On Sunday in sultry Central America, the planned resurgence of the South Dakota State wrestling program moved forward: Jackrabbits coach Chris Bono coached Team USA to first place out of 18 nations in the freestyle division at the Senior Pan-American Championships in Panama City.
Bono made no bones about the fact that he went down there repping the red, white, blue and yellow.
"You get to go down there and put on the colors and represent the country - that’s a big honor," he last week prior to leaving Brookings. "Second, it’s a huge deal when you’re sitting in somebody’s house recruiting them and they have Olympic aspirations or want to be in the world championships to show you’re connected with USA Wrestling and could possibly coach them down the line."
Bono was chosen to lead the team - he described it as a managerial role, largely making sure the athletes had what they need - through an application process. His selection wasn’t a surprise given that he’s competed and coached in the event before. But that was when he was associated with more established NCAA Division I programs. Iowa State, for example, has ample international experience - this stands out more in Brookings.
It was another sign of progress in the first year of the Bono era at SDSU. This season, the Jacks sent somebody to nationals for the first time in three years, beat a major-conference team for the first time since moving to D-I in 2004 and ended a long conference losing streak.
"We took some steps, but I’m looking to jump instead of taking steps," Bono said. "I’m happy with where are now. Our recruiting is unbelievable right now. It’s really crazy. I’ve never ever recruit like this before. I’m really excited."
SDSU’s incoming class was ranked as the sixth-best in the country - and that was on signing day. More kids have committed since, many state champs and some willing to walk on. That’s unusual this late in the game. Bono anticipates bringing in 15-18 freshmen for next season.
"They’re seeking us out," he said.
It’s a surprising spot for a program that has had a rough decade and in a sport that continues to lose teams, Boston University being the latest. The Jacks and their newly decorated coach may have a unique opportunity going forward in the wrestling world.
Terry Vandrovec also posts regular updates on his Twitter page.