A week after entering the National Wrestling Coaches Association coaches poll for the first time in program history, the University of Arkansas-Little Rock wrestling team moved up to No. 20 following a 20-17 win at then-No. 16 Oregon State last Friday.
The Trojans (11-5, 2-1 Pac-12) return home at noon today to face No. 23 Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo (5-2, 1-1) in an important Pac-12 matchup at the Jack Stephens Center in Little Rock. The Mustangs are coming off a 43-3 win over Cal State-Bakersfield last Sunday.
"This is probably our toughest conference matchup," UALR Coach Neil Erisman said. "Just the way we match up weight wise in the matches that we have. I think that this is going to be our toughest test yet. We're going to have to show up and do the things that we do well, which is score a lot of points, wrestle every position and make our opponents' lives really hard in a lot of ways."
Today's match features several ranked matchups. At 133 pounds, UALR freshman Nasir Bailey will take on Cal Poly freshman Zeth Romney. Bailey is No. 7 and Romney is No. 9 in their weight class according to Wrestlestat.com
In the heavyweight division (285 pounds), junior Josiah Hill (No. 27) will take the mat for the Trojans to take on the Mustangs' Trevor Tinker (No. 21). Joseph Bianchi (No. 23 at 165 pounds), Tyler Brennan (No. 32 at 174), Triston Willis (No. 23 at 184) and Stephen Little (No. 13 at 197) are also ranked nationally for the Trojans.
"There is going to be 10 matches in 10 weight classes and we're going to line up with our best guys out there," Erisman said. "It's going to be a battle at just about every single weight. It's going to come down to the coin flip matches where on paper its just about even and then we got to do what we're supposed to in the ranked matches."
UALR has picked up momentum in recent weeks, but Erisman points to a road trip to Philadelphia in early December where his team began to turn the corner. On that trip, the Trojans knocked off Drexel by a score of 30-10.
"The heart of wrestling is in the northeast and the state of Pennsylvania is statically and historically the best state in the country," Erisman said. "Whether it's a Power-Five or a mid-major team, they are all tough. We went up to Philadelphia and beat up Drexel and smoked them. I think that moment really turned our whole program."
With just over a month until the Pac-12 Championships. slated for March 10 at Corvallis, Ore., UALR is emerging as a strong contender in the conference. This season has already seen the program ascend to heights never reached in its relatively short history -- the inaugural season was in 2019-20. But Erisman said the focus remains on getting better week by week and peaking at the right time.
"I think the goal is to finish really strong and not look too far ahead," Erisman said. "We got some tough competition coming up, especially [today]. We haven't beat this team [Cal Poly] yet, so this is a goal for us to be able to go out and beat another team in the conference that we've yet to beat. I think beating Cal Poly is a big goal and then finishing the year strong with the right mindset."
While Erisman said he is excited about the opportunities and exposure that comes with a successful season, it wasn't that long ago that UALR didn't even have a program, much less one that is nationally ranked and competes in a Power-5 conference.
"We started from scratch. We didn't have a program five years ago," Erisman said. "In 2018 we started the program. Had to recruit a team and started wrestling our first competitions in 2019. Fast forward five years and we're in the top 20.
"This year has been an awesome year and a lot of fun. We've really come out of nowhere as a team. We've grown up a lot. We've beaten two top-25 teams [Arizona State and Oregon State] to kind of get us on this track."
No. 23 Cal Poly at No. 20 UALR
WHEN Noon today
WHERE Jack Stephens Center,
RECORDS UALR 11-5, 2-1 Pac-12;
Cal Poly 5-2, 1-1