Cael Hughes’ wrestling roots run through Oklahoma State wrestling.
When his parents relocated to Stillwater – as his father, Jeremy Hughes, took an assistant coaching role in Tucker Barnard’s first year as the Stillwater High football coach – he got his first taste of wrestling as part of the Cowboy Wrestling Club while in first grade.
Now 10 years later, the same program that saw him start his wrestling career is looking to give him a place to wrestle in college.
The Stillwater High junior recently took a recruiting visit just down Duck Street from his high school wrestling room when OSU wrestling hosted a bevy of Oklahoma high school wrestlers during the football team’s season opener against Missouri State.
But with the history he has connected with the Cowboy program, it was a unique day getting to see more behind-the-scenes – such as living quarters and classrooms – for what the day-to-day is like for the Cowboys.
“It’s kind of weird because it feels normal because I would talk to those guys on a weekly basis, but you can see their attitudes a little bit different towards when they’re trying to recruit somebody,” Hughes noted. “So it’s definitely interesting to see what they had to say.”
One of the first things he got to take in is the diagrams for the $1 million renovation to the locker room that began Wednesday – with OSU tweeting out a video of Cowboy coach John Smith taking a sledgehammer to the old lockers.
Oklahoma State wrestling has been trailing in the facilities arms race that was picking up across the country for wrestling prior to the pandemic – which was something Cael took note of. So even just a relatively small improvement – compared to the multi-million expansions having been completed or announced for some of the elite Division I programs – can go a long way in recruiting for the Cowboys.
“For them to be up to date with all that – and it’s going to be nice from what I’ve seen – it’s kind of a big deal for me,” Hughes said.
Among the other recruits to visit that same weekend were two of Hughes’ high school teammates who have family ties to the program – Angelo Ferrari, the brother of recent national champion A.J. Ferrari, and Sam Smith, son of John Smith.
According to Hughes, the trio have had conversations of becoming the next group of Pioneers to try to get OSU its first national title in 15 years.
“We have a few guys in the room and they’ll probably end up at OSU – they definitely have the talent to,” Hughes said. “And talking about forming national championship teams, so we talk about it a lot. But it’s the same thing we are trying to do here, win the state championship again.”
However, Oklahoma State doesn’t appear to be living on their laurels with the Pioneer product.
According to Hughes, when NCAA recruiting activities returned to normal on June 1, he received a call from the Cowboys’ head man.
“June 1, I got a call from Coach (John) Smith and it was kind of funny because I saw him like two hours after our practice,” Hughes said.
The competition for Hughes, a two-time state champion who finished his sophomore season ranked in the top-20 nationally at 120 pounds, is certainly there for the hometown program.
Hughes and his parents have already taken a virtual tour of the University of Wyoming campus and facility with former Cowboy great Mark Branch showing interest in the Stillwater product.
Hughes said he plans to take an official visit to Laramie, Wyoming, during his recruiting process, as well as a recruiting trip to the University of Oklahoma.
“I absolutely want to see what the options are and see what is the best fit for me,” Hughes said. “Because a lot of guys would just go to the college that they’ve always wanted to go to and they get there and end up in the transfer portal a year after. So I want to make sure that where I go is the best fit for me – and that could be OSU, but I just want to make sure I see all my options and don’t count anyone out.”
One of the biggest aspects of finding the right fit, according to his father, is a place where Cael will have a chance to wrestle – the sooner the better.
Per Jeremy, they are talking with coaches about Cael likely wrestling at 141 or 149 pounds at the college level since they are anticipating he may hit another growth spurt before he graduates in 2023.
Cael also has a healthy understanding that a place like Oklahoma State provides him a place to be pushed on the mat daily, which could translate to earning a starting spot.
“At OSU, there’s always going to be guys to wrestle with, and around those middle weights are where their really, really good guys are, so there’s gonna be partners for me,” Cael said. “It’s a really big deal because some of the smaller schools, you’re not going to have that high level guy there to wrestle with, but at OSU I’m never going to be without a partner.”
Hughes is a less conventional Oklahoma wrestling prospect.
Since he didn’t get into the sport until first grade – a few years behind many of the top youth talent in the state – there wasn’t certainty at the beginning of how it would go.
But according to his father – who wrestled some in the lower levels of college and is an assistant coach for the Pioneer wrestling program – his youngest son was a natural.
“He was about 8 years old when he started, and he just always had that something that everybody else didn’t have,” Jeremy said. “It was uncanny. … Within a year of actually wrestling, he was wrestling really tight matches with guys that were national champs and multiple-time state champs.”
Cael was a multi-sport athlete throughout his youth, but prior to his freshman year, he made a decision to give up one of his passions to focus on wrestling.
With him coming into his first year of high school athletics weighing less than 100 pounds, he brought an end to his football career – partly to focus on wrestling, partly to prevent injury going up against experienced players two- or three-times his size.
“He was good at football, and he used to play baseball at one point, and when he got to about eighth grade, he just made the decision that, ‘I’m not gonna play football anymore, I want to focus on wrestling all summer,’” Jeremy said. “And it was at about that time that I was like, ‘Yea, he’s pretty highly recruited.’”
The timing of the decision was bolstered by the success Cael on the mat that summer.
In 2019, after his eighth-grade year, he went to the Fargo Nationals and competed in the Cadet age group for both freestyle and Greco-Roman. He reached the championship match for both disciplines at 94 pounds, winning the freestyle national title and finishing runner-up in Greco.
While some wrestlers may like to focus on the freestyle discipline, as it more closely relates to the folkstyle for high school college wrestling, Cael has found Greco helpful in the more popular styles of wrestling.
“I don’t even really practice Greco that much, so I’m just out there to win,” Cael said. “… A lot of guys don’t know how to do those styles, and they’re scared of throws. You can see that even come more in my folkstyle wrestling … it really improves the flow in your hips and being able to use this part of your body and working on slide-bys.
“And when you have that in the back of your mind, and it’s muscle memory at that point, then you’re at an advantage against other guys.”
Cael has had plenty of help to get to this point where he is on the cusp of being a Division I wrestler.
His older brother, Dax – who was a state qualifier for the wrestling program last season – has given him a routine wrestling partner.
“He’s really supportive of my wrestling,” Cael said. “I’ll go through in the mornings practicing with him, so he’s definitely improved my technique and sharpened my wrestling skills. … He’s definitely been a big help along the way.”
And his father has been in his corner for much of his wrestling career, though Jeremy has taken a step back in the past year.
While he’s still an assistant within the wrestling program, he came to the realization that his son now far exceeds his father in terms of wrestling capabilities. So he’s starting to enjoy watching Cael grow while getting more coaching from a pair of former Division I wrestlers in SHS head coach Ethan Kyle and assistants Jodie Wilson and Cody Stites – each of whom wrestled at Oklahoma State.
“Cael’s beyond my wrestling knowledge, and has been for a while, but I didn’t want him to think I’m gonna abandon him by not being in his corner,” Jeremy said. “… But I think it’s good for him. He needs somebody else … and we’ve got a lot better wrestling minds around this town and around this program.”
There is certainly more learning on the mat to be done for the Stillwater junior.
He learned a difficult lesson back in May when competing for a spot on the Cadet World Team. Despite a 6-0 lead with 15 seconds left in his semifinal match at 55 kg to Kentucky’s Spencer Moore, Cael didn’t get his hand raised.
Moore rallied for a last-second victory – eventually going on to earn the World Team spot for the weight.
“You learn a lot from losses like that,” Cael said. “I’m not upset about anything. I mean, I know I should have won. … You learn things from losses like that and it prevents them from happening again. At the end of the day, I’d rather it happened then instead of at the Senior World Team Trials.”
Working in the background
The past few months for Cael have been a learning experience in patience and finding a way to get better away from the mat, as well.
Over the summer, he was diagnosed with a fracture of his L5 vertebrae – that he believes was from a combination of wrestling and weightlifting – that has him rendered to a brace built to keep his upper body as immobile as possible.
It’s been a difficult process for the young athlete.
He’s gone from being active to being antsy.
“It’s really weird,” Cael said. “I’ve had to kind of channel my energy elsewhere. It was an issue for a little bit because I was driving my parents crazy because I wasn’t able to work out or anything. It’s definitely not norman for me to not work out two or three times a day.”
But he’s found ways to work on his craft while sidelined for the foreseeable future.
He’s been spending time in the coaches’ office watching film of matches to try to pick up techniques and in-match approaches. He’s also gone to a few OSU practices to watch and soak up from the sideline.
While the wrestling room is in action with his teammates training for the season ahead, he’s using his experience to help wrestlers in the form of coaching.
“I like walking around and helping some of the guys that aren’t quite as experienced as the rest, because when you get down to it, the team is only as good as the weakest link,” Cael said. “… So it’s important for me to make a good environment for people to learn and to work hard. … So it’s been pretty cool being able to step into that like leadership spot and motivate some of the guys, and I think I’m pretty influential in the room, so I gotta use that to my advantage for the team’s advantage.”
While Cael said there is no solid schedule for when he will be on the mat this upcoming season, he said he will at least be back for the postseason – to continue his quest of becoming Stillwater’s first four-time state champion since Chris Perry – though he is hopeful he can return prior to that.
“I could miss a couple of duals, or even the first half of the wrestling season, but I should definitely be back before state and regionals – all the big stuff,” Cael said.
Follow News Press sports editor Jason Elmquist on Twitter @jelmquistSW for updates on Oklahoma State and Stillwater High wrestling.