Wrestling sharpens strategy, mental toughness for NCAA championships
Take it one match at a time, one win at a time.
All five of the Central Michigan qualifiers said they would approach the NCAA Wrestling Championships on Thursday the same way: Do what it takes to win, again and again.
"We look at this no different from any other tournament," said sophomore Lucas Smith. "You have to go out there, take it one at a time and advance in the tournament. Winning is all that really matters now."
Sophomore Zach Horan is the highest-seeded Chippewa, ranked seventh at 141 pounds. Junior Mike Ottinger (174 pounds) is seeded 10th, Smith (157) and senior Joe Roth (133) are both seeded 12th. Redshirt freshman Corey Keener is unseeded at 125 pounds.
The Chippewas have had 11 days to prepare their bodies for the tournament. Head coach Tom Borrelli said the main focus of their training has been to tighten weaknesses in technique and get mentally prepared for the rigors of five to eight matches over three days.
"You won't get too much better in a weeks time, but I did a lot of mental training," Roth said. "Borrelli did a lot to get me thinking the right way. Honing the mental side was a big thing this last week."
Each of the wrestlers was able to take the valuable time to refine the fundamentals of their game and situational awareness.
Horan said he was able to look at his matches from the Mid-American Conference championship and get his "playbook" determined.
"I don't want to hang back in my matches, my strength is coming out and getting a lead," Horan said. "I'm really hard to score on, so I need to go out, get a takedown and force him to come back on me."
Horan said his first round, opening against Cornell's Michael Nevinger, will be a good early test. Nevinger took fifth at the NCAA championships last season and achieved All-American honors the previous year at the tournament.
This is Horan's first NCAA championship appearance. A win against Nevinger would either place Horan against Daniel Neff of Lock Haven or Todd Preston of Harvard.
"I've been getting ready for this my whole life," Horan said. "Now the goal is to get on the podium (to) get my first All-American (honor)."
Roth said he focused on set-ups to his already skillful shots. He has made his career on high-percentage shots based in deception and keeping his opponents off-balance with high-crotch double legs, and quick shots after establishing hand control on his feet.
"I'm good on my feet and being able to get to my set-ups and put combinations together," Roth said. "(This is) so I can get to my takedowns against anybody in the country."
Roth will start against Kevin Devoy (19-8) of Drexel in his opening bout.
For Keener, he was able to use this week to get on top of his weight. Keener has struggled in the last few weeks with cutting weight, noticeably affecting his wrestling.
"At MAC championships, I was able to go out and wrestle a full seven minutes hard," Keener said. "I want to be able to do the same thing at nationals. My weight was a big part of getting prepped."
Keener will face Brandon Jeske (19-13) of Old Dominion in the first round. He has met Jeske on the mat twice this season, losing both times by decision, most recently at the MAC Championships, 7-1.
Ottinger (25-5) will open against either Brian Harvey (28-10) of Army or Joe Latham (27-14) of Oregon State, who have to wrestle-off to advance. This is his third appearance in the tournament – Ottinger was eliminated in the first day in his previous appearances.
Ottinger has had a dominant season, ranked in the top 10 in his weight class for much of the season and amassing a 25-5 record.
"I think if I had the tournament of my life, I could be the national champion," Ottinger said. "Anything less than the top 8 and I'd be pretty disappointed."
Smith will open his tournament against Tristan Warner (19-11) of Old Dominion. Warner defeated Smith 6-2 when their teams met in a dual, Feb. 2.
While the Chippewas have had holes in their roster, individually they have been strong all season. Borrelli favored no athletes to come out on top, coyly saying the person who is the strongest mentally and imposes his will on his opponent will do the best.
"When I'm wrestling well and doing the right things, I'm pretty hard to beat," Roth said with a smile.