UTC freshman Alex Ward eager for SoCon meet

photo UTC wrestler Alex Ward, a former high school wrestler for McCallie, stands in the wrestling practice room at McKenzie Arena. Ward will be wrestling for the Mocs in the Southern Conference tournament Saturday in Lexington, Va.

The goose bumps are running up and down Alex Ward's spine. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga freshman sets them off every time he thinks about the coming weekend.

He is set to wrestle in the Southern Conference tournament Saturday in Lexington, Va., the victorious survivor of a season-long, up-and-down and touch-and-go battle with fellow 133-pounder Marvin Lopez.

"He was killing me in practice all last week. My hopes of being the starter looked like they'd been flushed down the drain," said Ward, a two-time state champion and four-time state medalist for McCallie. "I think both of us were under a lot of stress, and I think it was a relief to know. It was back and forth, and there's some relief for us now that it's settled."

Each enjoyed highs and endured lows. Lopez, a former state champ from Cleveland, won the early challenge match and left Ward to sort it out.

"What is good about Alex is that he stayed the course," Mocs coach Heath Eslinger said. "He never came in and asked for a chance, never questioned our position on things, and when the opportunity presented itself he busted down the door."

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Ward did that with victories over opponents from SIU-Edwardsville and Campbell as the Mocs clinched their 27th SoCon regular-season championship.

Ward's opportunities to prove himself were limited by UTC's schedule and his religious beliefs (as a Mormon he won't participate on Sundays), but he did go to assistant coach Jon Sioredas and tell him he wanted the starting spot.

"He said prove yourself," Ward recalled. "They gave me the opportunity, and I proved myself."

He decisioned Patrick Myers of SIUE 5-3 and beat Campbell's Tanner Bidelspach 5-0 and enters the SoCon tournament with a 2-0 league record.

And with those wins and confirmation from the coaching staff, the butterflies Ward felt before his state championship bouts came with a swarm.

"My mentality going into the state [tournaments] was that I was going to win -- tough matches but take them one at a time. That's all I'm thinking about going into the conference tournament," he said.

"He's in [the lineup] because we believe he's going to be at the top of the podium Saturday night," Eslinger said. "From day one I realized he knew how to train, and when you know how to train you'll usually figure out how to win."

The statistics bear the coach out.

While official stats list Ward's collegiate record at 8-4 (it doesn't include tournaments in which he wrestled unattached), the four losses all were simple decisions, the worst by six points in the Southern Scuffle. He has since won six matches in a row and seven of his last eight, including three major decisions and a pin.

Ward wishes to make the most of his opportunity because although he's just a freshman he'll be away from the team for two years on a mission trip to Taiwan. It is a trip for which his NCAA eligibility clock stops.

"Yeah, he'll be gone for two years, but when he comes back he'll have three years plus a redshirt [season]," Eslinger said.

And both coach and freshman wrestler hope he returns as a conference champion.

The tournament begins at 10 a.m. Saturday with consolation quarterfinals immediately following the opening rounds. Championship semifinals begin at 2 p.m., consolation finals at 5:30 and the championship finals at 7.