As Monday afternoon morphed into Monday evening at McKenzie Arena, Conner Ward was working about as hard as a 141-pound college wrestler can work one day before the start of a tournament as big as the Southern Scuffle.
Moving furiously over one of the eight mats covering the facility's floor, his steps short and quick and explosive as he repeatedly moved in a tight circle, his shoes often squeaking loudly against the mat, he produced more than a few expanding sweat stains on his (Arkansas) Little Rock Wrestling practice attire.
Only thing was, there is no Little Rock wrestling team this season. Ward is a team to himself, a true freshman from Shawnee, Kansas, flying solo until the Trojans' wrestling program officially begins a year from now under coach Neil Erisman.
"My coach got me in," said Ward, who was born at Erlanger hospital and lived in Chattanooga for two years before his father Scott left the Brach/Brock candy companies for Hostess. "I can wrestle in four open events without it counting against me. This is the last one."
So why put yourself through such exhausting work and expense — Ward is on his own dime (or at least Scott's) for everything from travel to lodging to food — for what amounts to a glorified exhibition match?
"It prepares you for what the NCAA tournament will be like in the future," said Ward, who estimated he lost four pounds during his workout. "It's exciting. This is the toughest one I'll be in this year."
Those words often have been used to describe arguably the premier in-season collegiate wrestling tournament in the land since the Scuffle moved to the Scenic City eight years ago.
Sponsored by Compound Sportswear, the Scuffle gets under way this morning at McKenzie with 25 teams, including four full squads currently ranked in the NWCA/USA Today Top 25. Those four are top-ranked Penn State, No. 3 Oklahoma State, No. 19 Lock Haven and No. 23 Iowa State.
In addition to those, No. 7 N.C. State, No. 12 North Carolina, No. 14 Virginia Tech and No. 21 Lehigh will have partial representation at the Scuffle, which will also include traditional powers Stanford, Duke, Air Force, Appalachian State and Navy, as well as our own University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Mocs.
And if those outstanding teams aren't enough to pull you away from watching meaningless bowl games and eating collard greens and black-eyed peas, perhaps the four No. 1-ranked wrestlers in the field from the Nittany Lions — Jason Nolf (157), Vicenzo Joseph (165), Mark Hall (174) and Bo Nickal (197), who also are defending NCAA champs — will be.
Another starpower stat: Eleven times a match at the Scuffle was repeated later that year in the NCAA finals.
"I've been to the Midlands (tournament) 40 times," said Tim Johnson, who is known as the "Voice of Collegiate Wrestling" through his longtime radio and television work and is the father-in-law of new UTC coach Kyle Ruschell. "But I've been watching all these teams that come in for the Scuffle and thought I needed to come down and see it for myself."
So Johnson will spend a lot of time in the McKenzie stands today and tomorrow with his daughter Allie. He'll also do some early preparation for calling this year's NCAA finals for ESPN by scouting such powerhouses as Penn State, Oklahoma State and Iowa State.
In a nod to his son-in-law, Johnson also said Monday, "And I know those feisty Mocs will fight for every point."
But most of the points figure to wind up with the Nittany Lions, who have won seven of the last eight NCAA championships under coach Cael Sanderson, which means Alabama's Nick Saban is still falling short in his apparent attempt to become the Cael Sanderson of college football.
As for Ruschell, after a marvelous collegiate career at Wisconsin in which he was a two-time All-American at 149 pounds, he came to UTC in June expecting to learn under former coach Heath Eslinger. When Eslinger unexpectedly decided to chase his dream of working for Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Ruschell suddenly was n charge.
"I came here to work under Heath at least partly because I wanted to learn how to run a wrestling camp (for youth), get better as a public speaker and learn how to run a tournament such as this," he said. "I never dreamed I'd be the head coach less than two months after coming here."
Johnson, who also works for FCA, said his chief speaking advice for his son-in-law is "less is more."
He quickly added with a chuckle, "And that would apply to Heath, too."
But regarding the Scuffle — which is offering $35 two-day general admission passes, $100 hospitality passes that include two meals a day and a room with several TVs with which to keep up with the bowl games and $75 passes for two days in better seating areas — Johnson framed the best reason to visit McKenzie with a simple question:
"Why wouldn't you want to watch the best of the best in anything?" he asked. "Because that's what the Scuffle is. It's the best of the best."
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org