Mat Mocs set for nation's elite at Southern Scuffle
CHATTANOOGA (WRCB) -- For those who don't follow collegiate wrestling, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga head coach Heath Eslinger dipped into another spot to help explain the magnitude of this weekend's Southern Scuffle at UTC.
"It'd be like us having North Carolina, Duke and Kansas here to play basketball," he said.
And he's not kidding.
Three of the nation's top five teams and eight of the top 15 will take to the mats at McKenzie Arena starting Sunday for the 22-team event that is often called a "midseason NCAA Tournament."
Defending national champ Penn State and runners-up Cornell will both be in town, as well perennial powers Missouri and Minnesota. Wrestling begins at 10 a.m. ET on New Year's Day, and champions will be crowned Monday night.
"To have teams like that here in our backyard, in our gym wrestling is just a great opportunity for us as a school and as a program and as a community," Eslinger said. "As much as any wrestling community in the country, this community deserves an event that is second to none, and I think this brings that to the table."
Eslinger, previously the coach at Cleveland High School, pursued the event earlier this year when decade-long host UNC-Greensboro dropped its wrestling program.
The Chattanooga area has long been a hot bed for the sport, but lost its signature event two years ago when the TSSAA traditional tournament moved to Franklin. This was Eslinger's way of trying to fill that void.
"We're getting something given to us that's already pretty darn good, and we want to just continue to make it better by bringing it to a community that truly loves wrestling," he said. "A lot of people know how to run a basketball tournament, but the only ones that can do a wrestling tournament are wrestling people.
"We've got a lot of good ones here in the Chattanooga area."
UTC will try to put its own stamp on the event in hopes it joins the Dr. Pepper Classic as annual holiday traditions in the Scenic City.
The school is providing a host for each team to take care of any special needs or requests during the stay. Each participant will leave with a gift, similar to an NCAA Tournament experience in the spring.
"Our first and foremost goal for this year is that we run a premier event and that we get everyone back who comes this year," Eslinger said. "Greensboro was running a great tournament. What we're trying to do is add a Chattanooga touch to it so every team feels valued and important.
"If we can do that, I think people will look at it and say this is a place the tournament never needs to depart."
By Monday night, Eslinger hopes that personal touch extends throughout the national wrestling community.
Regardless of what happens on the mat, UTC expects to come out a winner by gaining even more notoriety in the national spotlight.
"Every wrestling website and high school message board nationwide will be talking about this," Eslinger said. "Everywhere the Southern Scuffle is talked about, Chattanooga is engrained in that conversation or that picture or that bracket, so it does a lot for our program."