Mat Mocs aim for a weekend run at NCAA Wrestling Championships - WRCBtv.com | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

Mat Mocs aim for a weekend run at NCAA Wrestling Championships

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ST. LOUIS (WRCB) -- For University of Tennessee at Chattanooga wrestling coach Heath Eslinger, quality is far more important than quantity when it comes to the NCAA Wrestling Championships.

He'd love to have his entire 10-man lineup making the trip to St. Louis this week, but he doesn't feel bad about the group he brought with him.

"Whether we take six, or ten, or three, we just one of those guys or a couple of those guys standing on that podium at the end of the tournament," Eslinger said before departing Chattanooga earlier this week.

Five Mat Mocs will open the road to a national championship on Thursday morning. More than 110,000 fans are expected to attend the three-day event, making the Scottrade Center one of the most pressure-packed venues in college sports.

"You're surrounded by 15 or 20 thousand roaring fans while you're wrestling the best guys in the country. So ya, I was kind of in shock," said 149-pound qualifier Dean Pavlou.

The former Bradley Central standout is one of three UTC wrestlers with previous NCAA Championships experience, joining Brandon Wright and former Baylor School star Dan Waddell.

All three went 0-2 in their first NCAA Tournament trips, but this time they won't be affected by the environment.

"I don't think any one of us will get caught up in the hype of it," said Waddell, whose last-second take-down in the SoCon's 157-pound final secured his automatic bid. "No matter who is there, who's watching you or who you're wrestling, it comes down to you having seven minutes to score more points than the other guy.

"In that sense it's just like every other match you've ever wrestled."

With one glaring difference, of course.

Every match this weekend will likely be the toughest yet this season.

"If your name's in the bracket, you've got a tough first-round match," Eslinger said. "Think about it. You take all the hundreds of thousands of high school wrestlers in the country, put the best ones on 77 college teams, then take the best 33 at each weight.

"Every guy in this field is impressive. It's the nature of the sport. There's no easy route at this point."

That's especially true for Chattanooga's highest-ranked wrestler, Nick Soto.

The Southern Conference Freshman of the Year heads to St. Louis ranked No. 16 in the country at 133 pounds, but he draws UTC's toughest opening-round opponent in Illinois' fourth-seeded B.J. Futrell.

However, Soto beat Futrell by an 8-2 decision earlier this season.

"It gives me a lot of confidence rolling in that I've already beaten him," Soto said. "It also gives me confidence knowing that he's worked harder to beat me this time. That keeps me focused on working harder because I know I have to outwork him to do it again."

That hard work paid off for Levi Clemons, who received the program's only at-large bid when he was added to the 174-pound bracket last week.

Eslinger now hopes a season's worth of hard work and sweat pays off with a weekend run for the whole group.

"At the end of the day, our goal is to have guys wrestling on Saturday," Eslinger said. "If you're wrestling on Saturday, that means you're on the podium, you're getting a medal and your name is going on the wall in (the UTC wrestling room) right below 'Division I All-American.'

"That's what we're hear to do: produce All-Americans."

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