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Jeff Kolpack, Published January 30 2013

Bison wrestling builds for the big stage

Fargo - North Dakota State wrestling coach Roger Kish was going through the security line at Denver International Airport on Monday morning when a reporter asked him about his team. The security guards should have checked him for his secret recipe on how to systematically improve a program.

Actually, there isn’t anything to it that has been written in a cook book. It’s called hard work, and it’s something the second-year head coach has ground into his team, grabbing a foundation that was set in Bucky Maughan’s 46 years as head coach and taking it into a new Division I level.

NDSU’s 22-15 win over No. 14 Wyoming on Sunday was the third victory over a ranked team this season. One win over a nationally rated team could be considered nice. Two wins could be considered up-and-coming. But three? Have the Bison arrived on the Division I national map?

The answer from Kish was predictable in the big-picture sense.


“I think we’re a long ways off from where we want to be,” he said. “We still have bigger goals for this group and the groups following. I think ultimately this is still a stepping stone, but we have come a long way. I’m excited to see our guys figure that out too.”

NDSU athletic director Gene Taylor said Kish said as much in his job interview, saying the definition of a program arriving is All-Americans and high finishes in the NCAA championships.

“But the first step is beating a team like Wyoming,” Taylor said.

The Bison also own wins this season over No. 24 Boise State and No. 25 Old Dominion. But they’re still a ways from the upper tier of Division I wrestling as evidenced by 37-7 loss to No. 7 Missouri and a 31-9 defeat to No. 9 Central Michigan. A 22-12 loss to No. 1 Minnesota provided more NDSU wins in a dual with the Gophers than ever before.

For the second time this season, the Bison became nationally ranked this week – ranked 25th in the USA Today/NWCA/AWN Division I coaches poll.

“I thought they would be in the top 25 eventually. It doesn’t surprise me,” said Minnesota State Moorhead head coach Kris Nelson, a former Bison wrestler. “They’ve done a great job recruiting. You can see that.”

In the last few years, facing ranked Division I opponents meant some Bison wrestlers were defeated before they even stepped on the mat. That’s not necessarily true anymore.

Part of it is just the experience of having a full-fledged tournament eligible roster in Division I for several years now, rather than having some kids on the roster that came to NDSU as Division II recruits.

There is more familiarity now to facing a wrestler from a program that has a nationally ranked number in front of it. Granted, there are not as many wrestling programs in Division I as opposed to basketball, but the top teams traditionally have their way with the unranked programs.

“Maybe it’s not such a shock to wrestle a guy from a Big Ten program anymore,” Kish said. “Wrestling a ranked team is now an opportunity for us to perform well versus maybe in years past it was more of a mental hurdle and maybe they would fall over for them.”

A mental hurdle was conquered over the weekend when the Bison not only beat Wyoming, but they did it at high altitude after being on the road for four days.

Moreover, the Bison won the final five weights against the defending Western Wrestling Conference champs who had their way with NDSU the last few years, winning 31-6 in 2008-09, 25-15 in 2009-10, 35-3 in 2010-11 and 31-6 last year. They were the last five matches in the last dual of a road trip, when most teams usually wear out mentally.

Also consider NDSU swept Air Force and Wyoming with its second-best wrestler, senior Trent Sprenkle, struggling with two losses.

“The upper weights came through,” Kish said. “And it was nice to see we were better conditioned. A lot of it goes back to our preparation and how our team trains.”

There were isolated snapshots of success in prior years like a 25-22 upset over then No. 6-ranked Boise State in 2009-10. The Bison beat No. 9 Central Michigan the following season.

The program is fully funded at the NCAA maximum 9.9 scholarships. Its facilities are decent, but will receive a nice upgrade when the Bison Sports Arena is renovated.

MSUM’s Nelson said he’s noticed Bison recruits doing better at open tournaments in the last couple of years. He said having a successful Division I program is a benefit to his Division II school and Division III Concordia.

“It gives younger wrestlers the opportunity to see top-level competition,” Nelson said.

Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack can be reached at (701) 241-5546. Kolpack’s NDSU media blog can be found at www.areavoices.com/bisonmedia