Nick Soto was visibly disturbed when he lost in the quarterfinals of the Southern Scuffle on Jan. 1.
Letting a second Scuffle finals appearance slip through his fingers wasn't the way the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga sophomore envisioned starting 2013 and the second half of the Mocs' wrestling season.
It was especially disappointing that the round-of-16 loss to Old Dominion's Rob Deutsch came in a sudden-victory (overtime) situation.
Soto performed the expected sportsmanship chore of shaking hands with his opponent and then with Deutsch's coaches before storming in short, pounding stomps from the corner mat nearest to press row.
More than two weeks have passed and the 125-pounder, No. 9 in the latest Intermat rankings, has pondered and then set aside the loss.
"I wasn't better than him that match," Soto said. "I was really more frustrated with myself. I worried about hitting my technique perfectly and making moves at the right time. I should've gone out there like I did last year -- don't care how I win, just win. When I do that, things seem to fall into place."
There are bigger and better goals and Soto seems determined to make things fall into place beginning today with the Mocs' 1 p.m. meet at Cleveland (Ohio) State, their last dual before a string of Southern Conference meets.
"The Scuffle, you tend to glamorize it and then you lose focus on what needs to be done," Soto said. "It was definitely a learning experience, but I would rather have that outcome in the Scuffle than in March at the SoCon [tournament] or in the nationals."
"The thing that differentiates him is his willingness to buy in and do the right things in everything," Mocs coach Heath Eslinger said. "He didn't come in and pick and choose but rather said, 'If this is what I'm supposed to do, I'll do it.' That is a pretty good formula for success. Now he's at the next phase where he can say, 'What are the little things I need to do to be one of the best guys to be one of those competing for a national championship?' He's willing to do that, which makes him a lot of fun to coach every day."
Life already had changed before Soto moved into this season. He had decided to drop a weight class from 133 pounds. It was a good move for the Mocs, allowing Marvin Lopez to slip into the lineup at 133, but also for Soto, who occasionally got tossed to and fro in his initial college season.
"I did well at a high pace, but [Illinois 133-pounder] B.J. Futrell is huge. So is [Oklahoma State's] Jordan Oliver. I thought I was as [strong] as them. I was tiny," he said.
"I can actually hit some power moves and use my strength to get my finishes," the two-time Florida prep champion said.
Dropping pounds meant adjustments, including diet.
"I have to manage my weight, and I have a different training regimen," Soto said. "On weigh-in days I still eat breakfast, but I eat a more precise and lot healthier meal."
The SoCon freshman of the year last season, Soto has his sights set on a second conference championship, which comes with a NCAA tournament ticket.
"Just wrestle," he responded when asked about his mindset entering the stretch run. "Don't worry about anything else; just wrestle. Get out there and go hard and let the chips fall where they may."
He has other parts of his life well in hand.
"I've been getting pretty serious about my walk with God -- hitting three or four or five Bible studies per week," he said. "I'm really pursuing my spiritual life, and it feels awesome."
There are some tough math classes in his academic workload this semester, but he also feels good about those.
"I've got tutors for each of them, and I'm staying on top of all my assignments," he said. "It's just like wrestling. You have to work at it and put time into it."
Said Eslinger: "He has shaped our team as much as anybody. When he has done is reap the results of what we talked about. We said to do X-Y-Z. He's done it and he's in the top 10."
Which was news to Soto.
"I'll be honest. I don't even know if or where I'm ranked."
The Mocs' conference opener is next Sunday at 2 p.m. at home against The Citadel, which may be their strongest team challenger. It will be Legends weekend with a Saturday evening reception planned for all former Mocs wrestlers. All-Americans will be acknowledged Sunday.
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 ...