Stepping into this new role was never going to be easy for Luke Smith.
When Smith was named interim head coach of the Cal State Bakersfield wrestling team in September, he immediately started behind the 8-ball, forced to prepare for a season that wasn't even guaranteed to happen.
When the Roadrunners finally did take to the mat in January, they'd only had 10 days of practice to prepare and their rust showed in a pair of losses to Stanford and Arkansas-Little Rock.
Somehow, that would prove to be the easy part of his rookie season.
On Feb. 5, CSUB shut down operations "as a result of university and department-wide health and safety protocols." This caused the final three Pac-12 duals of the regular season to be canceled.
In the weeks since the Roadrunners were cleared to return, Smith has scheduled as many practices and exhibitions as he could in a painstaking attempt to get his wrestlers back into shape. And right as he's begun to see significant progress, the season is set to come to an abrupt end.
Still having just two official dual matches under their belts, the Roadrunners will head to Corvallis, Ore., on Sunday to take part in the Pac-12 Championships. Opening-round matches are scheduled to begin at 11:30 a.m.
"This has been the shortest season and the longest season I've ever had all in one," Smith said.
It's very easy to view CSUB as a major underdog this weekend, as rust could be a very serious issue. All other teams competing at the Championships have had at least five duals, with three having taking part in at least eight.
But believing he has six wrestlers capable of qualifying for the national tournament, Smith sees a benefit to his guys coming in with so little wear and tear.
"There's good and bad for us coming into this weekend with only a couple matches," Smith said. "I think the good thing is that we’re fresh and we’re hungry because we haven’t gotten the opportunities to compete that we would have liked to. Usually a wrestling season is long and grinding. Your body’s broken down. And our guys are feeling good because they haven’t had the grind of the season.”
Expectations are very high for a pair of previous national qualifiers.
Fresh off winning a conference title at 184 pounds a season ago, Josh Loomer is looking to repeat that feat at 197, a class that will send three competitors to nationals. Loomer hasn't competed in an official match this season, but did go 2-0 in an exhibition at Cal Poly on Wednesday.
The 2020 season came to an anticlimactic end for Loomer, who couldn't compete at the national tournament after it was canceled at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dominic Ducharme, a 184-pound national tournament qualifier in 2019, is also hoping for a more positive finish to the year after a shoulder injury ended his 2020 season prematurely. Ducharme is back at 184 after competing at 197 a year ago.
Smith also has high hopes for heavyweight Jacob Sieder, who was dominant in earning a 2:46 pinfall and 16-0 tech fall in two matches against Stanford.
Chance Rich (133) Angelo Martinoni (141) and Ridgeview grad Albert Urias (174) are expected to be in competition for national spots as well.
The weekend could also an audition of sorts for Smith. Though he says he's had some discussions about becoming the program's full-time coach, struggles to find matches have limited his ability to prove how well he could handle the role.
Though he says he hasn't thought much about the future, Smith believes it could come into clearer focus with a good showing Sunday.
“I tell these guys to focus on the things in their control and I like to take my own advice," he said. "I’ve been so in the moment with everything going on that I haven’t even really thought much about the future. Right now, this is an opportunity for me to show during a very crazy, chaotic year that I’m capable of leading the program and doing it the right way.
"I’m just focused on doing best by these student-athletes, and then hopefully by doing that, that can put them in the best position to accomplish their goals. If they do that, hopefully that shows I’m capable of being the guy.”
Opening-round matches can be streamed on pac-12.com. The championship round will be broadcast on the Pac-12 Network beginning at 6 p.m.