SoCon wrestling award winners
Wrestler of the year: Kyle Blevins, Appalachian State
Freshman of the year: Nick Soto, UTC
125 -- Manny Ramirez, UTC; 133 -- Nick Soto, UTC; 141 -- Mike Kessler, Appalachian; 149 -- Savva Kostis, Appalachian; 157 -- Dan Waddell, UTC; 165 -- Kyle Blevins, Appalachian; 174 -- Turtogtokh Luvsandorj, Citadel; 184 -- Austin Trotman, Appalachian; 197 -- Kelby Smith, Citadel; 285 -- Odie Delaney, Citadel.
All-Freshman team: Paul Weiss, Appalachian State; James Cook, Mark Hartenstine, Ryan Krecker, Joe Nolan, Joey Rizzolino, Campbell University; Kyle Casaletto, Citadel; Kevin Malone, Nick Soto, UTC.
SoCon wrestling tournament
Gates open at 9 a.m.
Quarterfinals, 10 a.m.
Championship finals, 6:30
All-day tickets are $8 group rate, $10 for ages 17-under, $15 for adults
Participating teams are Appalachian State, Campbell, The Citadel, Chattanooga, Davidson, Gardner-Webb and VMI. New SoCon member Southern Illinois-Edwardsville will join the field next season.
Nick Soto hasn't done any more than was expected.
Even when he learned that his prize 133-pounder had been named Southern Conference freshman of the year, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga wrestling coach Heath Eslinger had to stifle a yawn.
"Has he done more than expected? No," Eslinger said. "Now, when you look at the total body of work he has done more, because he has done such a great job academically and socially."
Soto is ranked 16th nationally, has a 22-6 record and figures to be a top seed for the conference tournament, which begins at 10 a.m. Saturday at McKenzie Arena.
"He has set a standard now, and he is on track to do some pretty special things here," Eslinger said.
The true freshman from Spring Hill, Fla., also was named to the all-conference first team. He was joined by seniors Manny Ramirez (125) and Dan Waddell (157). Ramirez, a UNC Greensboro transfer who became eligible in January, was 4-1 overall and 3-0 in the conference. He is a defending SoCon champ. Waddell is 19-9 this year, including 6-0 in the conference.
"I'm happy for Dan and Manny," Eslinger said. "Manny is really fresh right now, and if he can take care of things this weekend he will be a pretty tough draw for somebody at the nationals. Dan has been super consistent and has come on at the right time. I want him to finish strong and do something special these next three weeks. I want to win those weight classes this weekend, so it's hard for me to spend a lot of time rejoicing in all-conference honors."
Heavyweight Kevin Malone joined Soto on the all-freshman team.
A redshirt freshman from Carrollton, Ohio, Malone led the team with 24 wins in 35 matches, including a 5-1 conference record.
"That's good. He's probably the most improved on the team. He has a great future ahead of him," Esllinger said. "I don't say this about anybody very often, but if he makes up his mind he could be at the top of his weight class and not just at the conference level but at the national level."
Eslinger believes Soto has a chance to be an All-American -- by finishing among the top eight 133-pounders at the NCAA tournament -- this year because of the attitude he brings every day. He shows up an hour early for practice to begin focusing.
"I want to get better every day, and sometimes that can be frustrating because I don't always move like I want," Soto said. "My mindset is to have fun, wrestle hard and do the best I can do."
It has been the way from the outset when the Mocs coaches welcomed newcomers.
"They were adamant about always getting better and doing the right things. It's pretty much been that way since day one," said Soto, who went unbeaten in his six conference matches. "They told all of us that we needed to be acting as if we were starters. When I came in and 133 opened up, I looked at it like that was my spot."
And he doesn't intend to let distractions keep him from goals that obviously include winning the tournament this weekend and getting into the elite eight at the NCAA tournament.
"I don't keep up with stats or awards. If I keep looking at stuff like that I might get the big head and then get knocked off," he said.
Ward Gossett is an assistant sports editor and writer for the Times Free Press. Ward has a long history in Chattanooga journalism. He actually wrote a bylined story for the Chattanooga News-Free Press as a third-grader. He Began working part-time there in 1968 and was hired full time in 1970. Ward now covers high school athletics, primarily football, wrestling and baseball and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga wrestling. Over a 40-year career, he has covered ...