Cal Poly was sitting in first place going into the final day of the Pac-10 Wrestling Championships last season, and no single grappler’s outcome tells the story of the Mustangs better than Ryan Smith.
Cal Poly had the most wrestlers of any team competing in final matches up and down the list of weight classes.
Thinking he’d earned one of two automatic spots by making it to the 197-pound final, Smith saw a trip to his first NCAA Championships unravel into heartbreak as the Mustangs were overtaken by Oregon State and Boise State and finished third.
“The whole scenario and the way it worked out was really crushing,” said Smith, who lost the final match and was stunned by a pinfall loss in the match for “true second.”
“I went from thinking I was going to nationals to all of a sudden I was on-the-bubble-slash-a-wildcard.”
This year, the junior is focused on preventing that bubble from bursting the same way twice at today’s Pac-10 Championships, an event that’s been whittled down to one day at Oregon State’s Gill Coliseum in Corvallis, Ore.
Cal Poly junior Boris Novachkov (141) and UC Davis senior transfer Barrett Abel (157) are looking to win back-to-back conference titles.
Top-seeded junior Ryan DesRoches (165) is searching for his first Pac-10 title and second trip to the NCAA Championships. And heavyweight Atticus Disney, a highly touted sophomore transfer from Minnesota, is hoping to validate his 12-10 overall record with a big run.
Smith and senior Filip Novachkov own arguably the most compelling storylines. Smith wants to avenge last season’s crushing disappointment, and Novachkov needs a surprise late-season weight jump to pay dividends in his final year.
If Smith can win a minimum of two matches at the meet, he’ll secure a spot in the NCAA meet. Seeded fourth, if Smith wins his first match, he’ll face No. 1 Matt Casperson of Boise State, the man who took him out last year.
Smith fell to Cal State Bakersfield’s Riley Orozco, a longtime nemesis that Smith finally beat for the first time this year, in the conference title match.
He was leading Casperson 6-0 in the extra second-place match before being caught in a pin by the Broncos grappler.
“I honestly am looking forward to that match as a revenge match,” Smith said, “because I truly believe that I am much better than him. I’m in better shape, I’m a better wrestler, I’m a better athlete, and he should never beat me again.” The top four at 197 will automatically advance. So, Smith does have some room for error.
Novachkov, on the other hand, has none.
Wrestling most of the year at 133 pounds, Novachkov was just 7-6 in late January before making the drastic jump up two weight classes.
He was not going to supplant younger brother Boris (24-1), who is ranked second in the country with his only loss on the season coming to No. 1 Kellen Russell of Michigan.
But after competing the previous year at 141, Filip Novachkov was struggling with the drop in weight.
Early in the season, he had trouble making weight. After he started making it consistently, he felt weak.
Now 8-0 at 149, albeit against lower-rated opposition, Novachkov is feeling much more confident.
“That’s what I wanted to do all year,” Novachkov said. “I wanted to feel good and compete well and up to my abilities, and I feel like I can do that now.
“As far as my body, my body feels great and I’m able to recover a lot faster.”
A national qualifier each of the past two seasons, Novachkov’s back is against the wall because he has not built up enough good standing at his new weight to earn a wild-card berth.
Figuring to be smaller than the rest of the title contenders at 149 — none of which he’s faced this season — Novachkov has to secure one of the conference’s two automatic bids to move on past this weekend.
“I like that because it makes me a little bit more nervous, and I think I wrestle better when I’m nervous,” Novachkov said. “It’s when I relax, that’s when I get in trouble because people get to my legs. When I’m nervous, I get down in my stance, and it usually goes good from there on.”