It isn't a question of whether Nick Soto is excited about today's wrestling events at Maclellan Gym but how eager the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga sophomore is.
UTC will have more ranked wrestlers in Maclellan Gym than it has had since the Southern Open days of the early 1970s when Mocs Hall of Famer Turner Jackson began his collegiate career against Iowa legend Dan Gable.
Soto, No. 12 at 125 pounds with a 9-2 record, is among those nationally ranked competitors. Most of the ranked wrestlers, though, belong to Iowa and Virginia, including the Hawkeyes' 125-pound Matt McDonough and the Cavaliers' 125-pound Matt Snyder.
A three-time NCAA finalist and two-time champion, McDonough begins the season ranked No. 1 and on a 28-match win streak. The eighth-ranked Snyder, a senior, defeated Soto 6-1 two weeks ago.
"The whole team is excited, including me," said Soto, who with 197-pound teammate Niko Brown have been back-to-back Southern Conference wrestlers of the week. "It's exciting because the level of competition is higher. It's an awesome opportunity, but I don't think any of us are changing the way we train because of [today's] competition."
Iowa, which is to collegiate wrestling what the New York Yankees are to professional baseball, has seven top-20 wrestlers among its starting 10, while Virginia, which beat the Mocs two weeks ago, has six.
"It's like Alabama coming to Finley Stadium or Kentucky to Mc- Kenzie Arena," Mocs coach Heath Eslinger said.
"I don't want to paint our program as the only way to get to the top," said Terry Brands, the former UTC coach who is Iowa's associate head coach. "To me it was probably the best philosophy for me, and it is for the guys we recruit. We're just a bunch of normal people that are reaching out and training and believing at a level that will help us become extraordinary."
Since 1974, Iowa has won 23 of 38 national titles, the Hawkeyes' overall dual meet win percentage over 102 seasons is .797 and the school has captured 79 individual championships and 297 All-America plaques. They also possess a season-opener record of 55-0 since 1957-58.
"They have earned a lot of respect, but that doesn't mean you concede anything," Eslinger said. "It's great for the wrestling community to have teams like these coming here, but we're pretty darn proud of our team as well. We didn't bring them here just to watch them wrestle. We brought them here to compete against them."
While the Mocs have begun hosting top-20 teams annually, it is likely that they have never had two ranked teams at Maclellan on the same day.
Virginia and Cumberland begin the competition at 2 p.m., and the Iowa-UTC meet at 7 will be the evening's final event. Admission is $5 per person.
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 ...