When Stanford wrestling coach Jason Borrelli welcomed his team last September, his theme was, "A Season of Firsts." With veteran leadership and talented newcomers, he knew his athletes were capable of something special. They haven't disappointed.
A school-record four wrestlers won individual Pac-12 titles, and the team finished second overall, matching its best-ever showing. Five, led by two-time All-American Ryan Mango, will represent the Cardinal this week in the NCAA Championships in Oklahoma City, Okla. That equals the previous high set in 2008.
"We knew we had to go out with a bang," said fifth-year senior Kyle Meyer (174 pounds). "Kind of what this whole season is about is starting a legacy. We are trying to show that we are on this path to be great every year, not just here and there. The whole team is going to be good, which our dual record showed."
Stanford posted a school-record 17-5 mark in the dual season. That included wins at perennial powerhouses Michigan and Central Michigan, and against Boise State. Three losses came by 10 or less points, and the team lost defending Pac-12 champion and co-captain Bret Baumbach (165) to a career-ending knee injury in February.
Borrelli insisted his team never wavered.
"Our guys have just as much energy as they did in September," he said.
Mango has been the catalyst. He redshirted last year to recover from injuries and moved up a weight class from 125 to 133 pounds. The senior co-captain became just the fifth Cardinal wrestler to capture two conference crowns. He has 108 career wins -- only the eighth Stanford wrestler to reach 100 -- and will attempt to become the third three-time All-American in program history this week.
"He's a great leader," said Meyer. "He drives so hard and has such great goals. He communicates really well and leads by example. Everybody loves him."
Mango deflected the praise.
"I'm just glad to be able to help this team," he said. "As far as standing out, I was just one of the guys who was fortunate enough to show success early. Really, the team as a whole has been working just as hard as I have, if not more. It's just been a process of recruiting the right guys talent-wise that can get the job done and helping the guys who are already in the program."
Mango and the other seniors took a chance on Stanford and Borrelli, hoping to change the culture. Even when times were tough, everyone stuck together, which makes success even sweeter.
"Up until this year, it's been something that has been talked about," said Mango. "But now, being able to travel and wrestle teams like Michigan and Maryland -- teams that crushed us last year -- and be able to beat them . . . it means an awful lot. I'll never forget some of the moments beating those teams and just seeing the looks on the other guy's faces like, 'Wow, these guys go to Stanford and they really beat us.' ''
Senior co-captain Dan Scherer wrestled heavyweight the past two seasons before dropping down to 197 pounds this year. He also won a Pac-12 title and was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Wrestler after upsetting ninth-ranked Taylor Meeks of Oregon State in a stirring final at Maples Pavilion with his mom, dad and younger brother cheering him on.
"Very exciting," he said. "I did not see that coming."
Some would say the same about the rise of Stanford wrestling.
"When I came here freshman year, the seniors were so much better than the freshman," said Scherer. "It was just beat on them, and the freshman had the mindset of I still need a few years to learn how to compete and be one of the guys. Now, these freshmen we've had coming in these last two or three years, they're ready to compete right away. They're not letting the seniors kick their butts."
It was all part of Borrelli's master plan.
"He's kind of no-nonsense guy and holds us to an incredibly high standard," Scherer said. "I think that is a huge part of why our team does so well and why we work so hard and have such good guys willing to work hard inside and outside the wrestling room. Everybody on the team has fully bought in to the idea. In order to be an NCAA champion and win an NCAA title, we need to be disciplined and live like a champion. He preaches that all the time."
Unlike some previous teams, this group is tight-knit.
"It's a huge difference," said Meyer, who was married last September and answers to the nickname "Old Man." "When I first got here, it wasn't much of a team. Now after practice, it's like, 'Where are we going to eat?' Everybody interacts."
Meyer's wife, Clarissa, often cooks for the group.
"Almost everybody comes over and we fit in a one-room apartment," he said. "We never used to have team dinners."
Mango said the good chemistry carries over to the wrestling mat.
"We all share camaraderie through wrestling, but now I feel like it's beyond that," he said. "I'm in my fifth year and live off campus, but I spend most of my time on campus hanging with the team, which is pretty unusual. Just a great group of guys that really gets along and really respects each other."
Now, a group of five seeks to make more history at the NCAA Tournament, where a first-ever Top 10 finish is within grasp. This is what Borrelli and his team have been pointing toward all season, and he has no doubts his wrestlers can handle the big stage Thursday through Saturday. Joining Mango, Meyer and Scherer are redshirt sophomore Evan Silver (125) and redshirt freshman Jim Wilson (165).
"The luster of being in an arena with 20,000 people watching is nothing new to them," said Borrelli, who competed in two NCAA Championships for Central Michigan. "I have zero doubts that with the right focus and the right tournament, all those guys will be in the top eight. They're that talented."
A top eight finish earns All-American honors.
"I feel very comfortable out there and I feel like I can beat any of the guys out there on the mat against me," Scherer said. "The big thing about the NCAA Championships is that everyone is good and anybody can beat anybody. You have to be ready for battle."
Mango is ready.
"I'm looking at the guys I'm going to have to wrestle and honestly I feel like I can beat all of them," he said. "It doesn't matter to me if I'm an underdog or guys are gunning for me. I think I wrestle my best when it's crunch time and the lights are on. You either get it done or you don't."
Meyer has another strategy.
"I'm approaching it a little differently than Ryan or Dan, who are going to be seeded," said Meyer. "I'm not seeded; not even close. I'm playing with the house money. Everybody is going to be overlooking me. My goal is to place and become a national champion. If I only win a couple matches, I'll still be really excited about it."
Therein lies the challenge. Borrelli doesn't want his wrestlers to think too far ahead or put too much pressure on themselves. He wants them to relax, stay focused and embrace the moment.
"You can't win the whole thing if you don't win your first match," he said. "That's the thing I'll tell the guys on Wednesday night. Just worry about the match coming up."
No matter happens, it's already been a season of firsts.
"We're not expecting anything big," said Scherer. "We're just going to go in and wrestle as best we can. If things fall into place, that's icing on the cake."