ST. GEORGE — The Trailblazers are living up to their name on the wrestling mat and the wrestling program at Utah Tech is growing in leaps and bounds.

Utah Tech’s Ruben Zarate grapples his opponent at the Utah Tech Stampede, St. George, Utah, Jan. 13, 2023 | Photo by E. George Goold, St. George News

The program took another step towards developing a national footprint as the Trailblazers hosted eight men’s and five women’s teams from around the country in the Utah Tech Stampede 2024.

One team official said that the weekend tournament, held in the Student Activities Center, was “unprecedented in terms of size and participation” for a wrestling meet on the Utah Tech campus.

Utah Tech competes in the West Coast Conference of the National Collegiate Wrestling Association.

Last year the Trailblazers had three individual conference champions and team captain and co-coach Zeke Alleman was a runner-up at the national championships held in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Utah Tech hopes to build upon that success this year with a team that has more than tripled in size and features a couple top individual performers in the country.

Freshman Lauren Mills is the No. 1-ranked women’s wrestler in the 123 pound division. She came to St. George after a standout prep career at Festus, Missouri.

“I just wanted to go away for school,” Mills told St. George News in between matches Saturday afternoon.

“I actually wasn’t planning on wrestling in college,” she added. “But I just came to school here and found out they have a club program and I decided to join them because of my background and experience in wrestling.”

Utah Tech freshman Lauren Mills, sporting a shiner suffered in a recent match, is the No. 1 ranked women’s wrestler in her weight class, St. George, Utah, Jan. 13, 2023 | Photo by E. George Goold, St. George News

Mills found that her skills on the mat fit right in at Utah Tech.

“It’s been really good. We’re starting to recruit more girls this year,” Mills said. “We’ve got some good competition in the room and we’re all pretty good with each other. So it’s just been really fun.”

After team leader Alleman graduated last year and accepted a job in law enforcement in California, the Trailblazers turned to veteran Byron Anderson to fill the leadership void.

“So Zeke (Alleman) and his dad Robert are actually the whole reason coach Corey (Anderson, Byron’s dad and current Utah Tech head coach) and I got roped into all of this,” Byron Anderson said after he won his semifinal match at 235 pounds on Saturday.

“When the program was starting to suffer a couple years ago, Rob and Zeke reached out to my dad and I to see if we could step in to fill that gap and keep the team on track,” Anderson said. “That’s how we got involved. Really good guys and we’re happy to have been here.”

One of the team’s strengths is its diversity. Anderson is one of two Trailblazers (heavyweight Ruben Zarate is the other) that served missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and are both married with children.

“Just both of us being a little bit older provides an example for the rest of the team,” Anderson said. “Most of our team are 19- and 20-year olds. Just gives us a lot of real world experience, a lot of experience of getting out of our comfort zone.”

“Hopefully we can provide a positive example to the younger guys on the team and show them what can be done,” he added.

With a men’s roster listing 15 freshmen, four sophomores, one junior and one senior, Utah Tech’s wrestlers are building for the future but are ready to compete now.

“Conference champs, for sure, this year,” Anderson said when asked about the team’s goals. “We really want to be national champs, that’s our goal. Even if we don’t quite hit it this year we’re going to get close and I think we’re going to have it for sure next year.”

Assistant coach Jeff Guynn said that Utah Tech is growing its wrestling program the right way.

Utah Tech’s Landon Cabral (right) grapples his opponent at the Utah Tech Stampede, St. George, Utah, Jan. 13, 2023 | Photo by E. George Goold, St. George News

“These are all great athletes with the right attitude,” Guynn said. “They truly go the extra mile for each other, work hard together, and that’s paying dividends.”

Team officials said that the tournament was grateful for the support from sponsors Riggatti’s Pizza, Einstein Brothers Bagels and the deli from Lin’s Marketplace.

The team that traveled the furthest to wrestle in St. George at the Utah Tech Stampede was Yale. The Bulldogs of the Ivy League sport the very first collegiate wrestling team in American history.

Yale head coach Gabriel Vega told St. George News that the Bulldogs got a nice working vacation out of their journey to Utah.

“We’ve been trying to find some matches, this was actually our first tournament of the season, we had a little slow start,” Vega said. “It seemed like a good spot to kick it off, some good schools I had heard of at the tournament. Plus we ended up going to Zion and took a little hiking day.”

While he was there with his team and helping the Bulldogs compete at their highest level, Vega noticed that the Utah Tech squad obviously has some buzz right now.

“It’s honestly been impressive,” Vega said. “Talking to different coaches, hearing about them building the team back up is pretty cool. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do as well, so it’s a nice parallel.”

The NWCA West Coast Conference championships are schedule for March 3 in Las Vegas, followed by the NWCA National Championships beginning March 14 in Shreveport, Louisiana.

Follow St. George News Sports for full coverage of Utah Tech’s wrestling season as it unfolds.

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