published Sunday, January 1st, 2012

Scuffle like big Final Four

What should one expect from the Southern Scuffle today and Monday at McKenzie Arena?

If it was basketball, one could expect to see the likes of NCAA Final Four opponents, host coach Heath Eslinger indicated.

"It's like us having UNC, Duke and Kansas here to play basketball," said Eslinger, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's wrestling coach. "To have Penn State, Minnesota, Cornell and Missouri wrestling in our back yard is great for our program and the community."

Minnesota is currently ranked third nationally, followed by No. 4 Cornell and No. 5 Penn State, which is the defending national champion. Missouri is ranked No. 11.

The 22-team field also includes No. 15 Virginia Tech, No. 16 Oregon State, No. 21 Virginia and No. 25 Hofstra.

"We have begun referring to it as a mini-NCAA tournament because it is some of the best wrestling in the country," Eslinger said.

It is without doubt the biggest wrestling event to his Chattanooga since the Southern Open tournaments when most every regional power and some national powers showed up at the Mocs' Maclellan Gym.

"I don't think there is any doubt that it's the biggest event for wrestling locally since the late [19]80s," Eslinger said.

More than a fourth of the field is nationally ranked, including top-ranked wrestlers Zach Sanders (125) of Minnesota, Frank Molinaro (149) and David Taylor (165) of Penn State and Kyle Dake (157) and Cam Simaz of Cornell.

Other teams participating are Appalachian State, Army, Campbell University, The Citadel, Cleveland State, Duke, Gardner-Webb, Indiana, Navy, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Ohio, Old Dominion and UTC.

Penn State and Cornell were co-champs at the last Scuffle, held in late December of 2010 in Greensboro, N.C. Oregon State was third, Minnesota fifth and Hofstra and Virginia tied for ninth.

Class of the field?

Two defending NCAA champions head a big group of All-Americans in the field: Cornell's Dake (149) and Penn State's Quentin Wright (184).

Dake, a junior from Ithaca, N.Y., is currently InterMat's top-ranked 157-pounder with a 14-0 record. He is a two-time NCAA winner, capturing the 141-pound title as a freshman. Last year at the Scuffle, he beat Penn State's Frank Molinaro for that championship. The former high school three-sport letterman (baseball, track) has a career record of 79-4.

Wright, a junior with a record of 7-2 this season, is ranked No. 5 at 184 by InterMat. He came back from a midseason injury to win his NCAA title. He is a two-time All-American, placing sixth at 174 as a freshman. He is good. As a high school senior he went 37-0 and also won the 2007 Nittany Lion Open against collegiate wrestlers. He also was vice president of his senior class.

There are at least 15 other All-Americans in the field. They include Cornell's Steve Bosak (fourth, 184) and Simaz (third, 197); Penn State's Andrew Long (third, 133), Molinaro (second, 149), Taylor (second, 157) and Ed Ruth (second, 174); Minnesota's Sanders (fifth, 125), Kevin Steinhaus (eighth, 184), Sonny Yohn (seventh, 197) and Tony Nelson (seventh, 285); and Virginia's Derek Valenti (eighth, 149).

Missouri heavyweight Dom Bradley was third last year but is taking an Olympic redshirt this season.

Undefeated thus far

This list includes Oregon State heavyweight Clayton Jack (20-0) and Penn State's Molinaro (10-0), Taylor (10-0) and 174-pound Ed Ruth (10-0).

Virginia Tech 149-pound Jesse Dong, a two-time NCAA champion and three-time NCAA qualifier, could have been listed here but he suffered a shoulder injury and had surgery in December. He had been ranked fifth at 157 pounds with a 7-0 record. Virginia Tech sources say he will probably apply for a medical hardship waiver.

Among those who are so close is Hofstra 165-pounder P.J. Gillespie, who is 11-1 and ranked third in the nation by InterMat.

Logistics

• Price of admission is $15 per day for adults and $5 for students (17-under). Parking will be $5 for most lots around McKenzie Arena, but there also should be parking on the streets at meters. At least two concession stands, offering standard arena fare, will be open. Coffee has been added, at least for the morning rounds.

For those wishing to come and go, there will be a hand-stamp process. There will be no session fees, the $15 and $5 entry fees covering each day from start to finish.

• Eight new Resilite mats will be used for the early rounds with the tournament dropping to four mats as it progresses and then to one. There will be tripod scoreboards at each mat. A match board (designating matches and mat assignment) also will be used.

Programs and brackets cost $2. Updated brackets will be $1.

From the SoCon

The Southern Conference's leading candidate for a medal has to be Appalachian State 184-pounder Austin Trotman. The senior is 16-1, his lone loss coming Dec. 18 at the Reno Tournament of Championships. He lost by major decision to then third-ranked Joe LeBlanc of Wyoming.

Odie Delaney, a heavyweight from The Citadel, is 5-0, but the top four seeds in the weight class are ranked in the top 10: Oregon State's Jack (No. 4), Ohio's Jeremy Johnson (No. 5), Minnesota's Tony Nelson (No. 7) and Penn State's Cameron Wade (No. 8).

And what about UTC's Mocs?

Eslinger is expecting his seniors -- Kelly Felix (149), Dan Waddell (157), Brandon Wright (165) -- to perform well.

"They've got to find a way to get on the [medalist] stand," the coach said.

Other Mocs to watch include Shawn Greevy at 141 pounds, Nick Soto at 133 and heavyweight Kevin Malone.

A redshirt freshman, the hefty Malone has the most wins (13) and Soto has wrestled three ranked opponents, beating Illinois' fourth-ranked B.J. Futrell 8-2. Second on the Mocs' wins list is 157-pound Jared Pressley with a 10-4 record. All of those wins have come in tournaments.

"The guys are excited. It's nice to be home and not going on the road anywhere," Eslinger said.

States represented

The 22 teams include wrestlers from Alabama, Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

Mizzou's last time

The last time Missouri competed in the Southern Scuffle was 2006 and the Tigers won it, edging Minnesota by 3.5 points. Their champions were the Askren brothers (Ben at 174 and Max at 197).

The Midlands

Virginia Tech was the only team competing in both the Midlands tournament in Evanston, Ill. (Thursday and Friday), sending split squads to each. The Hokies sent fourth-ranked Devin Carter (133) and 13th-ranked Pete Yates to Evanston.

"We just made the Scuffle our last date," Virginia Tech coach Kevin Dresser said.

Among Midlands competitors were Iowa, Illinois, Lehigh, Oklahoma, Maryland, Rutgers, Northwestern, Central Michigan, Penn and American University.

Penn State radio

Only one media outlet outside of Chattanooga had requested media credentials, that being the Penn State wrestling region network. Only Penn State and Cornell indicated that sports information department members were coming.

about Ward Gossett...

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 ...

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