

Gfeller, much like Dusty Hone, OSU’s starting 141 pounder, has had previous success as a backup filling in for starters sidelined with season ending injuries.

With Lewallen healthy the past two seasons, Gfeller dropped to 141 pounds and, once again, another man’s injury was Gfeller’s key to starting. He was OSU’s 141-pound representative at the 2021 Big 12 Championships and finished eighth with 1-2 record.

Now, in his redshirt senior year, Gfeller fended off two highly touted true freshman in Travis Mastrogiovanni and Victor Voinovich, along with Joey Sanchez in the ranking matches leading up to OSU’s opener at Stanford. At this point, Gfeller controls his future as a starter. Any major slip-up along the way could yield to the emergence of a freshman debut.

“Gfeller, we saw him at 141 last year and he seemed to be having a problem making that at Stanford,” Smith said. “I don’t know. I think he’s trying to make me old.”

And that’s the same situation for Hone.

The seemingly temporary status of Hone and Gfeller resulted in more ranking matches Wednesday afternoon.

“We’re gonna keep hammering away at those weights,” Smith said. “Those are good weights and not that we’re disappointed with anyone, we just want to make sure that we keep everybody honest.”

During Wednesday afternoon’s 141 and 149-pound ranking matches, a dehydrated and cramping version of Hone was outscored by freshman Carter Young 17-3 in two ranking bouts.

Gfeller defeated Sanchez and Voinovich to become the only undefeated 149-pounder at Wednesday’s ranking matches.

The dilemma Smith is faced with now is heightened with concerns of consistency.

“Until I’m seeing some real consistency and behavior about how they’re handling weight and doing things like that, we’re gonna just keep ranking,” Smith said. “Just rank every week before the dual meets.”

If Smith starts Young, his redshirt would be pulled and any future defeat in ranking matches could result in a lost season.

“I want to see freshmen really trying to separate the score from anyone that they’re competing against and if I don’t see that, I’m probably not going to bring him out yet,” Smith said.

That score separation is exactly what Young exhibited to his team Wednesday afternoon.

Smith plans on bringing a slew of wrestlers at 141 and 149 to Minneapolis. Hone and Young for 141 along with Gfeller, Sanchez and Voinovich for 149 pounds.

In an ordinary situation, Young’s ranking match victories over Hone would be enough to warrant a change in starting responsibilities. But with Smith’s history of redshirting freshmen in competitive weight classes, the risk of Young losing his redshirt will only be known with time.

“These are two of the weights that we feel like if we’re going to have some sort of really good season, these are two of the weights that we gotta be scoring in,” Smith said.