The CBU men’s wrestling team is heading to the Big 12 conference tournament for the first time in history in Tulsa, Okla. from March 4-5, where Lancer wrestlers faced off against the top 33 wrestlers in the nation. Being a part of this conference is an accomplishment, as it is the second toughest conference in the nation, based on the number of qualifiers. Athletes who managed to secure a spot at the conference will compete at the NCAA Championships, which will be in Tulsa from March 16-18.
“For us to be accepted into the Big 12 conference is incredibly exciting for California and for CBU because we’re the only Big 12 wrestling program on the West Coast,” said Derek Moore, head coach of the wrestling team. “This conference spans from California to West Virginia and there are 13 teams in total. Geographically, I believe it is the largest conference. It allows us to attract those other Big 12 opponents that they have to come out to compete against us. It develops wrestling here on the West Coast and in Southern California and it also allows us to communicate with recruits, parents and families on a basis that they understand.”
The Big 12 is part of the larger Power Five conference. Many schools within this conference are much larger, both budget and facility wise. However, that does not phase Moore, who understands that being a great wrestler is about more than just affording the best gear — it is about the mentality and grit that comes from within an athlete.
“We’re looking to continue to expand our staff, looking to continue to give our guys some of those resources, upgrading our wrestling room, some things that are within the wrestling room,” Moore said.
“Ultimately we’re never going to have a Power Five budget, and that’s understood, but it’s also in the sport of wrestling not as big (of a deal) as it might be in some other sports. With the right attitude — the right work ethic — a wrestler can go a long way in this sport. It’s not about the facilities. It’s not about the gear — that’s not going to make you a better wrestler. Helping these guys embrace that underdog role and enjoy being a part of building something special.”
Frank Almaguer, junior communications major and wrestler, clarified how difficult it is to get to this point in the season.
“Everyone in the country is dealing with pitfalls,” Almaguer said. “No one is 100% going into this tournament. It’s all about being mentally strong and being able to go through the obstacles that are put in front of us and being able to still compete at that top level.”
It is a simple yet powerful attitude that demonstrates just how badly these athletes want to prove themselves on the mat. Almaguer underscored the underdog mentality the team has embraced as they go against the top schools in the nation to prove why they deserve a seat at the Big 12 conference.
“Just being able to execute my best talents out there (is what I’m hoping to accomplish),” Almaguer said.
“I am probably in one of the toughest weight classes in the country. I’m the underdog. They don’t expect much from me. I have three national champs, multiple All-Americans, 10 ranked guys in my weight (class), and I was ranked in the top 30. Being able to take part in that — it’s going to be crazy. No one’s expecting much from me. I’ve been hurt almost every single year.”
Hunter Leake, sophomore kinesiology major and wrestler, shared his experiences this season and the ups and downs he has faced. Despite being injured, he is still fighting for the chance to compete at this tournament, helping inspire his teammates as they prepare to make a historic run for the wrestling program and CBU.
“I wanted to be more positive instead of just kind of going out there and then walking off,” Leake said. “I want to build my team up with me. I want to be a leader for the team but I also want to help the team get the recognition it deserves because we have guys like Frankie [Almaguer] who are beating nationally-ranked guys, we got multiple guys who are just having pretty good seasons and I’m trying to be one of the guys that can look back and say, ‘That guy created this D-I program.’”
Leake also opened up about how he is dealing with his injury, showing in the process why wrestlers are some of the strongest athletes, mentally and physically.
“I feel like I’m showing guys that bad things can happen, because I’ve seen not just guys here, but throughout my whole career — they’ll go through something and they kind of blame everyone and they just kind of give up,” Leake said. “I’m just trying to show guys we’re in the toughest sport in the world. Let’s act like it. I don’t know if I’m going to wrestle, but I’m acting like I am going to wrestle. I’m working like I’m going to wrestle. I’m trying to maintain my weight like I’m going to wrestle. I’m not feeling sorry for myself. I’m just trying to do what I can to prepare myself.”
Leake would go on to earn the program’s only win at the Big 12 Championship tournament this year winning by decision over Kobe Nelms from Utah Valley in the Round of 16 for the 133-pound weight class. He was the sole CBU wrestler to compete in the quarter-finals where his run ended in a loss to Zach Redding from Iowa State. Win or lose, Leake’s story of struggle and perseverance is an example of what others can achieve despite the odds.