The competition moved within striking distance at the Southern Conference wrestling tournament in Asheville, N.C.
The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga had taken some unexpected hits in the semifinals, allowing competitors to make up some distance. However, the Mocs responded in a fashion that delighted the coaching staff, winning 18 of 20 consolation matches on the way to their fifth straight league championship.
"Total team effort," coach Heath Eslinger said. "Sporting events don't always go the way you'd want and the semis didn't go as well as we had hoped, but our kids responded in the right way and nine of the guys placed third or better."
The moment the championship trophy had been handed over, though, the mindset shifted from team goals to those of each individual. The NCAA tournament begins Thursday at St. Louis' Scottrade Center, which will attract more than 20,000 spectators for each of the six sessions spread over three days.
The team title takes a back seat. There are 80 coveted medals, designating All-America status, and UTC has seven shots.
The most likely candidates are Sean Boyle (125 pounds), Nick Soto (133) and heavyweight Jared Johnson, and the Mocs also left Asheville with Sean Mappes (174) and Shawn Greevy (149) as NCAA qualifiers. Two others, Mike Pongracz (141) and Scottie Boykin (197), were awarded at-large berths last week after all qualifying tournaments had been completed.
"It's huge. We emphasize that every match is important, and (their selection) is another reason we wrestle a hard schedule," Eslinger said. "I Don't like the word 'deserved.' I think both earned the opportunity to go and compete."
There were 71 total at-large berths, which are granted based on quality wins, competition level, coaches' votes and a performance index.
Boyle was a first-time SoCon champion but a three-time NCAA qualifier after having made it twice before transferring from Michigan. He was accorded a No. 5 seed.
Soto, also a senior, completed his four-year tour through the Southern Conference without a loss and has climbed to a fourth-place tie with Charlie Heard (1982-84) on the Mocs' all-time wins list (113).
Johnson, a sophomore in his first year at heavyweight, has matured this season.
"He's beaten tons of good guys and probably has the best record of any heavyweight to come through here in a long time. The only thing we need to do with Jared is put a little more weight on him," Eslinger said.
The other senior is Greevy, who has persevered through numerous knee injuries for his first NCAA tournament qualification. His opening opponent is from the same Pennsylvania district where he competed as a high school wrestler.
"You look at the bracket and it's rare you'll say somebody has an easy draw," Eslinger said.
Boyle, at No. 5, is the highest seed a UTC wrestler has had since Matt Keller (No. 4), who was an All-American in 2006 and again in 2007.
"I thought somewhere between a fifth and an eighth. There's a seeding committee, so it's up for debate," Eslinger said. "Soto got seeded and he got a good first-round match, and on the right weekend he can do as much damage as anyone is the U.S. of A. He's wrestling well right now, so we just need to stay out of his way."
The Mocs staff will review potential opponents.
"Obviously we've seen a lot of them at the (Southern) Scuffle, the Navy Classic and the Virginia Duals. We'll make sure there are no surprises," the coach said.
The Mocs will leave Tuesday, Eslinger opting to take a pair of vans rather than flying.
"It's really an easy drive, a little more than six hours, and we can probably get there quicker driving than we could by flying," he said.
UTC will work out at home Tuesday morning and then work out again that night just outside St. Louis. The Mocs will work out twice Wednesday with at least one of those sessions taking place at the venue.
Contact Ward Gossett at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-886-4765. Follow him at Twitter.com/wardgossett.
Senior, 125 pounds
Seeded: No. 5
NCAA qualification: third (two at Michigan); Southern Conference champion
Big wins: 3-1 over No. 5 Thomas Gilman (Iowa); is 5-4 against opponents ranked in top 20
Big losses: Pinned by No.5 Joey Dance (Virginia Tech), No. 20 Brandon Jeske (Old Dominion)
First opponent: Scott Parker, Lehigh (18-9), a freshman; one of 71 at-large selections; finished fourth in EIWA tournament with losses to Nahshon Garrett (Cornell, 12-5) and Paul Pretrov (Bucknell, 5-3)
Senior, 133 pounds
Seeded: No. 15
NCAA qualification: fourth; SoCon champion
Big wins: 2-1 over No. 18 Kevin Norstrem (Virginia Tech); 11-10 over Daniel DeShazer (Nebraska-Kearney), the top-ranked wrestler in Division II
Big losses: Most recently, a major decision to Oklahoma's No. 4 Cody Brewer and a pin by No. 6 Cory Clark of Iowa
First opponent: Mark Gray, Cornell (17-10), a sophomore; 2013-14 All-American; now a two-time NCAA qualifier; went 2-2 at the Southern Scuffle, losing to then ranked opponents Mason Beckman of Lehigh and McKenzie McGuire (Kent State)
Sophomore, 141 pounds
NCAA qualification: first; SoCon runner-up (at-large invitation)
Big win: 3-1 over North Carolina State's Kevin Jack
Big losses: To seven ranked opponents, most recently Iowa's sixth-ranked Josh Dziewa, 4-2
First opponent: No. 12 seed Joey Ward, North Carolina (27-6), a redshirt sophomore; NCAA qualifier at 133 last year; ACC runner-up after losing by major decision to Virginia Tech's Devin Carter; fifth at Southern Scuffle with losses to then ranked Lavion Mayes of Missouri and Anthony Abidin of Nebraska
Senior, 149 pounds
NCAA qualification: first; SoCon third (automatic invitation)
Big wins: Pinned No. 18 Michael DePalma (Kent State); major decision over Karsten Van Velsor (SIUE) to gain NCAA berth
Big losses: Has lost to five of six ranked opponents, including No. 3 David Habat (Edinboro) by major decision
First opponent: No. 12 seed Zack Beitz, Penn State (18-9), a redshirt sophomore; first trip to NCAA tournament; fifth in Big Ten tournament; finished fourth at Southern Scuffle
Sophomore, 174 pounds
NCAA qualification: first; SoCon champion
Big win: 6-5 over Appalachian's Forrest Przybysz for SoCon title
Big losses: Has lost to five ranked opponents, including 5-3 to No. 16 Caleb Marsh (Kent State) and pinned by No. 3 Michael Evans (Iowa)
First opponent: No. 7 seed Zach Epperly, Virginia Tech (25-6), a redshirt freshman; first NCAA tournament; finished third in ACC tournament
Sophomore, 197 pounds
NCAA qualification: first; SoCon third (at-large invitation)
Big win: 6-4 over No. 8 Braden Atwood (Purdue)
Big losses: 2-0 to No. 5 Conner Hartman (Duke); 7-4 to No. 6 Nathan Burak (Iowa); 5-4 to SIUE's Jake Tindle in SoCon opener
First opponent: No. 1 seed J'Den Cox, Missouri (33-0), a sophomore; defending national champion; Southern Scuffle champion
Sophomore, 285 pounds
NCAA qualification: first; SoCon runner-up (automatic invitation)
Big wins: 2-0 over No. 18 Jacob Henderson (Old Dominion); 12-11 over No. 11 Ross Larson (Oklahoma)
Big losses: 4-2 to No. 11 Denzel Dejournette (Appalachian); pin by No. 4 Bobby Telford (Iowa)
First opponent: No. 4 Austin Marsden, Oklahoma State (26-2), a junior; now a three-time NCAA qualifier; returning All-American; Southern Scuffle champion