published Thursday, January 3rd, 2013

Scuffle draws fans: Event at UTC sets attendance record

Fans cheer during the Southern Scuffle wrestling tournament finals.
Fans cheer during the Southern Scuffle wrestling tournament finals.
Photo by Allison Love /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

The Southern Scuffle set an attendance record for the second straight day, drawing 2,856 fans.

The lower section, minus the end zone seats on either end, was full of wrestling fans Wednesday night, giving the tournament a record two-day total of 5,399. Last year's tournament drew a total of 4,373.

"We broke the attendance mark sometime this morning," said Matt Pope, senior associate athletic director for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Pope wasn't busting buttons with pride, but he was extremely happy with the Mocs' decision to take over the tournament after the 2011 season when former host UNC Greensboro dropped its wrestling program. He was no happier than Mocs coach Heath Eslinger.

"This tells me we can grow this into the best event in the country," he said.

The Scuffle, which attracts at least half of the nation's top 10 teams annually, is now the biggest sports attraction offered in Chattanooga. The city has, in recent years, lost the NCAA's FCS championship game and has also surrendered all TSSAA state tournament events to other cities.

More than 100 volunteers, over half of them local and area coaches and referees, helped make the tournament a success.

"You can't put on an event of this magnitude without a huge support staff and 90 percent of those are volunteers," Eslinger said. "I have said often that this is the best job and one of the reasons is the help we get from parents, alums and the community in addition to the support we get without the school.

This tournament ran flawlessly, and it has nothing to do with me."

Watson in medals

Former Baylor wrestler Zach Watson, laboring through a redshirt freshman year at Virginia, worked his way up and won his first collegiate medal, a sixth-place finish.

Along the way, Watson beat starters from Penn State and Cornell and a nationally-ranked wrestler from Army.

"He had a great performance," Virginia assistant Jordan Leen said. "It was good enough that he would be in the national rankings if he was our starter."

Watson took a medical default in the battle for fifth at 133 pounds.

Closest of wins

Cornell's Kyle Dake came as close as one can come to overtime while pulling out a win. The No. 1 seed at 165 pounds and a three-time NCAA champion, came within a single second of an overtime match with Penn State's David Taylor. It was Taylor who missed a riding time point by that lone tick of the clock as time expired with Dake in control, and it was Dake who benefited from a no-call on Taylor's apparent escape with moments left in the match. It was a call that was protested by Nittany Lion coaches to no avail.

Taylor also is a 2012 NCAA champion and a three-time Scuffle finalist.

Missouri heavweight Dom Bradley also pulled out a buzzer-beater in the third sudden-victory (overtime) period and wound up with a 3-2 win over defending NCAA champ Anthony Nelson of Minnesota.

Nelson was awarded a one-point escape at the buzzer, but after a conference with the scorer's table and mat assistant, the referee waved off the point and voided the escape, saying time had run out.

Champion on the grill

Former UTC wrestler Doug Dyer, who fancies himself as a local grill master, served up dinner Wednesday for coaches and tournament workers.

The ex-heavyweight served up succulent ribs, pulled pork and chicken along with all the fixings including southern-style green beans (with ham hocks), slaw, grits casserole and, of course, banana pudding.

"Doug was gracious enough to do it and his doing so is just another way to express Southern hospitality and separate this tournament from others," Eslinger said. "For us and this tournament, customer service is where it's at."

Bono back in wrestling

Former UTC coach Chris Bono, Heath Eslinger's predecessor, is back in wrestling and brought his South Dakota State team to the Scuffle.

Bono, who left UTC to be assistant head coach at Iowa State, his alma mater, left wrestling for a year and didn't even attend the national tournament, a trip he hadn't missed in 15 years.

"I just thought I wanted a career change, but I found that I really missed it. My wife and I talked about it and decided that I was meant to be a wrestling coach," he said. "And I love being back, and I love it at South Dakota State."

Bono recently signed the nation's No. 6 recruiting class, according to Amateur Wrestling News, and it's a group that includes Baylor's Brandon Brunner, who's projected to wrestle either 133 pounds or 141. Brunner is a three-time state champ for the Red Raiders.

about Ward Gossett...

Ward Gossett is an assistant sports editor and writer for the Times Free Press. Ward has a long history in Chattanooga journalism. He actually wrote a bylined story for the Chattanooga News-Free Press as a third-grader. He Began working part-time there in 1968 and was hired full time in 1970. Ward now covers high school athletics, primarily football, wrestling and baseball and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga wrestling. Over a 40-year career, he has covered ...

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