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.
Wilson added another win over Derek Valenti (Virginia) before being eliminated by No. 8 Nick Brascetti.
"I was hoping Josh could place, but he wrestled well and just got beat by a better kid that last match," Williams said. "That kid’s position was great."
Rauser's run also ended on the second day after the Montana product lost a 10-6 decision to Michigan's Sean Boyle. Williams, however, is encouraged after Rauser finished his freshman year with more than 20 wins and an appearance at nationals to show for it.
"It’s great, because Jade knows he’s real close and he’s a freshman," Williams said. "Jade’s been on the stage on the high school level. Now he’s got to compete at the college level. He did that."
The overall experience at nationals may have been a preview of better things to come. Wilson may be granted another year of eligibility pending review of medical papers concerning a previous year lost to injury. Rauser and Fager will have another year's worth of seasoning under their belts.
"I think Adam and Jade are coming back with some confidence," Williams said. "They're chomping at the bit to get the opportunity."
Williams also repeatedly mentioned Rauser's twin brother Val, who likewise dominated high school competition in Montana, albeit in the 133-pound division. Val missed most of the season due to colitis, which he hopes will be solved by offseason surgery scheduled to take place in May.
Val Rauser was ranked No. 20 in the nation before illness forced him to sit.
"He’s the real deal, just like Jade," Williams said.
With results already showing from UVU's young-but-improving core, the Wolverines are cautiously optimistic about their future.
"We feel good about where things are going," Williams said.
Matt Petersen is the sports Web editor for DeseretNews.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @TheMattPetersen.
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