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LARAMIE, Wyo. — Mark Branch didn’t expect this.

Wyoming’s wrestling team put together its best finish of Branch’s decade-long tenure at the helm last season at the NCAA championships, coming in at No. 17 nationally. That was with three-time All-American Bryce Meredith, Big 12 champion Archie Colgan and a handful of other seniors.

All of that talent and experience was replaced this season by a barrage of underclassmen, including three freshmen in the starting lineup.

“I expected it to be a growing year and going through some growing pains when it came to duals especially,” Branch said, “but this team has surprised me.”

The youngsters have blended with the few seasoned wrestlers the Cowboys have left to put together one of the best seasons in program history. Wyoming moved up to No. 12 in the national rankings (InterMat) this week following a win over South Dakota State in its home finale over the weekend that was never really in doubt.

It was the 11th win in the last 12 dual meets for the Cowboys, who have lost just four of those all season. Wyoming won eight straight duals, tying the fourth-longest streak in program history, before dropping a 21-12 decision at Fresno State on Feb. 3.

It’s the only loss for Wyoming since the start of the new year. The Cowboys have already surpassed the 13 wins they had in duals last season when they finished fourth at the Big 12 championships — their highest finish since joining the league in 2015.

“I can’t think of another season where I’ve been so pleasantly surprised,” Branch said. “They’ll go down as one of the best dual teams UW has put out, and that’s pretty cool.”

That doesn’t mean Branch and his squad are content with what they’ve done.

Wyoming has one dual meet left Sunday at Northern Colorado before the Big 12 championships start March 9 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Then it’s on to Pittsburgh for the NCAA championships, which the Cowboys qualified six wrestlers for last year.

Conference champions in each weight class automatically qualify for the NCAAs while others can qualify automatically based on where they finish in their respective conference tournaments. Each conference has an allocated number of automatic spots per weight class, which have yet to be announced for this season.

The Big 12 had 45 automatic bids divvied up among the 10 weight classes last year. The NCAA Division I Wrestling Committee will also make at-large selections based on factors such as RPI, head-to-head competition and winning percentage so that each weight class has 33 wrestlers.

Senior Branson Ashworth, Wyoming’s highest-ranked individual at No. 9, is considered one of the favorites in the 165-pound weight class heading into the Big 12 tournament. With a 29-3 overall record this season, Ashworth is the league’s highest-ranked wrestler at that weight — one spot ahead of Oklahoma State’s Chandler Rogers.

Wyoming has three other wrestlers in the top 20 of InterMat’s rankings: No. 12 Montorie Bridges (26-7) at 133 pounds, No. 15 Cole Verner (20-11) at 125 pounds and No. 19 Sam Turner (23-10) at 141 pounds. But they’re not the only ones who could contend for NCAA berths.

Hayden Hastings, a 174-pounder from Sheridan, recently upset No. 13 Kimball Bastian of Utah Valley State and has 22 overall wins as a freshman. Tate Samuelson (184 pounds) is 20-4, Cole Davidson (197) is 23-12, and Brian Andrews (heavyweight) is 28-8.

“It’s been amazing just to see these young guys grow throughout the season and develop from Day 1 to now, and we’re still growing,” Ashworth said. “We’re not as good as we’re going to be come Big 12s and NCAAs. I’m just excited to see what this team can accomplish in Tulsa.”

Branch said this year’s team is capable of sending more qualifiers to the NCAAs than it did last year, which would give Wyoming a better chance of besting that 17th-place finish. The Cowboys want more, but they’ll have to keep working to get what they want.

“You have to go earn it,” Branch said. “You’d like some things to fall your way. That always helps, but at the same time, plan on it being the hardest road possible and upsetting guys.

“No guarantees, but guys can get there and do some damage and put their name up on the wall. That’s what we’ll kind of start looking at pretty soon and start talking about. Put that in our head. We need our guys thinking that way and believing that way for the next month.”

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Follow UW athletics beat writer Davis Potter on Twitter at @DavisEPotter

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