Wyatt Hendrickson's entry in the Air Force Academy's wrestling program was unique and now, so is his place in it.
A junior from Newton, Kan., Hendrickson first entered the Academy's wrestling program as a freshman in the fall of 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of going to practice and then heading back to his squadron, he lived with his teammates and coaches at Jacks Valley, where the Academy conducts basic training for five months, isolated from the wing.
"If we could go back and do that every single year, I would 100% do it," he said. "We stayed in little huts together so we lived with the boys every single day and that's really where I realized, 'Wow this is my family.' ... I've never had a brother before and so just going back and being with the boys it was an extreme blessing."
That was the beginning of Hendrickson's tenure with the program where he recently became the first cadet since Kevin Hoy in 2003 to make the podium at the NCAA Wrestling Championships.
Hendrickson finished in third place in the championships in March in the 285-pound weight class, pinning the University of Iowa's Tony Cassioppi at the four-minute, 16-second mark.
The victory cemented Hendrickson as the team's lone All-American receiving the distinction by placing in the top eight at the NCAA tournament. He is the program's first All-American in 20 years.
"It's always been my goal to be All-American. But more than that just a national champion so I am very, very happy with how I did this year, but obviously I'm still hungry looking for more," Hendrickson said.
"An All-American that's the gold standard in NCAA wrestling," Air Force head coach Sam Barber said. "We've had a lot of great accomplishments, we've done some amazing things in our program, but that's the gold standard. You're not a successful Division-I wrestling program unless you have guys that are All-Americans at the NCAA tournament. To have Wyatt Hendrickson stand on the podium and represent the hard work of the entire team, the program and the institution ... is just validation that what we thought was possible is possible and the exciting thing is that there's room for growth and improvement."
Hendrickson's placement was part of a banner day for Air Force as the team finished with 28.5 points, the most in program history. Air Force took 18th place, tied with Oklahoma State.
The Falcons beat four All-Americans at the championships, pinning three, including Cassioppi who is a four-time All-American, according to a release. Air Force also claimed victory over four top-20 Big Ten opponents by way of fall. Senior Cody Phippen earned the fastest fall of the four, pinning Michigan redshirt sophomore and three-time NCAA qualifier Dylan Ragusin in just over two minutes.
The top-20 finish has been a goal of Barber's since he took over the program as head coach in 2014.
"It's a huge deal for us," Barber said. "I took over this job in 2014. The vision was always to have a top-25 team that produced NCAA All-Americans and Big 12 champions right? And that's where it starts. It started with a vision and it started with what it looks like to build a structure to support finding the right people to make that become a reality."
According to Barker, this year's Air Force wrestling team is the first top-20 program of any service academy since 1971.
As for conference championships, Hendrickson took home the Big 12 championship in his weight class.
For Barber the success is due to the level of trust and communication the team has with the coaching staff and vice versa.
"I think if you have high-level communication between the coach and the athlete, you can do some special things," Barber said. "When (Hendrickson) comes to me and says, 'Hey I'm feeling x,y and z today my body's telling me I need this,' there's a level of trust there that we've earned between each other that allows you to adjust the training plan...Then on the other side of that coin, he's been gracious enough to trust me and the coaching staff when we say like, 'Hey I know you're a little bit sore today but we gotta push and we gotta train.' ... So there's just a lot of mutual respect and appreciation between all the athletes in our program and our coaching staff and I think that's also led to a top-20 team performance and a lot of guys performing at a high level."
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