Cal Poly wrestler Ryan Smith made sure Boise State wasn’t going to completely stymie the Mustangs this year.
But No. 15 Cal Poly (6-2, 3-1 Pac-10) was unable to capitalize on the sophomore 197-pounder’s dominant meet-opening win as the No. 12 Broncos (10-2, 4-0 Pac-10) handed two of the Mustangs’ best grapplers their first dual losses of the season during a 23-13 win by Boise State on Sunday in Mott Gym.
The score was definitely an improvement over last season’s 41-0 road loss to the two-time defending conference champions, but Cal Poly was far from satisfied with its progress.
“We have a really different mindset than last year,” said Smith, who earned a 12-3 major decision over the Broncos’ Matt Casperson to kick off the dual. “Last year, it was more about individuals than as a team, and this year, we came out as a team and said we wanted to be the Pac-10 champions, that duals are important. We wanted to win.”
Not only did the Mustangs want to win, but with Boise State coming off a narrow victory that came down to the final match against Cal State Bakersfield — Cal Poly coach John Azevedo thought the Broncos were ripe for another upset.
“It’s disappointing because we felt we could win,” Azevedo said, “and I think you saw we could have won.”Boise State was also fresh off a loss at North Dakota State, a team Cal Poly beat 29-9. That match, Broncos coach Greg Randall said, was a good eye-opener for his team.
“We thought we’d go up there, put in a few of my backups and I thought they could do the job,” Randall said. “They caught us off guard, and we weren’t ready to wrestle. That was a tough loss, but we learned from it.”
With Boise State focused coming into the meet, the Mustangs would have needed at least a couple of upsets to make the score close, and that was assuming that Cal Poly’s best wrestlers would be able to avoid being upset.
But following Smith’s resounding victory, Boise State heavyweight Sam Zylstra handed Cal Poly’s Jim Powers a 5-3 overtime loss to even up some of the momentum, and over the next few bouts, the Mustangs’ main men would go down.
Filip Novachkov (141 pounds), Chase Pami (157) and Ryan DesRoches (174) each came away with unsatisfying losses. Novachkov, ranked as high as fourth in the country, and Pami, the defending conference champion ranked as high as No. 10, came in a combined 13-0 in dual meets.
Though a Pami victory over No. 2 Adam Hall — someone he’s beaten and lost to before — would have been an upset, Novachkov and DesRoches each lost to grapplers ranked beneath them in the conference poll.
DesRoches, ranked first in the Pac-10, fell 6-3 to Nate Lee, who’s rated third. Novachkov, also tops in the conference coming in, was soundly beaten 8-5 by Levi Jones, who was second in the Pac-10.
“We knew we probably needed those, and we didn’t get them,” Azevedo said. “Fil, nine out of 10 times, he wrestles solid, smart, he beats that kid. He’s a better wrestler than Jones. But he got beat because he did some sloppy wrestling.”
Another upset by Cal Poly freshman Steven Vasquez, who took a 6-5 win over the Pac-10’s second-rated 165-pounder in Michael Cuthbertson, and a forfeit awarded to Cal Poly’s Boris Novachkov at 133 pounds, kept the Mustangs in the meet almost to the end.
Despite DesRoches’ loss to Lee in the penultimate match, the Mustangs could have tied the score at 19-19, but they would have needed unranked sophomore Kelan Bragg to pin Boise State’s Kirk Smith, the top-ranked wrestler in the country at 184 pounds.
Instead, Kirk Smith cruised to a 20-4 technical fall for the final margin, and the Mustangs were left to bemoan the lost opportunity of capitalizing on Ryan Smith’s nine-point win to kick things off.
“That was an awesome way to start, and Jim should have followed it up with a win,” Azevedo said. “You follow it up with a win at heavy there, then the momentum and the belief is different. A little bit of momentum and confidence changes the whole outcome.”
Up next, Cal Poly finishes off its conference duals season with three straight home meets against Arizona State on Feb. 5, Oregon State on Feb. 6 and UC Davis on Feb. 12. The Pac-10 Championships begin Feb. 26.
The chance to get the inside track on a conference team championship might have been lost Sunday, but the key to the rest of the season will be how the Mustangs, who are still having their best season in several years, respond to the defeat.
“You learn from your mistakes,” Ryan Smith said. “You learn from your losses, and I think the majority of us will do that. The guys that lost will come back and be better than they were today.”