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As wrestling shrinks, UVU program thrives
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Unless you have a specific reason to go to the Wolverine Service Center at Utah Valley University, it's easy to drive right past the state's hub for collegiate wrestling.

Inside the test center, down a long hallway dotted with the inspirational musings of Michael Jordan and John Wooden, there is a nondescript door, simply marked, "Wrestling Room."

To enter it ends one journey but begins another. The story of UVU's fledgling program is still being written.

On Feb. 6, Iowa brings its legendary program to the wrestling hotbed of Vernal for a dual meet against the Wolverines. The NCAA Championships are a month later.

"I've been waiting a long time," Wolverine standout Ben Kjar said about wrestling for a national championship. "I've been scouting opponents. I know I'll do well."

Barring injury, Kjar, ranked 11th nationally in the 125-pound weight class, is projected to be the first Wolverine to qualify for the NCAA event since UVU became a fully sanctioned Division 1 school.

"Shoot for the stars," he said. "Why not?"

It is something the Wolverines have been shooting at for nearly seven years now. The program is 47-32 overall in that time, but coming off an 11-3 season.

"We're in a good place right now," Wolverine coach Greg Williams said. "We're trying to establish a long-term program. We're starting to get kids."

It was a coup for Williams when he persuaded Pocatello High's Abner Cook, Idaho's No. 1-ranked wrestler and two-time state champion, to become a Wolverine.

"I felt right on my recruiting trip here," said Cook, a freshman who is redshirting this season. "Hanging out with the guys down here felt right. I felt coming here I could go to nationals."

A long slog

It's been a long, slow haul for UVU, which created its program knowing that the school would not be eligible for NCAA-sanctioned events during a seven-year sanction period that ended last year.

In 2003, as colleges disbanded wrestling programs by the bushel, Utah Valley State College threw the mats to the floor. It became the first school in nearly 30 years to add wrestling.

Cody Sanderson, a two-time champion at Iowa State and Heber City native, left his job as an assistant coach at ISU to helm the new program.

"We didn't have a lot of help, facilities or recruiting dollars," said Sanderson, one of many Utah high school wrestlers who had to leave the state to compete on the college level.

In 2000, BYU became the last university in Utah to drop wrestling. It removed the final choice for high school wrestlers who might have wanted to stay in state.

"It was very difficult to get top recruits," said Sanderson, now at Penn State as associate head coach to his brother Cael. "They looked at our program and realistically knew that no matter how good they were, they'd never go to the NCAAs. Those who did come just wanted to wrestle for the love of the sport."

Sanderson credits UVU athletic director Mike Jacobsen for keeping the program on track.

Defying a trend

The question remains, however.

Why begin?

Since 1972, nearly 300 schools -- including Utah State, Utah and BYU -- have dropped the sport in response to Title IX, enacted in 1972 to end discrimination on the basis of sex under any education program or activity receiving federal dollars.

There was no mention of athletics in the original bill, but its impact on high school and college athletics has been dramatic.

And it was in that fallout that UVU saw an opening.

"We knew it would give us a niche in the state," Jacobsen said. "Wrestling has been a great addition to our program. Our wrestlers have been some of our finest student-athletes.

"No question, [Title IX] is the reason schools have eliminated their programs. It's an expensive sport. But that's just an excuse other people use. That was not the intent of Title IX."

The NCAA wrestling allotment of nine scholarships is spread among a squad of 30 wrestlers at UVU, 21 of whom hail from Utah.

Jacobson knew the difficulties that lay ahead in starting a program from scratch. Yet, he was more discouraged by the reaction from other wrestling programs.

"We thought wrestling schools would embrace us," he said. "It's been just the opposite. Nobody wanted to come here and wrestle us."

From the first, Boise State, a top-10 program, has been the one exception.

"It's important that we keep programs alive," BSU coach and former Iowa wrestler Greg Randall said. "Especially here out West. We're the only Division 1 school in Idaho. It builds a good rivalry."

So far, the recruiting rivalry has been one-sided. Boise State has three Utah athletes, including junior Andrew Hochstrasser of Tooele, who ranks fifth nationally at 133 pounds.

"We're not going to get every kid from Utah and they're not going to get every kid from Idaho," Randall said.

Boost from recruits

Getting the likes of Cook and Kjar has given UVU a huge boost.

"Kids usually don't want to come here," Jacobsen said. "They want to go to Iowa State."

Utah high school coaches have taken notice of UVU. They've seen the foundation built by Williams, a former All-American at Utah State, through free youth training camps. Gradually, that foundation is becoming a funnel.

"Greg has done a phenomenal job," said Viewmont coach Brandon Ripplinger, whose team has won six of the last eight state titles. "A lot of great people lent their support and time in building that program.

"There's a good vibe there. I don't know whether it's Happy Valley or what, but good things are going on there."

Williams, who began his career at Sky View High and was 87-8, signed 12 of the 13 recruits who visited the Utah Valley campus. Getting them to Orem is the key.

"We are not an established program," he said. "If I'm a dad, I'm building connections with Iowa State because Sanderson was there.

"But we have some kids who have gone to other places and came back when I was named head coach. If we can just get a kid here, he loves what he sees here."

Kjar is as important to UVU wrestling as Ryan Toolson and Ronnie Price were to basketball. Kjar, who could have gone to Oklahoma or Boise State, chose UVU specifically because Williams was his club coach. He chose to throw his lot in with a program that wasn't even sanctioned by the NCAA. Kjar' decision has paid off.

So far this season, UVU is leading the Western Wrestling Conference standings. The WWC includes Wyoming, Northern Iowa and Air Force.

"This team is multiplying in talent every year," Kjar said. "It's been fun. Three years ago we got stomped by Air Force. Stomped. Last year we lost two [of 10] matches to them.

"I was going to go to Boise State. It was close to home and I really liked the coaches. But Utah Valley was the right thing to do. I can help build a program. I can help build tradition."

martyr@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">martyr@sltrib.com

A UVU wrestling primer

» Utah Valley began its wrestling program in 2003 with Cody Sanderson, a former two-time NCAA finalist at Iowa State, as coach.

» Greg Williams, who became the program's second head coach in 2006, was 26-26 at UVU coming into this season.

» Nearly 300 schools have dropped wrestling since 1972, including BYU, Utah, Utah State, Weber State and Southern Utah.

UVU's wrestling history

Season W-L

2003-04 10-5

2004-05 3-12-1

2005-06 9-9

2006-07 6-12, 0-5*

2007-08 9-11, 1-4*

2008-09 11-3, 4-1*

*Conference record

Western Wrestling Conference

Air Force

North Dakota State

Northern Colorado

Northern Iowa

South Dakota State

Utah Valley

Wyoming

While many teams have taken a fall, the Wolverines are putting a hold on success.
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