Zach Merrill was seeking more of a challenge after winning back-to-back national titles in the 285-pound division of the National Collegiate Wrestling Association.
The Palm Desert High School graduate realized that all too quickly after attending the Las Vegas Invitational last December and beating a wrestler that was ranked No. 10 in the country. As a red-shirt sophomore at California Baptist University, he knew he belonged at an elite Division I wrestling program.
The three-time Desert Valley League champ and three-time CIF state qualifier filed paperwork for a release from the Lancers to pursue options for his final two years of college eligibility and no sooner than it was awarded, Merrill became a Sooner.
He landed at the University of Oklahoma after being sought by Big Ten schools, Pac-12 teams and more than a dozen other programs.
“I started talking about a release around June and I was denied at first, but after I got the OK and looking at Oklahoma, it was the most impressive,” said Merrill, also a two-time CIF champ for the Aztecs who was 38-6 for the Lancers. “OU has produced a total of 65 individual national champions, 265 All-Americans, 177 conference champions and won 23 team conference titles.”
Even more impressive was Oklahoma’s seven national championships, the fourth-most of any program in the country.
“I sat on it for a while, then I contemplated it,” he said. “I know I needed to be challenged. I needed the training partners. There’s no other heavyweights (on his CBU team) to wrestle with.”
As a red-shirt sophomore for California Baptist University, Merrill was the Lancers’ point leader and was selected MVP of the West Coast tournament which was the qualifier for the nationals in Texas. The victories almost seemed routine, so Merrill started looking at what was next.
He took official visits to Nebraska and Illinois, but was overwhelmed by Oklahoma.
“I saw that they are looking out for my best interest,” said Merrill. “It was exactly the training environment I needed. And they have the best shot of a national title with six returning All-Americans, two returning national champs and three guys ranked No. 1. Plus, the coach was a heavyweight and he knows specific strategies. He’s coached a slew of great guys.”
The Sooner wrestling season is just underway and Merrill can’t wait to test his theory of rising to a challenge.
“There’s thousands of people that pack the gym for wrestling,” said Merrill, who finished sixth among heavyweights at the Brockport Invitational on Nov. 9 for the Sooners. “Wrestling is really appreciated out here. There’s a large community support and a bunch of junior clubs near the university. Everything here is big. The football games are electric with over 80,000 jammed in to the stadium. The crowd, the marching band, the tradition here, everything is surreal.”