STILLWATER, Okla. — John Smith is starting to feel a little snake bitten this season.
A year after redshirting several wrestlers in a hope to make a run at a national title this year, the Oklahoma State wrestling program has been plagued by injuries.
When the Cowboys travel to the East Coast this weekend for duals at Princeton on Saturday and Rutgers on Sunday, they will be without three All-Americans in their starting lineup.
“It’s been a tough year for us,” Smith said. “… We’ve had several injuries, and it’s a little bit unusual the amount of injuries that we’ve had. But at the same time, it’s given some opportunity, and some guys have really taken advantage of it.”
All the injuries has forced Smith to make some moves at the heavier weights, which will allow a former two-time All-American to make his dual debut this season.
Joe Smith, who redshirted last season and had been struggling to cut weight and get back down to the 157-pound class where he earned his All-American honors, will be inserted into the dual lineup at 174 pounds – after competing at the weight in the Reno Tournament of Champions and Southern Scuffle the past few weeks for his first action of the season.
After losing to No. 1-ranked Mark Hall of Penn State – a two-time NCAA national finalist at the weight, and the 2017 national champion – by just a 5-1 margin in the title match of the Southern Scuffle, Smith has vaulted to a No. 5 ranking by InterMat Wrestling.
“I think he kind of had a little bit of a breakthrough at the Scuffle,” the elder Smith said. “And you need to run with those things … we just get a couple of opportunities in our life to take off where we’re going to get a lot better in the next month if we just work, and I think he’s in that place right now where the next month he can get a lot better.”
The move was made possible by a need to fill 197 pounds, where All-American Preston Weigel continues to be plagued by injury. The Cowboy coaching staff has elected to move 184-pounder Dakota Geer up a weight – a move that was going to happen next year anyway – while Muskogee native Jacobe Smith, an All-American at 174 pounds, will move up to 184.
“As of right now, we’ll probably see that (lineup) for at least the next three weeks,” the Cowboy coach said. “If anything’s going to change with that, that will probably take place in a month from now.”
While this move was looking likely a few weeks ago when Geer moved up to 197 to wrestle in the Northern Colorado dual, a new injury has arisen at the weight class right ahead of 157 pounds.
Two-time All-American Chandler Rogers will not be making the trip as OSU’s 165-pounder after suffering an injury at the Southern Scuffle. The Stillwater High graduate, who is ranked No. 10 at the weight, leads the Cowboy program with 11 pins this season with all 14 of his wins on the year being bonus-point victories.
“If it were the end of the year, he’d be wrestling,” Smith said. “But at this point, it’s probably not the move I want to make.”
There is some uncertainty has to who will fill in for Rogers at the weight.
The Cowboys were take a group of wrestlers 157, including regular starter Andrew Shomers, who suffered an injury at the Reno Tournament of Champions and last year’s starter at 157 pounds Jonce Blaylock, who finished fourth at the Southern Scuffle. Smith said redshirt sophomore Wyatt Sheets would also travel as a candidate for one of the two middle weights.
“We’ll probably end up bumping one of those 57-pounders up to wrestle at 165, because we’re a little thin there right now,” Smith said.
The other All-American not making the trip is Boo Lewallen, who has been sidelined most of the season due to injury.
Smith said Lewallen has returned to working out on the mat, but still is uncertain on a timeline for his return.
Redshirt freshman Kaden Gfeller has filled in nicely at 149 pounds, rising to sixth in the rankings and is undefeated on the year. He recently beat No. 6-ranked Mitch Finesilver of Duke for the Southern Scuffle title, but will face his greatest challenge this weekend.
Gfeller will face the top 2 ranked wrestlers at the weight on consecutive days – first facing Princeton’s Matthew Kolodzik, who is ranked No. 1, and then Rutgers’ Anthony Ashnault, who is ranked No. 2.
“Every time I step out there, my goal is to win – no matter weight I’m at,” said Gfeller, who started the season as a backup at 141 pounds. “I feel like I can beat anybody. They put me out there, I’m going to win – that’s my thinking, and I’m not worried about anything us.
“Regardless what happens there this weekend, come March it’s 0-0 and I’m going to continue to get better each day and come March I’ll be ready to win a national championship – which has been a goal of mine forever.”
The Heritage Hall product has certainly been motivated during his time getting on the mat for the Cowboys.
Having been the backup to Kaid Brock at 141 pounds before the injury to Lewallen vaulted into the starting lineup, he hears what people have thought about his role on the Cowboy roster.
“People say don’t look at stuff, but you see it, and I use that as motivation,” Gfeller said. “People call me a backup, that’s the truth but that also motivates me. I’m not a backup in my mind, I feel like I can win a national title. That’s been motivating me.”
Elmquist is sports editor for Stillwater News Press, a CNHI News Service publication.