LARAMIE, Wyo. — Alfonso Hernandez pulled his shoes on but couldn't tie them himself.

His wife, Stephanie, laced them up as the Wyoming wrestler headed off to practice.

Hunched over and bow-legged, Hernandez sauntered in to the locker room.

"He was having his wife help him tie his shoes, but he was still coming in and wrestling," UW wrestling coach Mark Branch said. "When you're in that kind of pain, it's debilitating to what you can do."

That was then.

On Sunday, Hernandez entered a dual at Oregon State ranked in the top 10 in the country by Intermat at 197 pounds and won his team-leading 26th match, beating nationally ranked Taylor Meeks by major decision in the Pokes 23-22 victory decided by criteria.

As a sophomore during the 2009-10 season, Hernandez plugged along, improving slightly on a 23-19 freshman record.

He entered the NCAA West Regional as the No. 2 seed, but lost his first match and saw his goal of making his first NCAA tournament collapse.

Hernandez still finished that tournament with the most pins, even though the pain from a bulging disc in his back was setting in.

"I'd be walking around with my back bent over and I was kind of bow-legged because of the pain, just walking at a 45-degree angle," Hernandez said. "I'd try to walk straight up and it just killed."

Hernandez said there wasn't one incident that caused his L4 to bulge, but was rather something that built up over time.

Doctors tried to alleviate the pain through rehabilitation, but before last season began, it was determined surgery was the only option.

"Once they did that it relieved tons of pain," Hernandez tells the Casper Star-Tribune (http://bit.ly/xSd2aG). "It was a couple days later that I was already walking upright. It felt awesome."

With any surgery, there comes the risk of never returning to the mat.

"There's always a risk, but (the doctor) seemed pretty confident and that made me confident as well," Hernandez said. "He did a good job. Everything turned out great and I don't have to worry about that."

Once the surgery was a success, Branch had little doubt Hernandez would return to the mat.

At that time, it was simply a question of whether the Idaho native could get back to top form.

"One of the things that goes unnoticed is when you have the opportunity to compete for a couple years and then step back for a year, it really puts everything in perspective and I think it helps you mature a lot," said Branch, a two-time NCAA champion and four-time finalist during his days at Oklahoma State. "Guys that go straight into competition like Fonz did and it was too much and too fast. He never got a chance to step back and evaluate what he was doing."

Hernandez was off the mat for nine months.

When he returned, he was a new wrestler.

"We start bringing him in and letting him wrestle and all of the sudden it's like, 'Man, this guy's strong,'" Branch said. "Then we put him with (three-time All-American Joe LeBlanc) because he was a handful for Joe and that's what he needed at the time. They're a great combination because we put them together and they really push each other."

Wrestling against the No. 1 -ranked wrestler at 184 pounds every day in practice instantly shifted Hernandez's focus.

He was still going to need to return this season and beat NCAA-qualifier L.J. Helbig out of his spot at 197 pounds, but Hernandez was giving a national championship contender all he could handle.

"I remember last year when I came back from the surgery, wrestling with Joe and stuff, we'd have tight matches," Hernandez said. "I was gaining confidence. He's an All-American, so where does that put me? That's what I'd ask myself."

Consider the 2011-12 season a coming out party.

A lesson-teaching loss to Adams State's Luke McPeek early in the season was Hernandez's only loss in his first 15 bouts.

"That match kind of made me realize that I have to keep wrestling," Hernandez said. "It's really important to get the first attack and keep the motion going to wear my guys out. I wasn't really wrestling my style of wearing the guy out."

Since then, two of his three other losses have come against ranked wrestlers.

He lost to No. 7 Matthew Wilps from Pittsburgh in a two-point decision, No. 5 Matt Powless of Indiana in a two-point decision and Oklahoma State's Blake Rosholt in a one-point decision.

"He's shown that he can compete with the best guys at that weight," Branch said. "He's right there."

Hernandez beat fifth-ranked Cayle Byers by 8-4 decision in the dual against Oklahoma State, probably the biggest victory of his career.

It's led to loftier goals as the season wears on.

"National title," Hernandez said when asked what he's aiming for. "I just have to go for all or nothing, right? All-American, that's kind of a hurdle to clear to get to the national championship."

Branch wouldn't be shocked if any or all of that occurred.

"There's a couple guys that are maybe ahead of the pack (at 197), but going on down to 15 or so, it's a real similar group," Branch said. "He's got to make sure he's wrestling his best at the end of the year. If he goes and puts on a good tournament, the sky's the limit."

That's quite the statement, given Hernandez was limited in simply tying his own shoes 18 months ago.

"Going into the season, I already had the confidence of knowing that I'm going to do big things this year," Hernandez said. "But how big? I guess we'll find out."