The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga won the Southern Conference wrestling tournament Saturday at Lexington, Va., with four individual champions.
"It was a great team performance ," the Mocs' Heath Eslinger said after being named the league's coach of the year, noting that eight of his wrestlers reached championship finals.
The Mocs now have won 27 SoCon tournament championships since joining the league in 1978, including the last three. UNC Greensboro in 2010 was the last team other than UTC to win.
The Mocs actually wound up with five certain NCAA qualifiers. Two-time champions Nick Soto (125) and Josh Condon (165) were joined by Alex Hudson (149) and Niko Brown (197) with titles, and 141-pound runner-up Dean Pavlou received an automatic NCAA bid because the conference was awarded extra berths at 125, 141 and 165 pounds based on season showings and the NCAA's power poll for each weight class.
"Dean had a chance to win. We keep getting closer and closer," Eslinger said.
Soto, Brown and Condon will be making their second trips to the NCAA tournament (March 21-23 at Des Moines, Iowa) and Pavlou his third.
Heavyweight runner-up Kevin Malone is another possibility for an at-large bid.
"I think Kevin has a chance to get in, but we won't know until Tuesday evening some time," Eslinger said. "He wrestled great. We were in the match to win it with 10 seconds left."
The Mocs came close to automatically qualifying at least seven for the NCAA tournament. John Lampe (174) and Robert Prigmore (184) lost their matches by a single point.
"You feel so bad for Lampe and Prigmore because each wrestled so well," Eslinger said. "They didn't leave anything out there. This is a great group of guys, and we don't leave a whole lot on the table.
"If you had asked me a month ago about the five guys that would make it, I would have said those five, but I'm so hurt for Prig and Lampe."
The Mocs also had five national qualifiers last season. If Malone receives an at-large bid, it would equal the highest number an Eslinger-coached team has had. UTC qualified six in his second year (2011).
"I'm proud of the team, but as a coach you're never satisfied," he said.