For all the posturing that Utah Valley athletics is building a solid program, it’s hard to believe the claim when the steps are 1) two small for casual observers to notice or 2) happening outside of Orem and away from the community’s eye.
That’s why Saturday’s wrestling match against defending national champion Penn State is such a big deal. A national powerhouse chose to come here. To Orem. To Utah Valley.
This isn’t a slight to the other big-name programs that have already paid UVU a visit in 2011-12. Michigan and Syracuse volleyball made appearances, as did University of Miami soccer.
The pending presence of the Nittany Lions is even more laudable. While the Wolverines and Orangemen are recognized for the schools they represent, the specific sports teams that played UVU weren’t national contenders. Not so with Penn State wrestling, a program that boasts the brand and the brawn to make casual Utahns perform a double-take.
It’s also telling that a team of Penn State’s stature is willing to recognize UVU’s rising status while Parkway neighbor BYU refuses to do so. Men’s basketball couldn’t secure a date with the Cougars, home or away, despite the team sporting the only returning All-American in Utah (Isiah Williams). Contrast that with the Nittany Lions, who acquiesced to come despite the loss of UVU’s best wrestling talent to graduation.
No one will be shocked if the Utah Valley gets its collective face rubbed in the mat, Saturday. It’s a shame this match didn’t happen last year, when the Wolverines boasted three national qualifiers and Ben Kjar was a 125-pound juggernaut of Olympic-worthy talent. Instead, one nationally ranked junior and a group of trial-by-fire grapplers will get exposure and experience in one go.
At least it’s a step further into the national spotlight. It has to start somewhere – even if it’s under the armpit of a superior.
By Matt Petersen