published Tuesday, January 1st, 2013

Baylor's Zach Watson in learning mode at University of Virginia

Baylor's Zach Watson controls James Simpson of Father Ryan in a 126-pound match during a dual meet at McCallie School.
Baylor's Zach Watson controls James Simpson of Father Ryan in a 126-pound match during a dual meet at McCallie School.
Photo by John Rawlston /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
The Southern Scuffle

Where: McKenzie Arena

Admission: $15 adults, $5 18-under

Schedule:

Tuesday

• 9 a.m. — doors open

• 10 a.m. — pigtail and round of 32

• 1:30 p.m. — pigtail & consolation first rounds

• 3:30 p.m. — Round of 16 (eight mats)

• 5:00 p.m. — consolation second round

• 6:30 p.m. — championship quarterfinals; consolation third round

Wednesday

• 9 a.m. — doors open

• 10 a.m.— consolations fourth round

• Noon — semifinals; consolation quarterfinals

• 2 p.m. — consolation Semifinals

• 6 p.m. — Medal round matches

Even with wins harder to come by now for Zach Watson, he's 10-4 as a true freshman wrestling unattached in a redshirt season for Virginia.

The four losses equal his career total at Baylor School, where he had 200 victories and five state championships.

He's in the Southern Scuffle today at McKenzie Arena.

"I am coming in as an unknown and an underdog, and I definitely want to take advantage of that," Watson said.

"He's doing great," said Cavaliers assistant coach Jordan Leen, a former national champ for Cornell and another Baylor alumnus. "That doesn't mean he's winning in the [practice] room on a regular basis. No matter how good a true freshman you are, you usually get beat on in the room."

Watson is taking more than he's giving, which is a painful but natural part of the transition from high school star to college competitor, all while turning in a 3.7 grade point average in his first college semester.

"He's dishing out beatings but he also is taking some," Leen said, remembering his own early college career. "It's to be expected. I know there were days I cried."

Watson is loving the confrontations as he works to find the balance between getting schooled while honing his skills.

"The experience is definitely greater than anything I have been a part of, especially the guys in my weight class who are in the room to drill with," Watson said. "I feel like it's better than any competition I've had, even in national tournaments. They're keeping me from bad habits."

There's no time for bad habits when one is in survival mode.

"Everyone says they hate to lose. That's part of the jargon," said Leen, whose 214 wins for Baylor are the most in TSSAA wrestling history. "There are guys who accept it as part of the process and handle it well, and those are the guys who typically don't make it at a high level. The guys who don't seem to handle it well daily but make it out to the other side are the guys who excel.

"I remember at Cornell, Troy Nickerson was ranked third in the country and he was the third best in our room," he said. "There's a weird dynamic where when you're having to fight for your life every day six days a week for six months, and adapting to that level of consistent training is something I have never seen anyone do with ease. Even a guy like Zach, who's going to be great, takes his lumps often, and he's constantly fighting for his life. He's coming home looking like he got beat up in a street fight. It's an odd rite of passage."

There are post-practice days when Watson wishes he had a scooter rather than a bike because his heart and mind have to overrule his bone-weary body, but he has accepted that as one of the development rituals.

"The mindset is in focusing on doing specific things," Watson said. "It's more like I'm going hard the whole time [in practice]. I'm not as reserved, but it's a whole new atmosphere. There's no target. I'm more of an underdog and I'm enjoying that role."

Leen has watched Watson's ups and downs and admitted that he feels for the rookie.

"He cares at a level that few guys ever really care," Leen said. "You can tell in practice when a guy short-circuits or panics, and oddly enough it's those guys that end up being the best. Some guys that handle it better early just get a little more adjusted to losing. Zach hasn't."

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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