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Air Force’s Hendrickson named nation’s top pinner for second straight year
Photo: Air Force’s Wyatt Hendrickson (top) put the finishing touches on his first All-American honor when he pinned Iowa’s Anthony Cassioppi for third place. (Sam Janicki photo)
By Mike Finn
Wyatt Hendrickson came up short in accomplishing his biggest goal of the 2022-23 college season — winning a national championship in Tulsa on March 17 — when the Air Force heavyweight lost 4-2 in the semifinals to Penn State’s Greg Kerkvliet.
So how did the No. 2 seed Falcon junior respond to such the loss in the BOK Center? Hendrickson responded by pinning both Northwestern’s Lucas Davison and Iowa’s Anthony Cassioppi in his consolation bouts for a third-place honor and his first All-American honor.
It was fitting; not so much that he was taking his frustration out against the Wildcat and Hawkeye for missing out on a shot at the finals, but rather reminding fans of his abilities at the 2022 Schalles winner.
And this season was no different when Hendrickson once again led the NCAA with 17 pins in a 31-2 campaign; three of which happened in Tulsa, including a first-round fall against Cal Poly’s Trevor Tinker to go along with two major decisions in the NCAAs.
Hendrickson became the sixth collegiate wrestler in 25 years to win consecutive Schalles awards, the honor named after the sport’s most historic pinner.
“There are pinners and there are those who pin. Wyatt is the former,” said Schalles, the award’s namesake who set the college pin record at Clarion (Pa.) State where he also won two NCAA championships (1972-73). During his career, Schalles defeated 153 of 159 opponents and pinned 109.
“It’s just my aggressive wrestling style,” said Hendrickson. “It doesn’t matter if I’m winning by one point or winning by 10, I will not stop attacking and I think people kind of know that.”
“When you watch Wyatt wrestle, you can almost see the wheels turning and asking; ‘How can I put this guy on his back?’” added Schalles. “He’s so good at it that by the end of next season, he might very well be the first three-time Schalles Award winner. I don’t think Vegas is betting against that happening.”
Hendrickson, who has 42 career falls and an 87-11 record over the past three years, would love to collect a third Schalles after winning an NCAA title next March when the 2024 NCAAs are held in Kansas City, Mo.; just 182 miles from his hometown of Newton, Kan.
“It’s very special that no one has to worry about buying all their flights,” said Hendrickson, who was a two-time Kansas state champ and three-time finalist for Newton High. “They can just you know, get in the car and drive a little bit. Come support their good ol’ big ol’ heavyweight wrestler.”
But while Hendrickson does indeed compete in the heaviest weight class, the Falcon wrestles more like a lighter weight, and is part of the reason he became the Academy’s first All-American in 20 years in Tulsa. And the current Air Force heavyweight, who reached the Blood Round in 2021 and the Round of 16 in 2022, certainly seems to be in good position to join USAFA’s Kevin Hoy (2003) as a Falcon national finalist.
But getting a national championship — something an Air Force wrestler has done only once, when 145-pounder Don Henderson won the title in 1967 — is Hendrickson’s biggest goal before he finishes his collegiate career.
“I think it’s really just inches and ounces (from winning a title),” he said. “I think my wrestling style has been solidified over the years and obviously I’m still tuning it up here and there. I think I finally just found the perfect balance, moving my feet, and attacking while being patient. What I have to do is just double down what I’ve been doing and just not change anything. I think I’ll be on top of the (NCAA) podium for sure.”
Hendrickson, who will compete for the Air Force’s World Class Athlete Program in freestyle before he eventually hopes to be part of the new Space Force program, jokingly said he would love to have a pin named after him.
“I would love that, but they’ve all been taken,” joked Hendrickson, who still thinks about what his father used to preach when Wyatt first took to the mat.
“He always said, ‘If you work hard, you’re going to get what you want,’” said the son of Lynnette and Todd Hendrickson. “In developing in my wrestling career through high school, I was not a good wrestler because I was good at moves. I was not technical at all. I just never gave up even if I’d be down by seven or eight points. I wouldn’t give up and I gassed the other guy out, end up winning by a couple points. That was a really good foundation to build on.”
Hendrickson also wants his legacy to go beyond the mat.
“I hope that people here at the Academy don’t just remember me as a wrestler,” he said. “I’m putting in work down in the wrestling room and I’m on the mat working hard, but I’m also trying to get involved academically and in military stuff. I’m just trying to leave an impact more than just wrestling.”