Ryan Smith loved spending time with his national ranking — until it started cheating on him with other wrestlers.
Now, heading into the Pac-12 Championships of his senior season, the Cal Poly 197-pounder is ignoring the advances of his cruel former flame, hoping he can at last capture that elusive conference championship.
Cal Poly’s other top senior grapplers, 141-pound Boris Novachkov and 174-pound Ryan DesRoches, have also faced some adversity this season, but they all might have been necessary bumps along the road to All-America status and perhaps a national championship.
For Smith, a 5-1 start to the season was enough to gain some respect in the polls. But then he went through a 7-7 stretch, culminating with a loss in the wrestleback quarterfinals of the Midlands Championships.
“Before that I was checking a lot to always see where they had me,” Smith said, “and when I fell out of them, I just kind of said, ‘forget it, I don’t care.’ The rankings don’t mean anything. I know what I’m capable of. I know what I can do. I just kind of stopped caring in general about what everyone else thought and just started doing it for me.”
It could have been the best thing to happen to him. Smith finished off the season winning seven of his past nine matches, losing to No. 1 Joe LeBlanc of Wyoming and No. 7 Brent Haynes of Missouri.
Smith climbed back into the top 25, ranking 17th in the coaches’ poll, and is ranked No. 2 in the Pac-12. Although the senior from Temecula has never won a conference title, Sunday could be his best chance.
Smith’s only conference loss, a pinfall defeat to No. 14 Taylor Meeks of Oregon State, was the only Pac-12 match Smith did not take convincingly, and it came at the low point of his midseason slump.
Since then, Smith began using DesRoches as a daily training partner, and the pairing has showed consistent results for both men.
“I’m confident I can win that Pac-12 title,” Smith said, “and there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be an All-American.”
Last season, DesRoches was adjusting to life as a married man. This year, as if school and a demanding Division I sport and marriage were not enough, he has a baby in the house, 8-month-old son Titus.
The different demands had no ill-effect on his season as the senior from Deer Park, Wash., rattled off 19 straight wins to start the year.
DesRoches was ranked as high as third in the country before a deflating 8-0 loss in a showdown with No. 1 Nick Amuchastegui of Stanford in January. He finished the season winning four of five but lost a 3-2 decision to No. 18 Dorian Henderson of Missouri to cap the regular season.
For DesRoches, wrestling with the pressure of living up to his ranking was making him more tentative. Thoughts about being afraid to lose ground in the polls crept into his mind.
“Being ranked top 3 or 4, I think I kind of let that get to me,” DesRoches said, “and I kind of started tightening up in my matches.
“It might have been bound to happen, and so it’s better that it happened there, so I can learn from it and better focus on my mindset and not putting so much on a match to the point where it makes me wrestle different. It’s a match. Someone’s going to win, and someone’s going to lose. I just need to rely on going hard and shooting my shots.”
DesRoches also has yet to win a conference championship, entering the Pac-10 Championships last season as the No. 1 seed but losing in the semifinals on a takedown in the final 15 seconds.
He’s ranked No. 2 behind Amuchastegui but aims to have a much closer match with the Cardinal standout should they meet in the finals.
Novachkov is the only Cal Poly grappler seeded first in the conference championships. The senior from Sunnyvale made it all the way to the NCAA title match last year and is riding a current 17-match win streak after losing back-to-back matches in the Las Vegas Invitational.
Aiming to get back to the national finals and cash in on the chance that he, UFC star Chad Mendes and Chase Pami were unable to in title trips before, Novachkov wasn’t expecting to lose all season.
The two defeats after a 10-0 start had some questioning the direction of his season, but Novachkov has risen back to No. 2 in the national rankings and holds the No.1 spot in RPI going into a conference meet where he could become Cal Poly’s first three-time Pac-10/12 champion.
“I felt like that might have been good for me, keep me on my toes,” Novachkov said of the losses. “Ever since then, I’ve been trying to push more in practice and try to get better.
“When you’re a returning national finalist, you know everybody’s gunning for you, so you always try to get better. If you don’t get better, people start figuring you out and start beating you.
“I don’t really feel pressured or anything. I know at the end I’m going to pull through when it counts.”