Tonight is the last 2011 chance to see the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga wrestling team at home.
The Mocs (2-2) will wrestle Ohio University at 6 p.m. at Maclellan Gym. They won't be back at home until the 24-team Southern Scuffle at McKenzie Arena Jan. 1-2.
When they take the floor tonight four seniors will be at their core, three active participants and a fourth, injured Demetrius "Bucky" Johnson, on the bench as both cheerleader and coach.
"I might not have signed these kids but they're all mine," UTC coach Heath Eslinger said.
In addition to Johnson, who's looking at Jan. 12 knee surgery, Eslinger and his staff have become quite close to Kelly Felix (149), Dan Waddell (157) and Brandon Wright (165). Each has graduated or is on track to graduate in May. With one degree in hand, Johnson is working on a double major and Waddell has begun work on his MBA.
"They all bought into the little things -- being selfless and being the right kind of person when no one is looking," Eslinger said.
Unlike his fellow seniors, Felix was forced to bide his time and the Franklin, Tenn., resident finally blossomed and in do so wrested a starting job from former conference champion Dean Pavlou.
"Not sticking with it never crossed my mind. It wasn't an option," he said.
Felix put in extra work over the summer when others were not and then he beat Pavlou at the Hokie Open.
"He finally realized if he changed his mentality he could have a significant impact. Mindset was the biggest change. He approached practice differently, but the change has been academically, the way he trains and the way he competes. He just flat beat out a conference champion," Eslinger said.
It's a different lifestyle for UTC wrestlers than perhaps elsewhere because of the staff philosophy to develop the student as a person and not just as a wrestler.
Wright found out the hard way. He ran afoul of some team guidelines and Eslinger suspended him from the Southern Conference championships along with a teammate. The two suspensions likely cost the Mocs the tournament title.
"I hated his guts," Wright said. "At the time he said he didn't care that I was going to hate his guts because he knew it was the best thing for me. I realize if he had let me wrestle that it wouldn't have been the right thing to do. Winning is important to him, but us growing as people is more important and now I love him for it. It was a maturing time for me, but it also set a standard for the team."
Eslinger has been delighted with Wright since that decision.
"When he comes to a crossroads a kid has two decisions. They can either go with you or go against you and Brandon has been an absolute delight last year and this," the coach said.
The four are truly the core of the team and Eslinger, near the end of his first year as Chris Bono's replacement, called in Waddell and laid out his plans.
"I told him he was the guy that could change this program. If he would buy into everything I was selling that he could move us in the right direction," Eslinger recalled. "I was very hard on him, but every aspect of his life has moved in a different direction. I don't think he is seeing the results yet that he wants to see, but these guys are mature enough to know it doesn't happen overnight."
Waddell was a model student and thought he was a do-it-right guy in wrestling. Eslinger convinced him that wrestling is a lifestyle, and it isn't for everybody.
"I obviously haven't achieved my goals, but I think our senior class has learned a lot. Our group has come together, and it's better than it was my first few years here. I feel I'm on the right track," he said. "Wrestling has kept me in line and kept my life moving in the right direction. It gets hard and it gets to where you don't want to do it, but that's one of the best things you can get from wrestling -- learning to do something you don't always want to do. That's probably the thing that will benefit me most in the future -- that and dealing with adversity."
Felix said aloud what each of the others said in similar ways.
"I didn't make a mistake coming home. My only wish is that I was a little younger and could have had my whole career under Coach Eslinger, Coach [Rocco] Mansueto, Coach [Mike] Hatcher and Coach [Patrick Bond]. These guys bring the attitude that it's all about us and the team. It's different when you have a coach that's still competing. These guys give you the direction to stay on the right path, and I couldn't have asked for a better bunch of coaches or teammates to be around."
Added Johnson, "My experience was rocky, but it was a learning experience and molded me into the person I am. I have guys that I would call brothers and will stay in contact with for life. I love it here. The wrestling community is tight. I hope [the Mocs] continue to gain success."