Losing by 22 points a week ago and giving only a mediocre performance at the Hokie Open two days later has left the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's wrestling Mocs fighting backs-to-the-wall pressure a week into the season.
The Mocs have one eye on the NCAA tournament in March but need to enhance individual performances when they open Southern Conference competition against Gardner-Webb at 6 tonight at Maclellan Gym.
In their season-opening dual-meet loss to Old Dominion last Friday, the Mocs lost three matches by a point and got pinned in another when they had the lead.
"We have to win close matches. That's college wrestling," UTC coach Heath Eslinger said. "If we wrestle [Old Dominion] 10 times, I think we win five. They won the close matches. It caused us to be very urgent in certain areas."
That was the focus of his comments on the bus trip the following day on the way to the Hokie Open in Virginia, and the Mocs avenged some of those one-point losses to ODU.
Freshmen Nick Soto and Kevin Malone were UTC's only place-winners, Soto placing third at 133 pounds and Malone fifth at 285. They led the team with five and four wins, and both were among those to even the score against ODU wrestlers at the Hokie Open.
"Soto is the real deal, a winner and a risk-taker, and he wants to get better. He's 100 percent wrestler," Eslinger said. "And Malone is getting better every match. He's learning to win matches at that weight class, which is different than any other. I was excited when we signed him and I'm more excited after seeing him in action. I think he can accomplish some very big things at the national level."
Of the 10 Mocs expected to wrestle tonight, eight have records of .500 or better after the first week of competition.
"The question isn't where they are now but where they want to go," Eslinger said.
UTC's lineup will have Bucky Johnson or Cole Hayes at 125, Soto at 133, Shawn Greevy at 141, Dean Pavlou or Kelly Felix at 149, Dan Waddell at 157, Brandon Wright at 165, Josh Condon or Levi Clemons at 174, Robert Prigmore at 184, Niko Brown at 197 and Malone at heavyweight.
The Runnin' Bulldogs, first-year Southern Conference wrestling members, are expected to counter with Michael Slaughter (125), Robbie Golde (133), Davante Andujar (141), Ryan Medved (149), Alex Medved (157), Justin Guthrie (165), Aaron Rabin (174), Eric O'Dell and Julian Ming (184 and 197) and Justin Kozera at 285.
"It's the first conference match and it's important for seeding purposes," Eslinger said.