In the 31 weeks since he was named wrestling coach at the University of Wisconsin, Chris Bono has changed the look of the program and how it is presented.
It has not been an easy seven months in his new job or for those who are back with the team, but Bono has assured himself and his wrestlers that the reward is coming.
“It’s been a struggle because of all the work they’ve had to put in and all the change that has happened,” he said. “But I keep telling them, ‘You haven’t had any chance to see a result yet. You have had no results from all the work that you’ve done. You’ve had nothing to really believe in what I’ve been saying.'”
That changes Thursday night when the Badgers open the 2018-19 season with a dual meet against Buffalo at the UW Field House.
“When these guys see how great their conditioning is and how well they perform throughout the year, they will definitely believe in what we’re doing,” Bono said.
The 19th-ranked Badgers return four starters from last season. Most notable at the outset is sophomore Evan Wick, who finished third at 165 pounds at the 2018 NCAA Championships and is ranked second by Intermat.
Senior Ryan Christensen (174 pounds) and junior Cole Martin (149) also are back after qualifying for the NCAAs. Senior Jens Lantz returns at 133 pounds.
Bono said he has identified starters at nine of 10 weight classes, and Martin’s spot at 149 isn’t certain because of competition from redshirt freshman Devin Bahr.
Sophomore Connor Brown (125 pounds) transferred from South Dakota State, Bono’s former team, after making the NCAA Championships last season, and junior Tristan Moran (141) came from Oklahoma State. Both are challenging for starting spots.
But Wick is the team leader and even more, Bono said.
“He’s mature way beyond his years,” he said. “He’s a worker in the wrestling room. He’s a great kid off the mat. He is the perfect person, if I can say that.
“He’s definitely our guy, and he’s getting to be a little outspoken — in a good way — with the guys. It’s not just all action. He wants to have a great team. He wants good people on this team.”
Introduced as the replacement for longtime coach Barry Davis last spring, Bono set out to get a feel for the state of wrestling in the state. He said the feedback blew him away.
“People want to see our program be national champions,” Bono said. “People want to see the kids in Wisconsin do well. Anything that we have to throw out there in terms of Wisconsin wrestling has been supported from our fans.”
That includes a season ticket offering made for the first time and the introduction of mat-side seats for home events at the Field House. All 96 chairs along the edge of the action sold out within a day, Bono said, with 300 people on a waiting list.
“We’re doing a lot of good things that will really pack this place,” Bono said. “And I think once we get people in here for this first time and they see the different atmosphere and they see how our guys wrestle and they see how these guys are, I think we’re going to be able to put some fans in there.”