U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Ask Air Force wrestling head coach Joel Sharratt what's helped the team compete at a higher level, and he'll give you one answer: the leadership and competitive spirit of senior wrestler Cole VonOhlen.
VonOhlen, a native of Jackson, Minn., is easily among the best wrestlers in the NCAA, with a 21-2 record in the 149-pound class and 12 falls -- an Air Force school record -- so far this season.
Moreover, VanOhlen has lifted the rest of the team's play as well, leading Air Force to be ranked among the NCAA's top 25 wrestling teams by InterMat, which ranks both collegiate and high school wrestlers and teams.
"He was an impact player even as a freshman," Sharratt said. "He came in his freshman year and qualified for the NCAA tournament. He's the one who's really helped reestablish Air Force wrestling as a national power in the sport. He's really helped the guys in our program understand that this program produces athletes who compete at that level."
VonOhlen has been named the Western Wrestling Conference wrestler of the week nine times in his career, including twice this season. He finished in second place at the Southern Scuffle in Chattanooga, Tenn., Jan. 2, beating second-ranked Dylan Ness of Minnesota before losing to top-ranked Jordan Oliver of Oklahoma State in the finals. Air Force finished in eighth place in that tournament, 14.5 points ahead of Army (10th) and 20.5 points ahead of Navy (12th).
VonOhlen also took first place in the Hokie Open at Virginia Tech and the University of Nebraska-Kearney Holiday Inn Open, where he wrestled in the elite class. He recorded more than 100 career wins during his junior season.
His wrestling record continues a winning streak he established while wrestling at Jackson County Central High School under coach Randy Baker. He reached the Minnesota state finals three times, coming away with two state championships.
However, wrestling was not VonOhlen's first high school sport.
"I played hockey for a couple of years," VonOhlen said. "Then I played hockey and wrestled, then ended up just wrestling."
Both VonOhlen and Sharratt shared a connection through Baker, who coached Sharratt on a national team during his high school years.
"Baker brought Cole to my attention during his junior year," Sharratt said. "I watched him compete. He had the athletic skill sets that would help the Air Force Academy be competitive at the next level."
VonOhlen visited the Academy in the fall of 2007 and liked what he saw.
"I liked the coaches, I liked the program, so I thought it was a good place to come," he said. "I thought it was a good opportunity."
"He had a very mature long-term vision of what the Academy could do for him," Sharratt said. "It would not limit him athletically, and it would provide a guaranteed path to a great career."
Even as a freshman, VonOhlen was a leader, Sharratt said.
"He led by example," the coach said. "He did everything we required and found ways to get better on his own. He's always been squared away academically. He's been very disciplined; he's had outstanding time management while he's here, and he's been a great contributor to his (cadet) squadron."
VonOhlen's quiet leadership resulted in him being named a team co-captain as a junior, marking the first time in 40 years that a cadet was named captain of the wrestling team prior to his senior year, Sharratt said.
"That helped him develop the confidence to stand up and challenge people," Sharratt added. "He has started to hold people to his standard of excellence, not their individual standards.
"He knows that they need to compete with him in the training environment in order to compete at his level in the tournament environment. He's become a more verbal leader who will challenge complacency, who will challenge a lack of effort ... and he will encourage someone to do more than they thought they could do on a given day," Sharratt said.
VonOhlen is happy to get on the mat with anyone, Sharratt said, including middle- and high-schoolers who might be interested in wrestling. The team regularly visits schools in the Colorado Springs area to get kids interested in wrestling in general and Air Force wrestling in particular.
"The whole team has a really good time when we get to do stuff like that, interacting with the kids and teaching them what we know," he said. "Those are pretty fun events for us; we always have a lot of guys who want to go."
VonOhlen, a biology major, will attend technical training in the cyberwarfare career field at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., after he graduates from the Academy.
"I've heard a lot of good things," he said. "I'm pretty excited. It's a change of pace for sure. It should be interesting."
He also hopes to stay involved with wrestling after he graduates.
"I think if I were given the opportunity to keep wrestling, I would definitely take it," he said.