After knocking off the nation's No. 1 wrestler in his 133-pound weight class on Friday night, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga junior wrestler Nick Soto had every reason to celebrate his individual win over Stanford's Ryan Mango.
But at the end of a four-and-a-half hour bus ride from Palo Alto, Calif., to Reno, Nev., on Saturday afternoon, Soto was much more excited to talk about the Mocs' equally impressive 23-15 victory over the No. 15 Cardinal.
"[My match] was really just like any other match," Soto said over the phone as he attempted to get some rest before the start of today's Reno Tournament of Champions individual tourney.
"But for our team, that was huge. Just very exciting. The whole dual was fun."
Though longtime UTC historians may know otherwise, those currently involved with the program believe Soto's win was the first ever for an individual Moc over a top-ranked foe.
As for the team, after letting a similar upset opportunity slip away last weekend at Purdue, UTC coach Heath Eslinger was more than a little bit proud to see his team finish the drill against Stanford.
"Friday night great," he said. "[But] I'm not any more proud of my team than I was after [the loss to Purdue]. It just feels better getting the win. For our school, I think it's kind of like the Lady Mocs beating the Lady Vols in basketball last season. It's definitely a big win."
What could have felt awkward after that win was both the Cardinal and Mocs riding the same bus to Reno as a way to curb expenses.
"We're adults," Eslinger said. "We're not 8-year-old kids playing kickball on the playground. It wasn't awkward at all. In fact, I sat with their coach [Jason Borrelli] the whole time and talked about ways to make our sport better."
Soto concurred, adding, "It was fine. They sat in the back of the bus, and we sat in the front. I actually slept most of the way."
Yet Eslinger, who had made a similar journey to Reno three years ago with the Cardinal after losing to Stanford, did admit this ride was at least a little better than the last one.
"It's a little more enjoyable when you win," the coach said.
The Mocs (6-4) aren't winning only because of Soto, of course. Junior Corey Mock, ranked No. 4 in the nation at 165, fought off an intestinal bug well enough to improve to 13-0 on the season after outlasting Jim Wilson, who entered the match ranked 14th nationally. Junior Levi Clemons (174) recorded his third pin of the season against Stanford. Michael Pongracz (141), Shaun Greevy (149), Alex Hudson (157) and John Lampe (184) also posted wins.
And regardless of what happens in Reno before the team arrives home Monday night to begin a brief Christmas break, UTC figures to head into the prestigious Southern Scuffle it hosts with more than a little momentum, if not a national ranking.
Asked if his Mocs deserved to be ranked, Eslinger replied, "'Deserved' is a word that stretches a lot of boundaries. We've had two close losses to ranked teams we could have won. Now we've won one. But we earned this one."
No one more than Soto, the Florida native who rose to the top 10 as a freshman while wrestling at 133, but dropped to 125 a year ago despite wrestling at 135 in high school.
"It was a pretty big cut," he said of that drop. "I feel like I'm back to eating more normal, being a little healthier at 133."
That's not to say he's seen no benefits from his year of hunger at 125.
"It definitely made me faster," Soto said.
Because some athletes feel the need to Tweet or text every time they sneeze or stop at a red light, a sports writer wondered how many many texts and phone messages Soto had received since toppling No. 1.
"I don't know," he said, "I kind of keep my phone on airplane mode."
Soto did have one observation about the people he'd encountered since arriving in California last Wednesday.
"Almost immediately," he said, "I realized that the people of California didn't have the same Southern hospitality I'm used to in Tennessee."
But Soto firmly believes the Mocs should be ranked after Friday's big victories from himself and his teammates.
"If it's about hard work and doing things the right way, everyone being in this together," Soto said, "then we should be ranked."
If it was about those traits only, Eslinger's gang has deserved to be ranked for quite some time.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...
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