Just moments after his opponent’s hand was raised in the Southern Conference wrestling semifinals, Levi Clemons paused to shake the hand of opposing coach Joe Boardwine of Campbell University.
He then streaked off the McKenzie Arena floor, embarrassment and disgust battling to control his mindset after he was pinned by the Fighting Camels’ James Cook. Clemons had defeated Cook earlier in the season as part of a 17-13 record leading to a No. 2 seed in the conference tournament.
“There was a lot of disappointment. It was actually shock,” Clemons said. “I didn’t know how to think about it, and I didn’t want to express my emotions in front of everybody.”
He rebounded, though, to finish third, pinning Carter Downs of Appalachian State and pulling out a 9-7 overtime win over VMI’s Matt Brock in the consolation finals.
And Clemons was added Thursday to the 174-pound field for the NCAA Division I tournament, increasing the Mocs’ contingent to five.
“It rarely happens that a third-placer in the Southern Conference tournament moves on. I’m pumped. As soon as coach told me, I was ecstatic,” Clemons said. “I had taken some mental time off and had begun to eat some things I might not have eaten otherwise, like doughnuts for breakfast and chicken wings at night.”
The sophomore will join UTC seniors Dan Waddell (157) and Brandon Wright (165), junior Dean Pavlou (149) and freshman Nick Soto at the tournament next Thursday through Saturday in St. Louis.
The Mocs had hoped for at least one at-large bid when the NCAA announced wild cards Wednesday, and the coaching staff believed one could go to Manny Ramirez (125), Clemons or Kevin Malone (285).
Ramirez, who lost in the SoCon final Saturday, was a transfer from UNC Greensboro who didn’t gain eligibility until January and apparently didn’t have the record (5-2). Malone, who entered the SoCon tournament with a 24-16 record, finished second in his weight class and didn’t have enough quality wins — victories over ranked opponents — to be considered.
“I wasn’t disappointed. They said you have to win conference to go, so I’m not going to blame anyone else,” Mocs coach Heath Eslinger said. “The best way to get what you want is to take care of it yourself. I have to say I was hurt for Manny because he made a big sacrifice to come here.”
In the latest rankings, Clemons was one wrestler away from making the NCAA field, and his inclusion came only after it was confirmed that eighth-seeded Christopher Spangler of Iowa State was not going to be able to compete. He was injured in the Big 12 tournament.
“It’s a huge opportunity for Levi,” Eslinger said. “He’s very dangerous. He has the ability to win a lot of matches. We really want to redshirt him next year, and it’s important for him to taste and get a picture of what he’s aiming for.
“If he doesn’t finish third [at the SoCon], he isn’t going. He figured out he had to change gears, and it’s hard coming back when you think your season’s over, but he’s going to have to change gears again because it’s a whole new ballgame.”
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 ...