MORGANTOWN — The WVU wrestling team was well into its fifth season of Big 12 Conference competition before notching its first league victory a year ago.
WVU registered its second-straight win over a ranked Big 12 foe Jan. 7, dispatching No. 25 North Dakota State, 19-12, before a Coliseum crowd of 716.
“It’s exciting, said redshirt senior 197-pounder Jake Smith, who contributed a 6-5 victory over Cordell Eaton in the first-ever meeting with North Dakota State (5-6, 0-4 Big 12).
“This has been years in the making, a lot of guys putting their heads down and working hard. We’ve got a lot of guys on the team coming in every day with a positive attitude, and it’s contagious.
“That mentality of wanting to win, of wanting to train hard and do the right things on and off the mat is contagious, and you can see it flowing through our program.”
WVU coach Sammie “The Bull” Henson preaches the mantra of consistency winning.
He’s seeing more consistency from his Mountaineers (3-3, 2-1) every day, which was not always the case in his first three seasons as the helm.
“It’s a team effort,” said Henson, whose Mountaineers also beat ranked opponents Pitt (No. 25, 24-10) and Oklahoma (No. 18, 24-12).
“They’re doing it. I give credit to all the guys, the staff and administration for believing in what we’re doing. It’s coming around, slowly and surely.”
The Mountaineers’ fortunes were boosted by the return of the fifth-ranked Smith. The Charleston native is a national title contender in his weight class.
He’s battled back from a lower-leg injury that ended his season in the Big 12 tournament last March.
He hoped to return for the Dec. 1-2 Cliff Keen Invitational, in Las Vegas, which is regarded as a “mini-NCAA tournament” on the college wrestling scene.
Not wanting to take any chances, WVU did not send Smith back into action until the Dec. 9 match, against rival Pitt.
He’s won six of his first nine matches and likes where he is at this stage in his comeback.
“I feel confident,” Smith said. “I’m finally acclimated back into season. When you start out, every guy starting out gets the rolling snowball effect. I had to jump right into that and make ends meet. I feel like I’m rolling with the crowd.”
Is everything perfect?
Hardly — but it rarely is. Smith experiences his aches and pains, but that isn’t hindering his training or performance on match night.
“I’ve put a lifetime of work into developing my craft,” he said. “I’m realizing this is the last go-around, the last couple of months. I’m pushing through that pain, blocking it out. There is pain there, but I’m getting out there to do what I started out to do.”
For his part, Henson said he wouldn’t change a thing about the plan he put into place for Smith’s return to the mat.
“Jake is going to be there at the end of the year, and he’s going to be fresh,” Henson said.
“That’s exciting. One part about missing early is, it hurt us a little bit as a team. Now, he’s back, and he’s fresh and it’s motivation for our team to have one of our leaders back.”
While Smith has been an integral part of the Mountaineers’ program since transferring from Cleveland State, a wrestler who figures to be a key component of WVU’s future is making strides.
True freshman 184-pounder Brenden McRill (7-9) earned his second straight dual win, taking a 14-8 decision over Nick Knutson. The Davison, Mich., native was a 2016 state champion.
“He’s starting to get composure,” Henson said. “He’s a hard worker. He goes a million miles a minute. He’s starting to understand his body a little bit more and understand what he wants to get done out there instead of just wrestling.”
McRill said he’s honored to be part of a WVU program he believes is on a path to success in the rugged Big 12.
“The season so far, we started off a little slow, but everything is coming along right now and we’re coming together as a team,” McRill said.
“Everyone is starting to buy into the coaches’ philosophy and just the mentality we’re trying to keep. It’s going great. We’re rocking with it. … It’s a great feeling to have right now.”
The Mountaineers wrestle again Jan. 19, at league rival Oklahoma State.