published Sunday, February 23rd, 2014

Mocs expect to secure SoCon title at VMI

It's tough to emphasize something that isn't the most important item on the agenda, but that's what Heath Eslinger has undertaken the past few days.

His University of Tennessee at Chattanooga team wrestles today at Virginia Military Institute with a chance to secure its fourth Southern Conference championship in his five years as head coach.

UTC is 6-0 in league competition while VMI is 1-5. The meet begins at 2 p.m.

"I just don't think that's our primary focus here," Eslinger said. "It's important to the university and the community. It's just not the book's last chapter for us, and we look forward more to the next chapters than we do this one."

Those next chapters, of course, are the SoCon and NCAA tournaments, relegating the regular-season title to a minor confirmation of the program's continued success. UTC has won or shared 13 regular-season championships since the conference began recognizing the season's winner in 1994.

Yet the three his team has won mean little to Eslinger, referencing his first one in 2010.

"We won it and then finished fourth in the conference tournament," he said. "That first year was hard because there were so many things to reshape, and then we got fourth in the conference tournament because we did a lot of reshaping."

Niko Brown, a former Mocs standout now an assistant coach, knows how much life has changed in the Eslinger era, which includes a 28-1 league record.

"Speaking for myself, we were selfish [that first year]. We wanted to do for ourselves," Brown said. "Now we wrestle together. We're there for each other, and when somebody has something go south we don't let him hang his head. We're a family."

If any of the league titles stood out to Eslinger, it would be this season, "because this is the one right now," he said.

Still, one would think it would be hard for him to "rally the troops" and keep his team from ho-humming at VMI. The Keydets' lone conference win was by a single point over Davidson, a team UTC humbled 37-9, and the Mocs have won 22 of 28 meetings against VMI. That includes a current 10-match win streak with a 36-3 win last year and a 41-0 shutout in their last trip to Lexington, Va.

"We need to wrestle hard, perform well," Eslinger said. "It's one more opportunity to prepare for the conference tournament, and I really believe our guys understand. Blow it off? That's more rare in wrestling. If you lose in wrestling, it's no fun. It's not as a team losing but knowing if you lose you blew it yourself."

Other than Byron Smith stepping back in at 125 pounds, the Mocs' lineup will remain constant: Nick Soto (133), Michael Pongracz (141), Austin Sams (149), Alex Hudson (157), Corey Mock (165), Levi Clemons (184), John Lampe (184), Scottie Boykin (197) and Dawson Peck (285).

The only Keydet with a winning record is Juan Adams, their 285-pounder. Emmitt Kelly is 3-1 in league matches and will likely challenge Pongracz, who is 3-2 in conference bouts.

The conference tournament is March 8 at Buies Creek, N.C., and the NCAA tournament is March 20-22 at Oklahoma City.

Contact Ward Gossett at wgossett@timesfreepress.com or 423-886-4765. Follow him at Twitter.com/wardgossett.

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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