Western Wrestling Conference gears up for sixth season of competition in 2011-12

By James Warnick Western Wrestling Conference

Coming off their best season, the Western Wrestling Conference, an NCAA Division I wrestling-only alliance, will begin its sixth year of competition in 2011-12.

Charter members of the Western Wrestling Conference include: the United States Air Force Academy, North Dakota State University, the University of Northern Colorado, the University of Northern Iowa, South Dakota State University, Utah ValleyUniversity and the University of Wyoming.

The WWC had a breakout year in 2010-11, with three league wrestlers earning All-American honors. The conference has now had nine All-Americans in its first five years of existence. In 2011, Utah Valley’s Ben Kjar (125) became the Wolverines’ first-ever wrestling All-American by placing fourth at the NCAA Tournament, while Wyoming’s Shane Onufer (165) and Joe LeBlanc (184) placed fifth and sixth respectively at the NCAA Championships. Two out of the three wrestlers will return in 2011-12, as Onufer and LeBlanc will both be seniors for the Cowboys.

LeBlanc has already become the conference’s first three-time All-American as he also finished fourth at the NCAA Tournament in 2010 and fifth in 2009. Northern Iowa’s Moza Fay was a two-time placer during his tenure by finishing sixth at 165 pounds in 2009 and fifth at that same weight in 2008. In 2010 Northern Colorado’s Justin Gaethje (157) finished seventh to earn All-American honors and UNI’s Jarion Beets (174) placed eighth to accomplish the same feat.

In all, 17 wrestlers from the WWC qualified for the 2011 NCAA Division I Wrestling National Championships, 15 via automatic slots and two at-large selections. The WWC had four competitors who were seeded in the top-12 of their brackets. At 141 pounds, Air Force’s Cole VonOhlen was the No. 9 seed and at 165 pounds UW’s Onufer was slotted in at No. 7. In the 184-pound weight class, the Cowboys’ LeBlanc, received the No. 5 slot, while the Panthers’ Ryan Loder was right behind him earning the No. 6 seed.

The 2011 NCAA West Regional served as the conference tournament for the fifth straight season. The tournament was held at Clune Arena on the Air Force Academy grounds in Colorado Springs, Colo. In the team race, Wyoming held on to win its second straight West Regional team title by beating the former 24-time champion Northern Iowa Panthers by six points. UNI however won the league’s regular season dual title with an unblemished 5-0 record. In years past Wyoming won the regular season championship in 2010, UW and UNI tied for the title in 2009, and the Panthers were tops in the league after both the 2008 and 2007 seasons.

The league’s three major postseason awards in 2011 were given to UVU’s Kjar for Wrestler of the Year, Loder from UNI took home the Freshman of the Year award and Wyoming’s Mark Branch won Coach of the Year honors.

In the near future, the goal of the league is to replace the West Regional with the conference tournament, which would then serve as the NCAA qualifier.

This year’s NCAA West Regional will be held on Sunday, March 4, 2012 at the McLeod Center on the campus of the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

The WWC recognizes student-athletes on both a weekly and full-season basis. Individual awards include Wrestler of the Week; All-Conference teams; an Academic All-Conference team; and Wrestler, Newcomer and Coach of the Year awards. The league also crowns a team champion following the conclusion of the regular season conference competition and the postseason tournament.

The governance of the Western Wrestling Conference remains primarily with the member institutions. Scheduling of contests, assignment of officials and certain media relations functions remain with member institutions.

With league members spread out over six states and two time zones, schools are required to compete against five league schools in dual action to be eligible for the regular season conference championship. However schools are encouraged to schedule all conference members.

A major benefit of having a league that is geographically spread out so far is the added exposure – both in terms of media and recruiting – in new destinations. Theconference affiliation also generates much interest within the seven schools’ substantial alumni base, which numbers nearly 800,000 combined.

North Dakota State, Northern Colorado and South Dakota State have all made the move from Division II to Division I since joining the WWC. UVU moved directly from Junior College (NJCAA) Athletics to NCAA Division I and completed its reclassification before the 2009-10 season.