Riding a seven-meet win streak feels pretty good, but the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga wrestling team got a boost Tuesday with the much anticipated news that Manny Ramirez had been ruled eligible by the NCAA.
The 125-pounder, a transfer from UNC Greensboro, is expected to be in the lineup Sunday when the Mocs wrestle at The Citadel, a much improved team that lost 21-19 to Southern Conference co-leader Appalachian State.
"It feels good to be back. Back in December I pretty much thought my wrestling days were over," Ramirez said. "I was going to graduate and get my career going, but after that phone call I felt it was something that was meant to be and I that I couldn't pass up the offer."
That phone call came from UTC coach Heath Eslinger after he learned that Mocs senior Demetrius "Bucky" Johnson was through for the year, felled by a second knee injury.
"Here's a guy that had a semester of wrestling left and he brings maturity to the weight class, something we had with Demetrius and something we were lacking," Eslinger said. "That's not a knock on our two young guys, but Manny is a defending conference champion."
Ramirez won the 2011 conference tournament in the Spartans' final year with a wrestling program.
"I thought it might be weird coming here," he said of the rivalry between the two programs, "but the guys here have welcomed me with open arms. The guys are awesome, and for me it's a chance to be part of a winning team."
While Ramirez doesn't yet have an official record with the Mocs, he has been in the wrestling room since Christmas while waiting on official transfer approval from the NCAA. He competed in an open tournament at Cumberland University and won it, going 4-0.
"I saw where I needed to sharpen some things to get back to where I was. It felt good to get into the swing of competition again and to get my confidence back," he said.
Ramirez also has had success in international wrestling, having finished seventh and fifth in the Pan-American Games and third in Canada Cup competition.
"He definitely has potential," Johnson said. "He has athleticism and talent and he's a real good practice partner for [14th-ranked 133-pound] Nick Soto to have. Now that we're in the second half of the season, they'll be good for each other."
Blake Thomas and Cole Gallagher have struggled as true freshmen as they tried to adapt to the lifestyle of college and collegiate wrestling. They have a combined record of 7-20.
"With props to Blake and Cole, they're kind of small 125-pounders right now," Johnson said. "Manny's small, too, but he has been through college wrestling. He isn't at his peak, but I think the guys will help him get there."
With the injury last week at Davidson that may sideline 197-pound Niko Brown for a week or so, the addition of Ramirez has become doubly important.
"I think we have such a mature team that we're OK with whatever cards we are dealt," Eslinger said. "With Bucky out and not a whole lot of experience, adding Manny fills a huge hole -- meets a need at the right time -- and I feel we're doing it with the right person. He's a guy who's full of life and a guy who identifies with our goals."