College wrestling: Jackrabbits continue to improve under Damion Hahn's leadership

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BROOKINGS — South Dakota State wrestling will enter the final month of the regular season as the 10th-ranked team in the country.

Two weeks ago the new National Wrestling Coaches Association Poll came out and the Jackrabbits were ranked in the top 10 for the first time in program history. SDSU was coming off of an upset win over sixth-ranked Michigan and won two duals over Navy and Kent State at the Virginia Duals. Since then the Jacks have gotten off to a 3-0 start in the Big 12, beating Northern Colorado, California Baptist and Air Force.

SDSU head coach Damion Hahn acknowledged the top-10 ranking, but he thinks this is only the beginning for this program.

“[The ranking] is huge,” Hann said. “It really is. We beat Michigan, who was ranked sixth in the country and that gave us the opportunity to move ourselves up the rankings. For me, yes it’s big for the program, but for me and my staff and our team, that’s only the beginning. I believe we have a top-ten program year in and year out. I believe that we can have All-Americans and National Championship trophies. That’s the goal.”

Hahn took over the SDSU program in 2018 after Chris Bono left SDSU to go to Wisconsin. In Bono’s last season SDSU sent seven wrestlers to the NCAA Championships, had three All-Americans and the program’s only national champion in Seth Gross. Gross went with Bono to Wisconsin and Hahn took over a program that was bare.

In Hahn’s first season the Jacks sent just one wrestler to nationals and had a 3-10 record in duals. Since then SDSU has a 51-22 record in duals and has sent 21 wrestlers to nationals, including a program record eight last season, and four of them have been All-Americans.

Hahn said when he thinks back to his first season, it’s special to have the program where it’s at now.

“I talked to the guys when those rankings first came out and there are a couple of them that are in their sixth year. They’ve been a part of this from the beginning and that first year was tough. We won three duals and I’ll be honest, I don’t know how we won three duals, but we did. We sent one guy to the national tournament. You fast forward five years from that, and we send eight guys to the national tournament and now you’re ranked top 10. I’m super proud of our guys because they have worked super hard to earn that ranking,” Hahn said.

One of those sixth-year seniors is Clay Carlson. Carlson wrestles in the 141-pound weight class and has made the NCAA Championships the past three seasons and was an All-American in two of them.

“I’ve been here just as long as Damion,” Carlson said. “We stepped on campus around the same time. So, I’ve gotten to see the transformation of when we were ranked like 63rd in the country till now where we’re top-10. It’s been really cool to be a part of that.”

All 10 starters for SDSU are ranked in the NCAA Coaches’ Rankings that are used for the NCAA Championships. Cade DeVos leads the way, being ranked third at 174. Tanner Sloan, who had a Runner-Up finish at 197 last season, is ranked fifth.

Five Jackrabbit wrestlers are ranked 12th-19th. Derrick Cardinal is 12th at 133, Bennett Berge is 12th at 184, Tanner Jordan is 14th at 125, Cael Swensen is 15th at 157 and Alek Martin is 19th at 148.

The three other wrestlers that are ranked are Carlson (27th), Luke Rassmussen (27th at heavyweight) and Tanner Cook (33rd at 165).

Hahn said no matter the rankings, SDSU goes through everything as a team.

“I said from day one, this is a team, and the success and failures that we have as a program will be based on what we do as a team, and it has not changed. These guys fight for one another. ... This is development. This is bringing a group of guys together and fighting for one another. I’m super proud of them because they have earned this and it’s based around that team,” Hahn said.

Carlson made sure to shout out his teammates after the Northern Colorado dual. He said earlier in his career he would be worried going into a match because he wasn’t surrounded by so much talent.

“I have guys around me that I can trust are going to do their job. Everybody on our team does their job and ultimately that’s what makes it a team. Four years ago, the first time I was wrestling [for SDSU], it was one of those things where, man, if I don’t put together a good match, we probably aren’t going to win the dual. That’s something that I don’t have to worry about now,” Carlson said.

SDSU has six duals on the schedule in February. The first four will come on the road as the Jacks wrestle at Wyoming on Thursday at 7 p.m. and then will travel to Utah Valley on Saturday at 7 p.m. Then the Jacks will have three-straight duals against ranked teams as they wrestle at No. 18 Oklahoma on Feb. 9, at No. 5 Oklahoma State on Feb. 10 and then will host No. 2 Missouri on Feb. 18. The final dual of the season will be on Feb. 25 against NDSU in Brookings.

The top-10 ranking is the first step for the SDSU wrestling program to become a perennial power. Hahn has confidence that his team will excel down the stretch and if they do, it could be a historic season for the program.

“For this team, they can go down as one of the best teams in South Dakota State wrestling history,” Hahn said. “I’m not sure where the ceiling is, and I don’t think they’ll stop until they accomplish what they want to accomplish. I want to be a perennial top-10 program, and do that, we have to stay consistent.

“We have to go out there and put our best foot forward and continue to push the pace on guys and in those tough matches grind it out and not take a back seat. It doesn’t matter what singlet you’re wrestling against, go out there and impose your will. So, where’s the ceiling? I don’t think we’ll stop until we reach the top.”