As a redshirt senior, Frank Cousins has seen the best and worst of Wisconsin wrestling. In his redshirt freshman year, the Badgers turned in a strong season with four All-Americans and a 10th place finish in the NCAA Championships only to turn around and go winless in Big Ten competition the next year.
“Things went downhill from freshman year,” Cousins said. “It’s been a hard rebuilding process.”
By all appearances, however, this year’s team has reclaimed the quality expected of the proud program.
“Oh we’re miles ahead of previous years,” Cousins said. “We’re right there with the [2010-11] team.”
Led by veteran grapplers like redshirt junior Connor Medbery (heavyweight) and redshirt sophomores Isaac Jordan (165 pounds) and Ryan Taylor (125 pounds), the Badgers (7-2 Big Ten, 9-4 overall) have enjoyed a solid season with wins over ranked opponents Rutgers and Nebraska and a 45-0 shutout win over Indiana.
Wisconsin also turned in a successful trip to the competitive Midlands Championship over winter break, placing seventh, with five Badgers earning top-eight finishes.
While upperclassmen have led the way, the makeup of the team skews young, something which Medbery says has posed challenges.
“Our team is pretty young,” he said. “Week in and week out we have a lot of younger guys wrestling in the lineup and that presents some steep learning curves. That’s a difficult environment.”
Despite this, many of the younger wrestlers have, as head coach Barry Davis says, “rose to the occasion.” Redshirt sophomore Jesse Thielke credits this to veteran leadership.
“I never got to be on an exceptional team in high school,” Thielke said. “The upperclassmen take on responsibility—our guys are natural-born leaders.”
This leadership showed over the weekend at the Big Ten Championships. While the Badgers finished eighth overall, they enjoyed individual success with Jordan claiming the Big Ten crown in the 165-pound weight class.
Jordan has been one of the standouts for the Badgers this year. Ranked third in his class nationally, Jordan is part of a rich family legacy. His father Jim wrestled for Wisconsin in the 1980s and was a two-time national champion. His uncle Jeff also wrestled for the Badgers, winning a Big Ten championship in 1988, and his brother Ben garnered All-American honors in 2012. Even Jordan’s Big Ten Championship match had a familial tie—he defeated his cousin Bo, who wrestles for Ohio State.
Despite his successes, Jordan feels that only victory on the national stage can help him match the legacy of his father.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve emerged from his shadow quite yet,” Jordan said. “I’m only an All-American and he was a national champion, so I think if I win the NCAA’s it’ll definitely happen.”
While the team may be flying under the radar heading into the NCAA Championships, Medbery is optimistic the team will be able to finish strong and put several wrestlers on the podium.
“We’re going to make some noise at NCAAs where people may be overlooking us,” Medbery said. “As a team we have potential to put three or four guys in the finals. That’s something that could happen and that’s what we’re striving for.”
The Badgers will compete in the NCAA Championships March 19-21.