There had been rumors, there had been whispers but Travis Wittlake really knew that the NCAA Wrestling Tournament was in jeopardy when his coach did the unthinkable.
“We got into practice and we had been drilling for about 30 minutes and (coach) John (Smith) stopped us and told us to get a drink of water, which is something that he never does,” said Wittlake, the former Marshfield High School wrestling star, in a phone call earlier this week.
Travis Wittlake stands atop the podium after winning the Big 12 title this winter.
Smith then said the impossible. He broke the news to Wittlake and the Oklahoma State wrestling team that due to the coronavirus, the NCAA Tournament had been canceled.
“When he gave us that news, pretty much all of us were speechless, we couldn’t believe it. You know, it got emotional. Some guys started crying. We had our hearts set on it, we were ready to go, we were excited. To have it taken from us is heartbreaking,” said Wittlake, who won the Big-12 title at 165 pounds and was the No. 4 seed heading into the NCAA Championship that was going to be held at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
This was the week Wittlake was supposed to be wrestling in front of an NFL stadium full of fans in pursuit of a national title. Instead, he is (briefly) back home in Myrtle Point before heading back to Stillwater, Oklahoma.
As he still comes to grips with the abrupt close to the year, he is doing what he has always done: prepare for next season.
“I’ll be ready,” he said. “I’ll be looking to win a national title.”
While at Marshfield, Wittlake crafted quite the wrestling resume. Competing for the Pirates he amassed a 196-2 record on the way to four straight state titles. He was named an All-American four times, was Oregon Wrestler of the Year and Oregon Nike Athlete of the Year twice in addition to twice being named United World Wrestling Cadet national champion.
He was pretty good.
And it started long before high school, as he started winning national titles each summer. Five times, he was a triple crown winner, meaning he took the national titles in folkstyle (the style used in high school), freestyle and Greco-Roman.
With his pick of where he wanted to wrestle in college, Wittlake decided on the winningest wrestling program in the country: 34-time National Champion Oklahoma State.
Travis Wittlake has his armed raised by the ref after winning a match this season.
Oklahoma State’s head coach John Smith, presumably the second most famous person to have that name, has done it all in the wrestling world. Smith himself won six straight world titles from 1987-1992, including, a pair of Olympic gold medals during that run. Head coach for the past 29 years at Oklahoma State, he has brought the program five team national titles.
Smith first learned of Wittlake after his success on the national level and has seen him grown since he came to Stillwater.
“I wish we were having this conversation a week from now,” said Smith, longing for a world without a global pandemic. “You know, I think it would be something your area would be celebrating because I think he would have had a fantastic NCAA Championship.”
Before Wittlake ascended to the top of the college ranks and before he made his way into Oklahoma State’s starting lineup, he first had a year as a redshirt in an especially competitive mat room.
“I went from in high school just dominating pretty much everybody to now I’m in a room where I’m struggling,” said Wittlake of his first year in the program.
Having had competitions lined up his entire wrestling career, now Wittlake was wrestling hard with no direct payoff in sight. He briefly competed unattached at a few tournaments where he amassed a 16-2 record on the year.
Those tournaments were all completed in December which left the rest of the year practicing against a room full of All-Americans.
“For me, it was a confidence breaker because I had never been in a situation or in a room where I couldn’t win,” said Wittlake. “I pretty much had won my whole life and I was pretty much the best guy in the room my whole life. Then I went from that to being an average guy.”
It is typical across the country, and especially at Oklahoma State, for wrestlers to redshirt in their first year on campus in order to mature both physically and mentally. For the Cowboys, it’s part of the process that helps the team grow.
Even if it’s not always easy in the moment.
“Although I’m sure there were some tough times when (Travis) left the room and went back to his dorm as a true freshman, he stayed pretty stable with his emotions and that really gives you a chance to reach out to levels that you’ve always hoped you could get to,” said Smith.
Both in the offseason after that first season, and throughout this year, Wittlake has just continued to grow in his ability on the mat. The first real test of the season came at the opening tournament of the year.
With all the wrestlers on the team entered, whoever made the deepest tournament run in each respective weight class would be in Oklahoma State’s starting lineup. Fighting to be the 165-pound wrestler, Wittlake faced teammate Andrew Shomers in the championship.
Travis Wittlake signs autographs and visits with young students after the championship matches at the Big 12 tournament.
“I’d never beat him and he was a senior this year. So me and him met in the finals of that small open tournament at the very beginning of the season and I ended up beating him,” said Wittlake. “I beat him 5-2 in the finals and I was just like, OK, well, I made the lineup.”
Early in the season Wittlake defeated Drexel’s Ebed Jarrell, who was ranked No. 10 at the time in the country. Close wins in the early phase of the season swelled into bigger victories later as Wittlake took control.
“He was a much better wrestler at the end of the year than he was at the beginning,” said Smith. “I think if he would have wrestled himself, where he is right now compared to where he started the season early November I think he probably would have beat himself by eight or 10 points. Big difference.”
Wittlake put in time working with various teammates and coaches on little things on as he came into his own as a wrestler. Things were starting to click.
“It’s just a winning mentality. Oklahoma State is not used to losing. They’re used to being on top so that’s just what is expected. So when we have to perform to a level that is expected, it’s an intense environment,” said Wittlake.
Making the trip to watch him grow throughout the season was Wittlake's dad Travis Wittlake Sr. Through all the success, his first-ever coach came away pleased with how he kept his home-town roots.
"I'm proud of him for his achievements, staying humble and for how he carries himself," his dad said, adding as an example the championship night at the Big 12 tournament.
"He was the only one that stopped to talk to the kids and sign autographs after the finals," his dad said.
The younger Wittlake cruised throughout the season and after earning the No. 1 seed heading into the Big 12 Tournament, he rolled along to the title.
“Well, it’s tough to win the Big-12 as a freshman,” said Smith. “He didn’t make it look too hard.”
Oklahoma State has had 287 individual conference champions in program history. But Wittlake becomes just the 26th individual to win a conference title as a freshman.
“It was crazy. It’s hard to make history at such a prestigious school because everyone has done everything because the guys are so good here. But just to be a part of a small number of guys who have done it is pretty awesome,” said Wittlake.
“It’s exciting, very rewarding and I felt like I really worked hard all season. My team worked hard and you know, it was a grind but in the end it paid off for me. I just felt very thankful.”
But before he could join the ranks of the 57 previous national champions at Oklahoma State, the season came to an end.
Now Wittlake, much like the rest of the world, tries to figure out what is next. He was slated to have offseason tournaments that have been both postponed and canceled and is grappling with the end of this year while starting to turn the page to the next season.
“I started getting back to the old me and I started dominating more which, I think, I can carry into next season,” said Wittlake. “I think at the start of next season I’ll be ready to rock and roll and it will be another year of maturity and all of these experiences.”
Wittlake’s coach, who has constantly been surrounded by the best wrestlers in the, sees no reason Wittlake can’t join those ranks.
If he keeps doing what he is doing, he just might be on his way.
“For him, our message is going to be that if you continue to develop and continue to get better, everything you’ve ever wanted out of this sport is going to be there for you,” said Smith.
“Respect the fact that you work hard, you train hard, you’re very disciplined in your lifestyle. Continue to do those things and we’re going to reach the things you want to accomplish.”