One remarkable fact about Seth Wright’s national championship season: it almost didn’t happen at all.
Wright was out of wrestling when New Mexico Highlands University head coach Doug Moses persuaded him to give the sport another go (and make the move to NMHU).
Wright agreed, and on Saturday, mere months after that decision, the 125-pound senior claimed the NCAA Division II national championship in his weight class.
The national title is a milestone for the university, as it is a first in any sport since Highlands joined the NCAA in the early 1990s. (NMHU has won national championships under the small-school National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics — the 1967 Cowboy baseball team and heavyweight wrestler Hector Hernandez in 1987.)
Shortly after Hernandez won that last national title, NMHU scrapped its wrestling program. Highlands was hardly alone, as many colleges — facing budgetary constraints and a rising tide of federal Title IX gender-equity complaints — slashed Olympic sports offerings like wrestling, gymnastics, swimming, diving.
Eventually, all the universities in New Mexico shut down their wrestling programs.
Five years ago, NMHU resurrected the program, which instantly became the only one of its kind in the state. In filling the coach’s job, school officials turned to Moses, who’d built a regional contender at the former University of Southern Colorado (now Colorado State-Pueblo).
Moses has reached out to in-state high school wrestlers looking to extend their careers while also pursuing a college education. Jesse Boggs of Deming has been one success story.
But he’s also been able to recruit grapplers from a wider region. Former nationals qualifiers Jesse Feinsod (Colorado Springs) and Ross Montour (Thornton, Colo.) are prime examples.
So is Wright.
A native of rural Utah, Wright had earned a junior college national title with Northwest Wyoming before transferring to Northern Iowa, right in the heart of collegiate wrestling country.
But for one reason or another, Wright stepped away from his longtime sport.
Moses convinced Wright to come back to the mat, this time as a Cowboy.
Though he started from scratch at season’s beginning, Wright went on to defeat two No. 1 ranked opponents — Arsenia Barksdale of Adams State and Tommy Edgmon of Fort Hays State — and eventually took the No. 1 ranking himself.
Barksdale won a rematch in the NCAA regional but was eliminated from title contention at nationals inOmaha, Neb.
Wright survived a rough opener, edging Alex Meger of Augustana (S.D.) 10-8. He then beat Ryan Link of Pittsburgh-Johnstown 9-3 to set up a semifinal with Edgmon. He took down Edgmon 4-2.
Tyler Mumbulo, a three-time All-American from Upper Iowa University with a 24-5 record, emerged as Wright’s opponent in the final.
Mumbulo struck quickly, throwing Wright off balance for a takedown in the opening seconds. Wright’s recovery was just as quick; he got a reversal and then near-fall points in quick succession. Wright controlled the rest of the first period and racked up more near-fall points late in the period for a 7-2 lead.
Wright scored two more takedowns, sandwiched around a one-point Mumbulo escape, in the second period to go up 11-3.
A Wright reversal, an illegal-hold penalty vs. Mumbulo and an additional Wright takedown — coupled with riding time points — gave the NMHU grappler a commanding 17-4 victory.
Afterward, in a nationally televised (via CBS College Sports’ tape-delayed broadcast), Wright appeared pleased but subdued.
“I don’t know if there’s really a game plan,” he said. “When you wrestle long enough, you just go with it, I guess. I don’t really go out with a game plan. You have muscle memory; you just wrestle. If you win, you win. If you don’t you don’t. If you don’t have it figured out by now, I don’t know if you’ll figure it out.”
“It feels great,” he continued. “It feels really good, actually. I’ve had a pretty burdened season — a lot of injuries, my age. I’m a lot older than most of these kids. I’m just happy that Coach Mo gave me another chance to come back and finish up wrestling. I’m just happy to be here ... It’s awesome, a good way to go out. That’s what I’m here for — to finish what I started. I started a long time ago, and I finally came back and finished.”