Josh Martinez can’t look at Carter McElhany without feeling those competitive urges.
McElhany was a two-time state wrestling champion at Coronado; Martinez was a two-time champ at Pine Creek. The schools were competing for the same 5A title — the crown McElhany captured in 2011 and that Martinez’s Eagles would win in 2012, the year after he graduated.
The two are still trying to one-up each other, only now it comes in practice at Air Force.
“He is my wrestling partner,” Martinez said. “You still get that little crosstown rivalry, you still compete. But it’s good to be on the same team.”
The two have emerged as impact wrestlers for a Falcons team that has broken through with the No. 24 ranking in the InterMat poll, but they are far from the only locals.
Air Force’s wrestling roster includes Dan Barringer (Lewis-Palmer), Logan Burch (Rampart), Devin Hightower (Widefield), Taylor Hollister (Air Academy), Gabe Martinez (Pine Creek) and Rip Price (Air Academy).
“We’re not just recruiting local talent because we’re nice guys,” Air Force wrestling coach Joel Sharratt said. “We’re recruiting local talent because they can be impact players within the program.”
Barringer, Burch, Gabe Martinez and McElhany have combined for a 44-29 record this season, including a 15-3 mark in duals. Josh Martinez, who is a freshman after spending a year at the prep school, is 20-6 and ranked No. 11 at 125 pounds
With this group added to the likes of senior Cole VonOhlen — No. 4 at 149 — Air Force is suddenly on the national radar. The Falcons placed 11th at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational and eighth at the Southern Scuffle in Tennessee. Sharratt said the two events were the nation’s top tournaments outside of the NCAA Championships.
Air Force opens its Western Wrestling Conference schedule at 7 p.m. Friday with a home dual against No. 22 North Dakota State.
It’s not often that a service academy is able to build this kind of athletic success with so much local help.
“Colorado Springs high school coaches are to be commended,” Sharratt said. “Credit to the schools, too. You can’t just recruit the local talent, but the local talent that is qualified to get in. So there’s another piece to that.
“I would say it’s probably not going to be a long-term sustainable trajectory.”
It’s not inconceivable that this could keep going. With USA Wrestling and the Olympic Training Center located in Colorado Springs, the local wrestling community has resources that the rest of the nation does not. Also, now that the path to the academy has been established, others may look to follow.
“It’s going to be easier for us now that we’ve taken local talent and we’ve taken it to a national ranking almost immediately,” Sharratt said. “Kids are going to believe you can do it here. When I got here there was some skepticism that the Air Force Academy couldn’t do that at the national level.”
Team members said there are no cliques within the team dividing the locals vs. the non-locals. But that’s not to say the overriding opinion of the team is that Colorado, and Colorado Springs in particular, is suddenly the best place to look for wresting talent.
“I think the Midwest has a pretty good tradition of wrestling up there,” said VonOhlen, a native of Minnesota. “I know some places around here do too. But where I come from there’s not as many fun things to do as here in Colorado. In Minnesota there’s not much to do besides sleep and wrestle.”
AIR FORCE HAS ADVANTAGES IN OLYMPIC SPORTS
Air Force wrestling coach Joel Sharratt launched into a pitch he has clearly given many times. Why not? It certainly makes sense.
“Right now there’s 77 Division I college wrestling programs, and they’re funded with 9.9 scholarships,” Sharratt said. “We offer a $400,000 education and every kid that comes in is on a full-ride scholarship, plus a paycheck.”
Sharratt added that cadets are guaranteed a job after graduation and, for elite athletes, given a chance to continue training through the Air Force’s World Class Athlete Program.
When you think about it like that, it’s easy to see how Air Force’s Olympic sports programs could compete for some of the nation’s top recruits. And that’s how they’re trying to get recruits to think.
“Unlike baseball, basketball, football, where every high school hotshot thinks they’re going to be in the NBA, Major League Baseball or NFL, in track and field, the Air Force Academy is the pinnacle of what you do,” Falcons track coach Ralph Lindemann said. “And there are postgraduate opportunities too (in the World Class Athlete Program).”
The proximity to the Olympic Training Center and national governing bodies for many sports is also seen as a plus for Air Force. Wrestler Cole VonOhlen, for example, has sparred against some of the world’s top competition at the OTC through his time at the Air Force. Now, with this resume and connections, he has no doubt he could gain admittance to the OTC either through the WCAP or after he completes his service in cyber warfare in Biloxi, Miss.
There’s certainly a buzz around the nonrevenue sports at the academy. In the past 10 days the school produced the Mountain West players of the week in tennis (Lance Wilhelm) and indoor track and field (Dylan Bell), saw a soccer player (Kevin Durr) drafted by an MLS team and learned its pole vault coach had been named the nation’s best as a result of his work with some of the nation’s top competitors.
“Anybody who thinks the Air Force Academy, because of all the stuff we have going on, can’t produce competitive, national-level D1 wrestlers is fooling themselves,” sophomore wrestler Carter McElhany said. “I think we absolutely can do it here.”