During his time at Central Oklahoma, wrestling coach David James has won 11 Division II or NAIA national championships and finished runner-up five times.

Maybe this is why.

Loaded with all the right a coach could have to simply gloss over a season, James did anything but when he marched back onto campus this fall. After his team’s worst finish at the national tournament since 1976, the coach came in ready to talk about it — and talk about it, and talk about it.

“Last year was not up to our standards. This group is going to have to challenge to regain that standard and reputation we had,” James said. “And they know all about it, because we’ve talked about it plenty in meetings.”

Just two years ago, the Bronchos were coming off a season in which they won their second straight national title and seemed to have no end in sight to their powerhouse status.

The next year, however, UCO dipped to 15-3 in duals and placed third at nationals. Then, last season, the Bronchos were only 12-7 and placed 11th at the big show. UCO also was third at the Midwest Regional, ending a 15-year reign as champions.

The coaching staff took it personally.

“Being here 23 years and finishing where we finished last year, that was pretty tough,” James said. “But I think it’s made me a solid coach and kind of put into perspective what we’ve done here. We know that we need that back.”

It’s quite possible the Bronchos could get back near the top this season, thanks to a group of veterans who are a year older and an impressive group of youngsters.

UCO has back five All-Americans and three other starters from last season’s team. Senior Cort Peterson (165), juniors Jared Henning (133), Josh LeadingFox (285) and Shea Timothy (149) and sophomore Kyle Evans (141) each placed at nationals. LeadingFox was the team’s highest placer at fifth, while Evans was sixth.

Also back are starters Jerod Goodwin (157), Carson Kleinfeldt (184) and Shane Caruthers (125).

Highlighting the newcomers are two-time JUCO national champion Earl Jones (133) and JUCO national runner-up Adam Ingram (157), and several multi-winning state prep champs.

“It’s still early to say, but I think we’re ahead of where we’ve been,” James said. “Our overall condition looks tremendously better. Coach (Jared) Kaaihelo has been working with them and we’re seeing the impact with our wrestlers.”

The coaching staff also is witnessing several in-weight battles. That became clearly evident last week in the Bronze-Blue Intrasquad when several youngsters defeated returning veterans.

Of course, teammates pushing each other to get better is not something that’s going to upset James and Co.

“We’ve got some pretty good competition, three to four deep at some weights,” James said. “Some guys that have been here a while and had some success, they’re being pushed by the young guys. People look at that as a problem, but I think it’s a good problem.”

All of that adds up to UCO being as excited — and motivated — as it’s been in some time going into Sunday’s opener at the Central Missouri State Open.

“I’m excited about this group and very anxious to see them get on the mat,” James said. “There haven’t been any big secrets. They’ve just bought into everything we’ve asked. They’re working hard and staying quiet, and that’s encouraging.”

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