FARGO — Jared Franek and Brandon Metz qualified for the NCAA Division I Championships for the first time last season, but never got the chance to wrestle.
The tournament was canceled the week before, when the coronavirus pandemic first hit. The North Dakota State wrestling teammates were ready for their shot at a spot on the podium.
Their first appearances on the big stage would have to wait.
Franek and Metz, both West Fargo High School graduates, were expecting to have a sizable cheering section at the NCAA tournament, which was going to be held at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
“It was one of the weirdest weeks of my life,” said Bison junior heavyweight Metz. “It’s weird to say ‘weirdest week of my life’ because it’s just athletics at the end of the day, but it seemed like the whole world stopped for that week in March.”
Fast forward 11 months, the pair are in position to chase their NCAA tournament dreams again.
The 5-foot-6, 157-pound Franek, a sophomore, boasts a 5-1 overall mark with wins over three ranked wrestlers this season. He was ranked No. 14 at 157 pounds in TrackWrestling’s latest Division I poll. InterMat and FloWrestling also ranked him in the top 20.
Franek’s lone loss was a 5-2 decision to No. 13-ranked Jarrett Jacques of Missouri in NDSU’s Jan. 3 season opener. Franek rebounded with four straight wins.
With a condensed schedule, any mistakes or bad habits have to be fixed quickly, Franek said. Especially when he’s fighting for a spot on the Big 12 podium.
“It’s certainly been an interesting year with not having nearly as many competitions as we’re used to,” said Metz, a junior. “That’s taken a little bit to get adjusted to, but I think we're starting to really figure things out, getting ready for the postseason.”
The 6-foot-2, 285-pound Metz (4-2) was ranked No. 17 by TrackWrestling, and in the top 20 for InterMat and FloWrestling.
NDSU (4-2) moved into InterMat’s top 25 dual meet rankings this week. The Bison check in at No. 22 with four duals remaining this season, all against Big 12 Conference opponents.
The Bison host No. 23 South Dakota State (4-4) and No. 11 Iowa State (6-2) in their final home appearance of the season Sunday, Feb. 7, at the Sanford Health Athletic Complex.
“Our goal is to go 4-0 in those Big 12 duals, and I believe we can do that,” Metz said. “We had a really good run last year. It just takes guys buying in and wrestling to the best of their ability and supporting each other.”
Metz and Franek head into this weekend’s triangular with momentum. Both went undefeated last weekend against Fresno State and California Baptist.
The Bison hadn’t competed since Jan. 10 before the trip out west, which was originally canceled, but got rescheduled. The team had a few days notice that they’d be hopping on a plane that Friday after all.
“You don’t have time to be complacent,” Metz said. “You have to be ready. The next thing could be scheduled four or five days from now, and you just have to be ready for it.”
Metz was a three-time North Dakota Class A state champion at heavyweight for the Packers. He went 22-10 last season before the NCAAs were canceled.
Metz and Franek don’t need a lesson in how quickly things can change. The schedule changes are just another constant reminder for a team that knows all too well the fluid nature of the pandemic.
“It was super tough last year,” said Franek, who went 27-7 last season. “I was super excited. I definitely got a rhythm going and felt like I was wrestling to the top of my ability, getting better every day after the conference tournament.”
Franek was confident. He felt prepared for the national tournament — something he hadn’t felt much of since high school. Franek won four Class A state titles for the Packers, but it was a different story when he first got to NDSU. At this time last year, Franek wasn’t ranked.
“I had success in high school, but definitely took some bumps in the road in practice and in competition my first year in college,” Franek said. “I’d say I just adjusted to the college style. With the 30-some matches I had, I had time to make mistakes and correct them and work on them the next matches. Whereas this year, it's a little bit more constricted.”
The schedule is shorter, but the goal remains the same for NDSU, which went 10-4 overall in duals last season and placed fifth at the Big 12 tournament.
“At the end of the day, your goal is to be an All-American, a national champion,” Metz said. “To have that opportunity taken away, it kind of makes you more grateful for the opportunities to compete in the future going forward.”
For now, Metz and Franek are focused on tweaks and improvement, with hopes of getting back to the Big 12 podium and earning another NCAA tournament appearance.