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Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / UTC's Fabian Gutierrez, top, wrestles West Virginia's Colton Drousias in a 125-pound match during the second round of the Southern Scuffle on Jan. 1 at McKenzie Arena. Gutierrez won by pin and went on to finish sixth the following day in the two-day tournament.

Fabian Gutierrez enjoyed a lot of success in sports growing up. He was a state champion wrestler at Adams City High School in Commerce City, Colorado, as well as a three-time East Metro Athletic Conference champion in the sport. He was also an all-conference selection in football.

There was one sport, though, that wasn't quite for him: diving.

"There was one time they made us wear a long-sleeve T-shirt, trying to get us to do a backflip one and a half, and the T-shirt was supposed to help with the contact of the water," Gutierrez said recently. "About 40 tries, and I still iron-crossed it the whole time. The shirt did me no justice, so I (participated in diving) my freshman year and I was done."

Gutierrez did settle in as a wrestler, with this the 125-pounder's fifth and final season competing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where he has posted 61 career wins. He redshirted in 2016-17, and after graduating last spring with a degree in sport management, he returned for UTC's 2021-22 campaign via the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Mocs (3-5) will compete Friday and Saturday in the Virginia Duals, hoping to continue to build on some solid performances at the Southern Scuffle on Jan. 1-2 at UTC's McKenzie Arena. UTC finished 12th out of 29 teams in the prestigious tournament, with the 125-pound Gutierrez having to settle for a sixth-place finish after an injury forced him to default in his final match. Sophomore teammate Brayden Palmer shook off a first-round loss to finish third at 133 pounds.

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UTC wrestler Fabian Gutierrez

As the only senior on the roster, Gutierrez is the only member of the team to compete under both previous head coach Heath Eslinger and current coach Kyle Ruschell, who took over in the summer of 2018 after a short stint as an assistant. The coaching change could have been frustrating, but it's something that Gutierrez has adjusted to.

"We've had different systems, different coaches come in and come out, but I think it's more about trusting in yourself and trusting in the coaches that are coming in," Gutierrez said. "They don't want to bring in somebody that's not going to be helpful; they want to bring in somebody that's going to make an impact on the team, and I think when Eslinger left and Kyle came in, I just trusted that it was going to be for the better.

"Things happen in life, and you have to be ready for those things."

It seems Gutierrez has been. In fact, his success under Ruschell has allowed the coach to raise the expectations for his standout senior — because Gutierrez has reached the Southern Conference finals, has been to the NCAA tournament.

"Fabian isn't coming here just to wrestle. He's coming here to win and be an All-American now," Ruschell said after the Scuffle. "He understands what it's going to be like; it's going to be hard, and so we've got to get opportunities and we've got to take advantage of them.

"He was a little banged up (prior to his final match), but you never know what the SoCon tournament, what nationals are going to be like — you might have to wrestle through an injury."

Gutierrez has been a part of two UTC wrestling teams that have earned a share of the SoCon regular-season title with their performance in duals, but each of those teams finished second in the conference tournament. His individual success matters, of course — he's shooting for being the program's first All-American since Cody Cleveland in 2008 — but he wants the Mocs to take that next step to return to the form that allowed the program to win 10 of 11 SoCon team titles from 2005-2015, including five consecutive.

The program has won 29 team titles in all, the most in SoCon history. They opened their SoCon schedule for this season with an 18-16 win at Davidson back in mid-November, and after the Virginia Duals it's a steady run of league opponents in late January and most of February before tournament time in March.

"I think we have to get everyone to buy in," Gutierrez said. "I'm not saying that everyone isn't bought in, but there are times when not everybody is focused, not everybody is working as hard as they should be. Your top-tier teams every day go in, put the hard work in and leave.

"It's about putting the work in the room, doing extra stuff outside — whether that would be like pushups, situps, or even just community service helping around the city."

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3.

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