Chris Bono is in his first season as head wrestling coach at Wisconsin (Photo/David Stluka)
You figured it wouldn't take long for Chris Bono to make an impact at the University of Wisconsin.
Especially after the way Bono elevated the wrestling program at South Dakota State.
So it wasn't a huge surprise when Bono's first Big Ten Conference dual meet as head coach of the Badgers caught everyone's attention.
His 15th-ranked Wisconsin team knocked off No. 11 Nebraska on Friday night in Lincoln.
"That was a huge win for us," Bono said. "We know how tough the Big Ten is, and we went on the road and won a very tough dual against Nebraska. We were ready to go. We have conditioning on our side right now and we always will -- that's what Bobby Douglas taught me when I was in college."
Wisconsin is off to a blazing 6-0 start under Bono, a no-nonsense coach with a high-energy, hard-nosed approach.
The Badgers returned home after the win over Nebraska to defeat No. 24 Utah Valley State and Princeton on Sunday at home.
The Badgers are led by All-American Evan Wick, a California native who is ranked No. 2 nationally at 165 pounds. Wick, a sophomore, is coming off a third-place finish at the NCAA tournament.
"We're off to a great start," Wick said. "Nebraska crushed us last year and we went in there and fought hard. We have guys who are going to push the pace and wrestle hard for seven minutes. The team is coming together. We believe in our ability and we believe in each other."
Wick powered past a pair of ranked opponents over the weekend. He beat No. 11 Isaiah White of Nebraska 12-5 before downing No. 16 Demetrius Romero of Utah Valley 12-2.
"Evan bought into what we are doing right away and it shows," Bono said. "He's gotten stronger and better technically. His conditioning is off the charts. We are super proud of what he's doing."
Wick's twin brother, Zander, is another top prospect for the Badgers. He is ranked 20th at 157 pounds. Zander Wick was a starter at 149 last season, compiling a 12-4 record before his season was cut short by an injury.
"Zander has missed some time, but he's now getting back into the lineup," Bono said. "He's a great kid who works hard. I'm looking forward to seeing what he does for us."
Senior Ryan Christensen has provided another huge boost for Wisconsin. Christensen delivered a huge win in his team's win over Nebraska by pinning No. 10 Mikey Labriola at 174 pounds.
He also earned a 3-1 win over No. 14 Kimball Bastian of Utah Valley.
Christensen has ascended to 10th in the national rankings at 174.
"Ryan Christensen is doing a great job," Bono said. "Labriola had a lead on us, and we were still down by a point late in the match. We got in a scramble and caught him on his back for a fall. It was a very good match. Ryan followed that up with a big win over Bastian and he also beat a good kid from Princeton."
Jon Reader is Chris Bono's top assistant coach at Wisconsin (Photo/Richard Immel)
Bono said Wisconsin assistant coach Jon Reader has played a big role in the progression of Christensen.
Reader spent the past four seasons as Bono's top assistant at South Dakota State, where they built the Jackrabbits into an elite program.
Bono and Reader coached Seth Gross to the program's first NCAA Division I title last season at 133 pounds on a team that finished a respectable 12th in the country.
Bono and Reader both won NCAA titles for Iowa State.
"Jon Reader is a tremendous coach and an outstanding person," Bono said. "He's family to me. He means the world to me and our program. The way he carries himself rubs off on our guys. He's a great guy who works hard -- he's the first one in the office every morning."
Badger junior Tristan Moran, a transfer from Oklahoma State, also contributed a fall in the win over Nebraska. He's ranked 13th at 141 pounds.
"Tristan wrestles a unique style -- he's very dangerous," Bono said. "He can score from a lot of positions."
Wisconsin freshman heavyweight Trent Hillger delivered a pair of clutch wins Sunday. He is now ranked 14th nationally.
Hillger recorded a 16-0 technical fall over Princeton's Obinna Ajah to secure the dual win. He followed by rallying from a 6-0 deficit to knock off No. 15 Tate Orndorff of Utah Valley 9-7 in overtime.
"Trent stepped up and did an awesome job," Bono said. "He won that match against Utah Valley because of his conditioning. What he did was amazing."
Wisconsin sophomore Connor Brown is ranked 17th nationally at 125 pounds. Brown followed Bono to Madison after being an NCAA qualifier for South Dakota State last season.
The Badgers have another tough lightweight wrestler in senior Jens Lantz, who went 3-0 at 133 pounds this past weekend.
Bono also said to keep an eye on 184-pounder Mason Reinhardt, a junior who dropped a 6-5 decision to No. 3 Taylor Venz of Nebraska.
"Mason is making some good progress," Bono said. "I really like the direction he is moving in."
Matt McDonough, a two-time NCAA champion for Iowa, also has joined Bono as a Wisconsin assistant coach.
"McDonough's making a big impact for us," Bono said. "He obviously knows what it takes to excel at this level. He is a high energy guy who believes in that strong work ethic."
Wisconsin also just signed a strong group of five wrestlers to national letters of intent.
"We love our recruiting class," Bono said. "They are really good students and good citizens. And all of the kids are highly ranked nationally. We're really happy with that group."
Bono said the transition from South Dakota State to Wisconsin wasn't easy. He took over for Barry Davis, who led the Badger program for the last 25 years.
"It was tough at first," he said. "Change is very hard in anything you do in life. We had some guys who didn't buy in at first. It's taken some time, but we feel like the guys are all bought in now and they're excited about the future of this program."
Chris Bono coaching Seth Gross at the U.S. Open in Las Vegas (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
Bono inherited a roster with a number of wrestlers with strong credentials.
"We are not starting from ground zero -- there were some talented kids here when I was hired," he said. "Our job is to develop them. We have some areas we are trying to improve on as we instill our philosophy and work ethic.
"We train hard and our guys are in shape. All I ask of them is their best effort and their best fight."
Even with the early success the Badgers have had, Bono realizes it's a long, grueling season.
"Everything we do is getting us ready for March," he said. "It is November and this is the preseason. Everything is the preseason until we get to the Big Ten tournament. It's early, but it's exciting to see these guys come together and really start to believe in each other."
Bono likes seeing his team being recognized for its early success.
"These kids are giving us everything they have," he said. "These student-athletes are amazing. They deserve it. I'm not doing the work. The kids are doing the work and laying everything on the line. They believe in us. They deserve all the accolades."
Wisconsin's next big test will come in its second Big Ten dual when the Badgers wrestle at No. 2 Ohio State on Dec. 9.
"We will go into Ohio State as a huge underdog," Bono said. "It's a great opportunity for us. Our guys will be fired up and ready to roll, that's for sure."
Chris Bono took over Barry Davis, who coached the Badgers for 25 seasons (Photo/David Stluka)
Bono said he has the type of backing he needs in Madison to build a top-flight program.
"The administration here has been great -- they are really supporting the wrestling program," he said. "We love what they have given us. Our goal is to win a national championship. That's the type of program we're trying to build here."
Craig Sesker has written about wrestling for more than three decades. He's covered three Olympic Games and is a two-time national wrestling writer of the year.