John Smith has worked his magic to get his Oklahoma State wrestlers enough competition in a unique season for college wrestling.
On Wednesday, the program released its scheduled for the shortened season – pushed back two months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Oklahoma State is set to compete in 11 duals – short of the mid-teens number Smith was hoping for when making the pandemic-driven schedule. However, a late-season tournament will likely help fill the gap in getting his Cowboys around 15 matches before the postseason.
But of course, it is all dependent on wrestlers avoiding COVID-19, especially in a high-contact sport that forced the sport to only allow one day a week for competitions.
“This was probably one of the toughest years to schedule,” Smith said Wednesday in a Zoom meeting with the media. "We changed our schedule four times since August, just not knowing what we were going to be able to do.”
The most notable omission is the traditional matchup with Iowa, as well as fellow Big Ten program Minnesota. Smith said they were also originally slotted to include Michigan in dual action, but all those duals went to the wayside when the Big Ten made the decision that wrestling teams could not compete against any nonconference opponents.
Fans will get a unique opportunity at the start of the season, however, as the Orange and Black rankings matches that are due to be be held Jan. 3, will be available for the public to attend.
Some of the scheduling can be likened to how high school wrestling programs have to run operations to get a condensed amount of duals in a season that spans just three months – as opposed to five months in a typical college season.
The most notable is the season opening duals scheduled for Jan. 10 inside Gallagher-Iba Arena.
The Cowboys will have a pair of matches against the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, as well as Oregon State (which be live-streamed on ESPN+). But GIA won’t have just one mat in use that day, as the young Little Rock wrestling program – run by former Cowboy Neil Erisman and competes in the Pac-12 Conference – will be wrestling on a separate mat against Oregon State and UTC when Oklahoma State wrestles the other. Oregon State and UTC will also wrestle in a match against each other inside Gallagher-Iba Arena.
“I don’t know if that’s every happened (two mats for concurrent duals inside GIA), at least not in my career, and I’ve been watching a lot of Cowboy wrestling, even when I was a kid,” said Smith, who began coaching his alma mater 1991. “The challenge is, you always want to present an event to your public that’s fun and quick. It’s going to be hopefully fun, but it’s not going to be quick this year. It’s going to be stretched out.”
The extra mat will also permit an opportunity for wrestlers not in the varsity lineups for programs to try to get some matches in since those wrestlers won’t get a chance to compete in tournaments, as would happen in a normal season.
While the Cowboys and UALR, which is in its second season of competition, won’t square off against each other in the opener, OSU will face the Trojans twice in a home-and-home series.
Oklahoma State will travel to Little Rock, Arkansas, the following weekend for a pair of duals with Southern Illinois-Edwardsville and UALR. The Trojans will also be featured in a home dual for Oklahoma State on Feb. 7, which be available for viewing on ESPN+ at 7 p.m. – after a Bedlam meeting in Norman at 1 p.m. that same day.
After the trip to Arkansas, the Cowboys will travel to Colorado on Jan. 22 for a pair of duals against Northern Colorado and Air Force. Eight days later, on Jan. 30, OSU will take a trip to Iowa to squeeze in a match at Northern Iowa and another at Iowa State on the same day.
Without any preseason tournaments, or the traditional Southern Scuffle, to compete in this year, the Cowboys will get a taste of tournament action prior to the scheduled postseason.
On Feb. 14, Oklahoma State will host the Cowboy Challenge Tournament in Gallagher-Iba Arena. It will feature West Virginia, Wyoming, Missouri and Central Oklahoma programs. The tournament is set to start at 9 a.m., with the finals and third-place matches scheduled for 1 p.m. – with the finals being available on ESPN+.
Smith said the idea came about when a dual scheduled with Missouri had to be rescheduled, and calls from former Cowboy Mark Branch – head coach for the Wyoming program – trying to work a dual into the schedule.
“We just came to the conclusion that we can add a few extra guys and build a bracket of eight, and that day it’s going to be a quick tournament,” Smith said. “So anybody who wrestles into the championship round will wrestle three matches … the losers of the semis will just wrestle for third and fourth, and we won’t have a series of consolations, so some guys will only get one match if they don’t win their first match.”
The only scheduled event in which Oklahoma State will wrestle just one opponent will be the regular season finale on Feb. 21.
The Cowboys will close out with a home dual against Oklahoma in another ESPN+ production that is scheduled for 2 p.m.
With the timing of Daton Fix’s USADA suspension due to end on Feb. 10, it’s possible the former national runner-up could return in time to wrestle in the home tournament on Feb. 14 and then the home Bedlam dual – missing the first rivalry match by just three days.
“It definitely went into thinking about what we wanted to do that day,” Smith said of Fix’s return. “But it was also focused on some of our younger guys being able to compete against some guys that in the top 10 or top 5 in the nation. But yeah, that’s a good opportunity for him to break out, but I’m going to tell you, that’ll be a competitive weekend.”
Getting Fix back before the Cowboy Challenge – with a pair of Big 12 programs in attendance – will allow the Sand Springs native to get some matches in to help with his seeding before the Big 12 Championships in Tulsa. The conference tournament is currently set for March 6-7, but Smith said the conference is keeping it open of possibly moving the tournament back a week if wrestlers are impacted by positive COVID-19 tests that prevent them from competing on the originally scheduled weekend.
The season will be capped off with the NCAA Championships in St. Louis, Missouri, which are still scheduled to be wrestled March 18-20.