As the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga bus rolled toward Lexington, Va., on Sunday afternoon Heath Eslinger was busy calling possible recruits to congratulate them on showings in their respective state tournaments.
He had already given thought to the wrestling Mocs' challenge tonight at Virginia Military Academy, but the challenge is directed inward more than outward.
The Mocs, 11-6 overall and 4-1 in the Southern Conference, have eight straight wins against the Keydets, the last loss (26-12) coming in 2003 in Chattanooga. In addition, VMI is 5-10 overall, 2-3 in conference meets with losses to Campbell, Appalachian and the Citadel and is expected to give the Mocs a forfeit at 125 pounds.
"The challenge for us is to continue to be excited about what lies ahead as far as the postseason," Eslinger said.
This is UTC's final competition before the Southern Conference tournament, which will be a one-day affair at McKenzie Arena on Saturday, March 3.
"These guys have this one last seven-minute match against live competition to prepare," Eslinger said.
The Mocs could use a win. After running off eight consecutive wins they have lost three straight - to Appalachian State, Wyoming and Boise State.
Eslinger shouldered the blame for the lopsided loss to 10th-ranked Wyoming and an unexpected loss Boise State at the national duals regional in Stillwater, Okla., saying the team was worn physically and mentally, and the team has been backing off on the practice schedule since eight days ago.
"There's no shoot-around in wrestling. The way you get better in wrestling is to fight each other. It does wear on your body and sometimes you have to pull back. We pulled back and hopefully it will show in their performance," Eslinger said. "I think we will wrestle hard, get our legs back under us and get some momentum headed into the conference tournament."
UTC is expected to go with the lineup it has used most of the year with the exception of 197 pounds and possibly 149. Manny Ramirez will weigh in at 125 followed by Nick Soto (133), Shawn Greevy (141), Dan Waddell (157), Brandon Wright (165), Levi Clemons (174), Robert Prigmore (184) and Kevin Malone (285).
The coach was undecided about who would wrestle at 149 where a challenge battle has raged all year between Kelly Felix, who has held the position most of the year, and Dean Pavlou, the defending conference champion. He also said that Niko Brown would weigh in at 197 pounds but that he wouldn't take any chances of the junior from Kissimmee, Fla. reinjuring his knee. If Brown does not wrestle his spot in the lineup would be filled by true freshman Cory Canada.
The major challenge facing a Moc could be at 174 pounds where VMI's Matthew Brock (174) has been ranked nationally most of the season. Also, Malone's opponent may be a match-time decision with VMI choosing one of two sophomores - Juan Adams or Andrew Embree. Adams is 2-3 overall and 2-1 in the league while Embree is 18-14 and 1-1.
The meet is scheduled to begin at 7:30.