Wyoming senior Joe LeBlanc is a three-time All-American. Tony Rotundo photo.
Top-ranked Joe LeBlanc of Wyoming sets sights on reaching top step of NCAA podium
Joe LeBlanc marvels at the transformation he has seen during his time at the University of Wyoming.
He vividly remembers what it was like when he arrived in Laramie five years ago.
The Cowboys wrestled in front of sparse crowds and struggled to make much of an impact at the NCAA Division I level.
Those days are ancient history now.
Now a senior, the top-ranked LeBlanc has led a huge revival at Wyoming that has the Cowboys primed to make a big splash at March's NCAA Championships in St. Louis.
The Cowboys have climbed to No. 7 in the national rankings entering Sunday's home dual meet with Northern Iowa.
"It's been awesome to be a part of this" LeBlanc said. "It's great to see this program gain some recognition and some respect. It's rewarding to see all our hard work pay off and see so many guys on our team having success. We've been packing the gym for a lot of our dual meets and people on our campus are excited about the wrestling program."
LeBlanc has generated much of the excitement during a superb career. He has placed fifth, fourth and sixth during three NCAA tournament appearances as Wyoming coach Mark Branch has quickly built a strong program.
"Joe's been a program-changer" Branch said. "It would be hard to be where we are at without him. He made an immediate impact as a freshman and everybody instantly believed we could be successful. It was a big statement that it can be done here in Laramie. He's obviously been very instrumental in our success."
LeBlanc, from Meeker, Colo., is 20-1 this season and ranked No. 1 nationally at 184 pounds. He has scored bonus points in 16 of his 20 victories.
"I feel like I am wrestling as good as I have my whole career" LeBlanc said. "Everything is coming together. My training has been great and I have a great attitude. I am where I need to be right now. I have the confidence to wrestle the best guys."
The Cowboys notched an 18-17 win over Big 12 power Oklahoma earlier this season.
"I am trying to be a leader in the way I train and by trying to help the young guys on our team" LeBlanc said. "I give them advice and give them encouragement. It's a long season, and I try to keep them motivated and keep them positive."
LeBlanc is in a tough 184 class that includes returning national champion Quentin Wright of Penn State and returning NCAA runner-up Robert Hamlin of Lehigh. He hasn't faced either wrestler this season, but he does own wins this season over No. 3 Steve Bosak of Cornell, No. 7 Josh Ihnen of Nebraska, No. 9 Jake Swartz of Boise State and No. 12 Austin Trotman of Appalachian State.
He also beat No. 5 Ben Bennett of Central Michigan in the NWCA All-Star Classic this season.
"Joe's very motivated" Branch said. "When I got here, he was ready to learn and he wanted to work out with me every day. There wasn't anything I had to do or say to get him motivated. The biggest factor in his success is he's one of the most coachable people I've ever been around."
LeBlanc's lone loss came in overtime to Oklahoma State's Chris Perry in the finals of the Reno Tournament of Champions. Perry has moved down a weight class to 174.
LeBlanc has a tough match coming up this weekend against sixth-ranked Ryan Loder of Northern Iowa. They split their two matches last season.
"It's a huge match for me" LeBlanc said. "It will be a great chance to test myself and get myself prepared for the national tournament."
LeBlanc reached the semifinals of the 2010 NCAA tournament before falling in overtime to eventual champion Max Askren of Missouri.
He entered the 2011 NCAA Championships in Philadelphia as the No. 5 seed, but was upset 8-3 by No. 12 seed Grant Gambrall of Iowa in the second round.
"I was a little hesitant in that match, and I wasn't pulling the trigger like I needed to" he said. "Gambrall was there to battle and there to win. I learned a lot from that match. I need to approach every match like it's the national finals."
LeBlanc rebounded to win four straight matches the next day to clinch a top-six finish. When he came into the arena for Day 3 of the event on Saturday morning, he stepped on the scale about 90 minutes before weigh-ins.
"I was a half pound under" he said. "When I stepped back on the scale for weigh-ins, I was a half pound over. If I would have known I was over, I could've easily taken the weight off."
"It was a really bad deal" Branch said. "Joe didn't have any weight issues at all. He was under weight without working out on Friday night, and he was able to eat dinner. I truly believe he checked his weight and thought he was a half pound under, but he may have misread the scale. It was unfortunate and it was terrible. Nobody is quite sure what happened. He was crushed."
LeBlanc had to forfeit his final two matches of the tournament after not making weight. He kept his sixth-place finish, but Wyoming lost all the team points he had scored in the tournament.
"It was heartbreaking" he said. "I couldn't believe it happened."
LeBlanc is scheduled to graduate in May with a degree in kinesiology and health promotion. He carries a 3.5 grade-point average and said he has earned an A in 20 of his last 21 classes. An Academic All-American, he has started taking graduate classes.
LeBlanc not only balances wrestling and academics, but a busy schedule with his family.
He and his wife, Amanda, have two young sons. Tyson is two years old and Colby is six months old.
"I spend as much time as I can with my family" he said. "My wife has done an amazing job taking care of everything. I try to manage my time the best I can. I spend time with my family after I come home from practice and do my homework after we put the boys to bed."
LeBlanc is looking to become just the second NCAA champion in Wyoming's history. Dick Ballinger won an NCAA title for the Cowboys in 1960.
LeBlanc also is on course to become Wyoming's first four-time All-American.
"I feel relaxed and ready to wrestle my best at the NCAA tournament" said LeBlanc, who is 133-18 in his career. "I've been there and I've been in those big matches. I just have to go out there and wrestle like I'm capable. I'm excited to get back out there and see what I can do."
Branch said he is excited to see what LeBlanc can do at his final NCAA tournament.
"Joe is a very dynamic wrestler who can score in a lot of different ways on top and on his feet" Branch said. "He is the most diverse guy at that weight class. He just has to stay relaxed and stay loose - that's when he wrestles his best. He has all the tools to be a national champion."
LeBlanc said he is ready to make a run at reaching the top step of the podium in St. Louis.
"It would mean everything to win a national title" he said. "That's what I've been working for since I got here. Only 10 guys come away from the national tournament satisfied. It would mean so much for our program to have another national champion from Wyoming."