UVU wrestling head coach Greg Williams was blunt a year and a half ago about the program's immediate future, saying they were starting a "rebuilding period."
Williams' assessment was hard to argue. He had just seen three national qualifiers hit graduation, including the nation's third-place finisher at 125 pounds, Ben Kjar.
The mass exodus of program-defining talent left Williams with a dearth in experience, which he countered with a massive and highly touted recruiting haul. Most of the newcomers redshirted the 2011-12 season, giving themselves and the coaching staff a much-needed year of instruction and unattached experience at meets.
"Last year I thought we were behind [our timetable]," Williams said. "I felt it was so many new young kids, we didn’t progress as fast as I wanted. We didn’t have enough leadership versus new guys. I felt like we were holding their hands a lot last year, teaching technique at the end of the year, something you never want to do."
The early returns in 2012-13, however, were promising. Josh Wilson, the team's lone starting senior, provided much-needed experience and consistency, while the younger generation sought to translate its enthusiasm to wins on the mat.
The results were encouraging. UVU snagged wins over Arizona State and Stanford, as well as conference victories over Air Force, South Dakota State and Northern Colorado.
Such progress, Williams admitted, made up for a slow learning curve in the previous season.
"I feel like the progression has been every bit as quick as we would have hoped two years ago," Williams said. "I feel like we’re on track to be a very competitive team against ranked teams. I thought we could have won conference, and I didn’t expect that this year."
More importantly, individual grapplers logged enough wins to merit consideration as national qualifiers. Williams expected as much from Wilson, who qualified in 2012 and went 2-2 at the NCAA Championships.
Wilson had company on the trip this season: redshirt sophomore Adam Fager (heavyweight) and redshirt freshman Jade Rauser (125 pounds).
For Williams, the trio featured three athletes at different points of their respective careers. Wilson's experience would ideally see him place. Fager, who had previously competed at 197 pounds, had come into his own at a different weight class. Rauser was a highly regarded talent already paying dividends.
"All three of them are in different stages [of their careers]," Williams said. "All three of them present their own unique challenges. It’s fun to be there and have the opportunity to compete against the best."
Fager couldn't get out of the first day, dropping both of his matches. The Layton High School product figures to benefit not only from the experience, but an offseason's worth of further adjustment to the heavyweight class.
"We got to September and he wasn’t bringing his weight down [back to 197 pounds]," Williams said. "We gave him a two-week ultimatum, thinking that might help. It did, just not the way we thought. But to go heavyweight, you want to put weight on, but it’s not efficient [weight right away]."
"[He's] not quite up there with the strength," Williams added. "Once he's more efficient with his weight, he'll be able to move these guys. He got the first takedown in both matches [at nationals]."
Meanwhile, Wilson and Rauser both recovered from first-round losses with wins, Wilson with a 2-1 decision over Illinois' Caleb Ervin, Rauser by fall over Indiana's Joseph Duca.
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