Notebook: Boise State wrestler Felix seeks All-American status at NCAAs

The senior is making his third national tournament appearance.

sports@idahostatesman.comMarch 20, 2014 

BSU, wrestling, pac 10, sports

J.T. Felix is 84-41 at Boise State, including a mark of 56-26 in tournaments. He has 17 career pins and 11 major decisions.

CHRIS BUTLER — cbutler@idahostatesman.com Buy Photo

J.T. Felix shares the same birthday as his dad — an instant connection that grew stronger throughout his childhood.

“I look up to him,” Felix said. “I want to do the same things he’s doing.”

His dad, Larry Felix, played offensive line for the Boise State football team in 1981-82. So the younger Felix set his sights on becoming a Bronco, too.

“I’ve been wanting to come here since I was 6 years old,” he said.

And he did — as a wrestler.

Felix, a senior heavyweight, will complete his career this week at the NCAA Wrestling Championships in Oklahoma City. The event runs Thursday through Saturday.

Felix (23-3) is seeded eighth in a deep field and hopes to secure an All-America award, which requires a top-eight finish.

“Everything I’ve worked for my entire wrestling career is slowly coming to an end,” he said, “and I have to finish it with a bang. … Being an All-American would put my mind at ease. Others have told me I’m capable of winning it.”

Felix, the Pac-12 champ, has surged as a senior. He was 11-13 as a freshman, 18-13 as a sophomore and 28-12 as a junior. He fell one victory short of All-America status last year.

He has pinned 10 of his 26 opponents this season while becoming the first heavyweight conference champion at Boise State in a decade.

“A lot has to do with the confidence,” said senior Jake Swartz, the sixth seed at 184 pounds with a 13-1 record and the only other Bronco invited to NCAAs. “His sophomore year he didn’t really think too much of the sport. He was going through the motions. Last year, it clicked. He started falling in love with the sport.”

Wrestling didn’t become Felix’s athletic focus until college. He grew up playing football and wrestling but dreamed of playing college football like his dad and brother, Robby Felix, who played offensive line at UTEP and in the NFL.

J.T. played both lines at Centennial High in Riverside, Calif.

“He was as talented on the football field as he is on the wrestling mat,” Larry said. “Wrestling just fit him better.”

Felix was 6-foot-4, 210 pounds in high school — undersized for a college lineman. He had several WAC-level scholarship offers for football (not Boise State), he said, but accepted a full ride to UC Davis for wrestling.

Davis scrapped its wrestling program, which put Felix back on the market in spring of his senior year. Major wrestling programs pursued him — he visited Ohio State, Illinois and Oregon State — and he committed to North Carolina.

The next day, Boise State called. He jumped on a plane and accepted the Broncos’ offer.

“The way I looked at it was these schools that aren’t very high-caliber in football (offered),” he said. “… It just showed which one I’d excel in. I was always undersized in football. I’m a late bloomer, clearly.”

And not just physically.

The key reason that Felix has developed into a dominant wrestler as a senior, he has said all season, is because of his mental approach to the sport.

“I believe that I was capable of doing what I’m doing now as a freshman and the past three years I just didn’t know it,” he said. “My speed has always been there. My strength has always been there. I’ve gotten a little better with my technique, but I don’t think it’s made that big of a difference.

“Knowing that it’s my last year, I have to get it done now or else it’s never going to get done. I mentally developed and it’s showed, I think.”

Along the way, he has become a campus and media favorite with his easy-going, outspoken nature. Coach Greg Randall likes to ride in the same van as Felix on road trips so they can trade stories.

Felix also is popular at the Randall house.

“One of my daughters, she’s a (high school) senior. She has all these friends,” Randall said. “They all know J.T. and they all adore him. My wife’s friends, they all adore him, too.

“He’s a great person to be around.”

Felix’s next challenge involves the classroom.

He is a biology major with a chemistry minor. He has a year left at Boise State, then plans to attend medical school.

His goal is to become an orthopedic surgeon.

That will require the same type of commitment that turned a part-time wrestler into one of the nation’s best.

“I didn’t know my potential as a wrestler,” he said. “I never won a state title in high school. I didn’t know that I would be as good as I am now. I think conference championship was on my mind, but four-year starter definitely was not and contending for a national championship definitely wasn’t either.”

Swartz chases elusive goal

Swartz lost in triple overtime in the match he had to win to become an All-American last year at the NCAA meet.

“It’s All-American or bust (this year) pretty much,” he said. “I’ve been three times before and came up a little bit short.”

Swartz has increased his preparation to try to make that jump to the top eight. He meets with a coach three mornings a week to refine his technique and runs at night three or four days a week. That’s in addition to the team practices.

“I stepped it up this year … just knowing what I did last year wasn’t enough,” he said.

Swartz’s bugaboo when he faces elite wrestlers is that he can’t get the takedown he needs. He often has lost big matches in overtime.

“He’s not going to score many points,” Randall said, “but neither is his opponent. … The guys he needs to beat, he hasn’t beaten a lot of them. And he’s had a lot of those (close) matches where he could have been ranked No. 1 in the country.”

SWIMMING & DIVING

The Boise State swimming and diving program found success in its early years by building swimmers who could reach the NCAA meet as juniors and seniors.

Now they’re getting that production from youngsters.

Freshman Brittany Aoyama and sophomore Sam Wicks each will swim in seven events this week at the NCAA championships in Minneapolis. The meet runs Thursday through Saturday.

Aoyama ranks 19th in the nation in the 100-yard butterfly.

“I had certain goal standards I was trying to achieve,” Aoyama said. “If I got those, it would let me have a pretty good chance (of reaching the NCAA meet). When I saw I had a great swim at conference, I was excited and surprised I made it.”

Aoyama also will swim the 50 and 100 freestyle races and participate on four relay teams, in the 200 medley, 400 medley, 200 freestyle and 400 freestyle.

Wicks ranks 36th in the 100 backstroke. She also will compete in the 50 and 100 freestyle races and on all of the relays.

The additional relay swimmers are junior Heather Harper, junior Sydney Johnansen, junior Jessica Bottelberghe and freshman Katelyn Martin.

The top 16 finishers in each event score points. The Broncos hope to crack the top 25 as a team.

Their best previous finish was 39th in 2011.

“If we go just slightly faster in each of our events, we have a great shot at scoring more points than we ever have before and being in the top 25,” coach Kristin Hill said.

Aoyama helped the Broncos win the Mountain West team championship with a second-place finish in the 100 butterfly and third-place finishes in the 50 and 100 freestyle events.

The 100 butterfly is her best event. She lost to a senior who broke the conference record.

“She has done a lot as a freshman,” Hill said, “and typically with the improvement rate we see in our program, it’s just exciting to think about where she’ll be in the next year and her junior and senior years.”

WOMEN'S BASKETBALL

The Boise State women's basketball team will take part in its first postseason game since 2008 on Thursday when it travels to Grand Canyon for an opening round Women's Basketball Invitational game.

The Broncos (17-13) battle the Antelopes (21-8) at 8 p.m. MT, broadcast on KTIK 1350 AM. It will be Boise State's first appearance in the 16-team WBI, while Grand Canyon is in its first year of transition from Division II to Division I. The Antelopes have a strong scoring tandem in Deanna Daniels (14.4 points per game) and Kaitlyn Petersen (13.7 ppg). Playing against GCU in Phoenix is tough, as the Antelopes are 11-1 at home.

Boise State is coming off a 61-56 loss to Wyoming on March 10 in the Mountain West Tournament. The Broncos' 1-2-3 punch of guard/forward Deanna Weaver (13.3 ppg), forward Miquelle Askew (13.1 ppg) and Yaiza Rodriguez (9.8 ppg) will be tested by a Grand Canyon defense allowing 60.4 ppg, which would be top-50 nationally. Boise State's 71.3 ppg are tied for 90th nationally.

The winner of Thursday's game will face the winner of Stephen F. Austin and Texas State's Thursday matchup on Saturday or Sunday. If the Broncos win, they will go on the road to face the Ladyjacks or the Bobcats.

FOOTBALL

Former Arizona State wide receiver Richard Smith — a two-year contributor — will transfer to Boise State, he confirmed Wednesday via Twitter.

Smith indicated last week that he likely would transfer to Boise State and told other media outlets he committed to the Broncos but had not responded to previous messages from the Idaho Statesman.

Smith started nine games last season, including the Pac-12 championship game and Holiday Bowl. He made 32 catches (fourth on the team) for 276 yards and two touchdowns as a sophomore in 2013. He made 14 catches for 141 yards and two touchdowns as a true freshman in 2012.

Smith will have to sit out the 2014 season under NCAA rules but he has a redshirt year available. That will leave him with two years of eligibility to use in 2015 and 2016.

He was a PrepStar All-American at Polytechnic High in Long Beach, Calif. He was a four-star recruit in ESPN's rankings. He committed to Arizona State when Dennis Erickson was the head coach.

• The Broncos hold a closed scrimmage Thursday morning. Coaches and players will speak to the media after the practice. We'll have full coverage in the Bronco Beat blog.

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