Although the Air Force wrestling team finished the 1999-2000 season with a winning record, expectations are much higher for the 2000-01 season. This year's squad isn't as youthful or inexperienced as last season's team. The Falcons return starters at all but two weight classes, and a strong recruiting class provides more depth than the team has seen in years.
The grapplers are led by Wayne Baughman, a veteran coach with an outstanding resume. Baughman, who is entering his 22nd season as head coach, is optimistic of the direction the program is heading.
"Last year's record was a surprise, considering the young and inexperienced team we had and the schedule we had," Baughman said. "I expect this year will even be better. We have some experience behind us. We also have more depth at every weight class than we have had in the past."
One indication that the team has already gotten better and stronger is looking at last year's improvements. The team started the season losing four of its first five dual meets. But as the season progressed, the young wrestlers got better, gaining valuable experience against top-notch programs. The Falcons proceeded to win six of its final eight duals. That momentum should carry to this season.
For the first time in three years, the Falcons will start the season with a wrestler at the 125-pound weight class. C2C (Jr.) Wes Bennett had a shoulder separation at the start of his freshman season, and a broken elbow the start of last season.
"Bennett is an awfully tough wrestler," Baughman said. "If he can stay healthy, he will be tough to beat."
Baughman expects Bennett to be challenged by a couple of freshman who could crack the starting lineup. C4C (Fr. ) Heath McKim was a three-time state champion in Nebraska, and C4C Luke Vitolo is a tough wrestler from Pennsylavania.
The Falcons should be solid again at the 133-pound weight class. Andy Peters returns as the starter, having gone 11-1 in dual meets last season at 133. Peters also placed in the prestigious Collegiate Invitational while defeating a number of nationally ranked opponents throughout the season. He finished last season ranked 16th nationally. He will be the favorite to enter the season as the starter, but not without competition from some of the younger wrestlers. C3C (So.) Chris Jensen gained valuable experience last season, even cracking the starting lineup for the team's first dual meet. Recruit C4C Abe Smith was a state champion in Arizona and is a capable wrestler.
The 141-pound weight class is also very strong this season, with C1C (Sr.) Ryan Montanez as the emerging candidate for the starting position.
"Ryan has gotten bigger and stronger every year," Baughman said. "He is definitely one of the team leaders and certainly should have a tremendous season."
Baughman expects that Ryan's off-season conditioning will give him a huge edge over challengers. This summer, at age 22, Montanez became the youngest wrestler to finish the Leadville Trail 100-mile run, a grueling high-mountain run.
Newcomers C4C Tanner Betsinger, a Wyoming state champion, C4C Dan Brower, a two-time state place winner from Minnesota and Colorado Springs-native C4C John Alley provide depth at the weight class.
With the graduation of Patrick Brady-Lee, the 149-pound weight class is wide open. C1C T.J. Huxel is a strong candidate, having compiled a 2-2 dual meet record at 149 last season. If Huxel, who has had injury problems, stays healthy he will be the front runner. C3C Christopher Bennett was a solid performer at the junior varsity level. He was an Oklahoma state champion in high school and should compete for the starting role. Newcomer Blain Brown, a three-time Colorado state champion, could also challenge.
"Brown certainly has the potential to be fighting for the starting role, but the big question will be whether or not he can make weight," Baughman said. "It may take some time."
The most solid weight class for Air Force is at 157 pounds. Two-time NCAA qualifier Scott Frohardt should win the starting job outright. Frohardt was 10-3 in dual meets last year, and he was successful in numerous tournaments. He captured first place at the All-Academy tournament and second place at the Oklahoma Open. He also grabbed the 157-pound title at the Colorado Collegiates, where he was selected as the tournament's most outstanding wrestler.
Team co-captain Alex Pelbath returns as the starter for the 167-pound weight class. Pelbath was the 167-pound champion of the All-Academy and Colorado Collegiate tournaments last season, and had a successful 10-3 dual meet record while also making a name for himself on the national level by defeating a number of top Division I opponents. Pelbath provides leadership to the team and will be a tough wrestler to defeat. C3C Matt Peterson could be a surprise starter. He didn't wrestle varsity last season, but he looked impressive at the junior varsity level, and according to Baughman, "he pushed Alex down to the wire."
Competition for the starting role at the 174-pound weight class will be strong again this season. C2C Terry Parham is the front runner for the job. Parham was 6-6 in dual meets last season, and was third at the All-Academy tournament.
"Terry has a lot of potential in the 174-pound weight class," Baughman said. "He got off to a slow start last year, but came on strong toward the end of the year."
Parham's top challenger is C3C Sam Sherertz. Sherertz was one of the few freshman to crack the starting lineup last season, wrestling at both the 174- and 184-pound weight classes. He finished the season with a strong, true-second place finish in the West Regionals. With one year of experience behind him, he should figure in the mix again this season.
The 184-pound weight class is wide open this year. The team's hardest worker and team co-captain C1C Scott Jenkins is expected to challenge for the starting role. He saw action in four dual meets and provides team leadership on the mat. Sherertz or Parham could move up a weight class, or C3C Ryan Kaiser could fill the starting role. Kaiser wrestled in just one dual meet last season as a freshman, but he gained experience in numerous open tournaments.
The 197-pound weight class could be an interesting situation. C3C Kevin Hoy started last year as a freshman and did a great job, winning a lot of matches. He won the All-Academy and Colorado Collegiate tournaments, and won six dual meets, earning national notoriety as an Amateur Wrestling News All-Rookie team selection. But he gained weight in the off-season, and is weighing around 215. He could cut down to 197 or go up to heavyweight. C4C Charlie Goetz comes to the Academy as a former Florida state champion. He is the most likely person to step into the starting role, although Josh Hendrickson, an Alaska 215-pound state champion, could wrestle 197 if he makes weight.
The starting position at heavyweight was vacated with the graduation of Philip Johnston. The likely candidate is either Hoy, Goetz or Hendrickson, but other newcomers will provide depth. C3C David Braithwaite, a former football player, and C4C Andersen Studley, a current football player who is bigger than the other heavyweights on the roster, could also challenge for the starting job. Newcomers C4C Melvin O'Connor, a state place winner from Colorado, and C4C Stephen Elliot, a state place winner in Washington, provide further depth at heavyweight.
The team's schedule is not quite as strong as it has been in the past few seasons. The team begins its season with three open tournaments, which provide the wrestlers - both varsity and junior varsity - valuable experience. The team still faces strong teams like Wyoming and Fresno State, but it doesn't face the national powerhouses it faced last year, like Michigan or Illinois. BYU, which traditionally fields a strong wrestling team, dropped its wrestling program, which leaves the West Region with just six teams.
"We have a good solid schedule, although it is not quite as tough as I'd like it to be," Baughman said. "The good news is we are little stronger than last year. The bad news is all the teams we are competing against will be stronger than they were last year as well."
Overall, optimism remains high, as coaches are excited about the 2000-01 season. Solid returnees and strong newcomers provide depth and balance at nearly every weight class. From top to bottom, Air Force should be a solid team.